Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri

Published by Allen Lane


Straightened. Stigmatised. ‘Tamed’. Celebrated. Erased. Managed. Appropriated. Forever misunderstood. Black hair is never ‘just hair’.

This book is about why black hair matters.

Emma Dabiri takes us from pre-colonial Africa, through the Harlem Renaissance, Black Power and on to today’s Natural Hair Movement, the Cultural Appropriation Wars and beyond. We look at everything from hair capitalists like Madam C.J. Walker in the early 1900s to the rise of Shea Moisture today, from women’s solidarity and friendship to ‘black people time’, forgotten African scholars and the dubious provenance of Kim Kardashian’s braids.

The scope of black hairstyling ranges from pop culture to cosmology, from prehistoric times to the (afro)futuristic. Uncovering sophisticated indigenous mathematical systems in black hairstyles, alongside styles that served as secret intelligence networks leading enslaved Africans to freedom, Don’t Touch My Hair proves that far from being only hair, black hairstyling culture can be understood as an allegory for black oppression and, ultimately, liberation.

Disclaimer: I’m a white woman and not the intended audience for this book so this is a review is written from a position of limited perspective. Apologies in advance if I come across as a knob.

This is a non-fiction title that uses hair as a central point to explain black history, culture and attitudes. I was genuinely impressed with how the author managed to cover so much ground while keeping the subject of hair relevant to each new topic.

This book is well researched, full of history and thought-provoking information. It’s presented in a modern way (that’s code for ‘includes internet speak’ – you either love it or you hate it! Thankfully this is in moderation so if you hate it, it’s not excessive). I read this book at a snail’s pace so I didn’t miss anything and I can already see a re-read in my future.

The history I was taught in school was limited to white Europeans from 1066-1950 and completely avoided any areas that might reflect badly on the UK (so… erm… a few areas) so everything in this book was new to me. I was intrigued by the different philosophies on measuring time and mathematical systems in particular.

This book is about black women in particular and gives an insight into the daily battles in a capitalist world that not only thinks you should look more white, but insists on selling you things it tells you to need rather than the things you actually need.

For other white women, I recommend this book as an interesting and honest account from a perspective that we’ll never know.

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