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‘Don’t Touch My Hair, An evening with Emma Dabiri and Black Ballad’- The Write Up

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This month Emma Dabiri launch her book ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’. Last Thursday, I had the great pleasure of attending ‘Don’t Touch My Hair- An evening with Emma Dabiri and Black Ballad’ at Waterstones, Birmingham. Black Ballad is a UK based lifestyle platform to tell the human experience through the eyes of black British Women. Tobi Oredein, journalist and co-founder led the conversation.

Here I give you the low down of what was discussed along with my favourite snippets of the book.

Natural hair journey, why this book and why now

Tobi opened the discussion by asking, “Why this book, why did you feel compelled to write Don’t Touch My Hair”. From her first Jheri Curl, weave and relaxer to Big Chop and discovery, Emma began by sharing her natural hair journey which remained consistent throughout the conversation.

“My hair is something that I have thought about a lot from a young age, and those early experiences of it certainly overwhelmingly negative and my hair was something I very much battled with.."

We gained an insight into her early relationship with her hair as being difficult, through a sense unknowing, lack of representation or understanding from those around her. As a result of these first experiences, growing up, Emma wanted her hair to look anything other than the way it did by doing everything in her power to change it.

“Even if I would have to know what to do with my hair, even those styles wouldn’t have been looked upon well. It was just so outside the norms of the culture that I was part of. I desperately wished it away and wanted it to look normal.”

However, and as Emma relayed to Gal Dem, she got to the point where, in the first instance, she could no longer justify her desire for her hair to look anything but natural. It was then at the point of motherhood where she had the ‘Big Chop’. In that, she was able to learn and understand her hair texture, an abundance of different natural styles and recreate her relationship with her hair.

Hair became a topic of exploration for Emma’s PhD dissertation, where she was interested in the role that hair plays in racial identity. While discussion surrounding race and identity consists of colour and complexion, a key focus to ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ was hair and its significance to those of African and black descent. By linking in with her teaching practice, where she teaches African Studies at SOAS, Emma speaks in regards to the discussion around decolonisation, and ways in which hair can be used as a lens to unpack and reveal other issues.

“Braiding operates as a bridge spanning the distance between the past, present and future. It creates a tangible, material thread connecting people often separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years”

Sorority, familiarity and how we talk and understand our hair

What becomes evident within ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ and became apparent in conversation, is that the book was written to advocate and educate black people. This was with no intention to appeal to the masses or educate white people, or at least it certainly wasn’t a primary motivation.

“I don’t write what I think people want to hear necessarily; I write what I believe needs to be said. But then I write from my perspective and my experiences so that strongly influences the content of what I say.”

Something that Emma felt was necessary for writing the book was to escape the suppression of knowledge that comes from Africa, where there has been a monopoly over knowledge as though knowledge can only be created in western European society. It was highlighted that “We have been disconnected in so many ways, and so much of our recent heritage has been so wilfully misrepresented”. Emma has used the book was an opportunity to reclaim and to share African philosophies, African metaphysics, and to celebrate radical and socially progressive ideas and put it in the hands (and ears) of black people directly. Emma reveals that her favourite chapter of the book is chapter six, ‘Ancient Futures: Maths, Mapping, Braiding, Encoding’. It is in this chapter where she explores the relationship between braiding and indigenous African calculating systems which, incidentally breaks the stereotypes that we hear about Africa and narratives about false African primitivity.

It is important to steer away from black heritage, which has been misrepresented to grow and move forward in the liberation of black culture. How we understand, think and talk about our hair seems to be at the crux of our natural hair journey. In that, in the book, there is a focus upon the familiarity a black woman has with her hair, the importance of sorority and the personal experience in having our hair done presenting itself as a catalyst for conversation and bonding.

“It makes a lot more sense to imagine braiding as a sociable time during which the business of living is conducted. It is a process that brings people together and facilitates intergenerational bonding and knowledge transmission… the physical proximity of the exchange only heightens the intimacy and sense of occasion.”

What was later discussed is the language and associations we have with our hair. Emma was interested in exploring the words used to describe our hair and how they present themselves as pejorative in the aim to find new ways of talking about our hair. In her research, she interested in looking at how hair is described in African languages. She found that:

“When our hair stops being judged by European standard, in that instance, people aren’t referring to it as coarse or nappy …  they talk about it in language that reflects the characteristics of our hair… Hair is seen as being part of the bounty of nature, so it is spoken about in the same way in the abundance of earth is spoken about… there is always this desire to diminished your hair, to make it less than it is, and that is very much at odds with how our hair is understood in a pre-colonial context.”

The natural hair movement, appropriation and ...The Kardashians

The Natural Hair Movement took the type of hair texture that was most stigmatised and incidentally, the only hair that black people have. What soon became apparent was a dominance of the space by those with 'good hair', which then become a dominant standard undoing the work of the Natural Hair Movement. Off the back of that, there was a taking of language that was created by black women and of the hair journey, and a "reclaiming of the beauty of afro-textured hair... taking that discourse that had been started by black women and putting it into the mouths of other women”.

"One of the reasons I didn't want to go natural is because I knew I didn't have the, quote on quote, good hair. If I had a different type of curl pattern, i would have done it a lot earlier; I would have felt a little bit more confident in doing it.”

The Kardashians? We won’t talk about them because, well, do I have to? By including the Kardashians in the book, it was intending to locate the appropriation of the history of hairstyles, directly linking it to a far deeper of the extraction of resources from black people to the benefit of white people, and more explicitly our physical, materials and cultural resources.

Emma advised that to stop such cultural appropriation, we are to become more aware of what they are doing. This is something that was later touched on in response to a question put forward from an audience member. It was asked, “Do you think it is wise for us to continue calling out discrimination …, or should we stop?” , of which Emma replied :

“It depends on the situation and where the person is at… no person has the ability or desire and inclination to respond. It is a racist society, so there is going to be constant examples of racism. I would much rather look at the source of racism and deal with the root causes rather than reacting to every manifestation of the problem. With the book, I try to advance new theories and new ideas rather than being like ‘everything is racist’.”


Final comments and questions

Five years from now, what would you like this book to have achieved

“One of the main things that I wanted to do was to put to bed forever that idea that it’s only hair and that it is trivial. I want the book to exist as evidence that shows the many ways and significance of the hair and the importance of it. I also would like it to be a starting point in making some of those ideas- philosophy, metaphysics and all those things that are our heritage- to reacquaint ourselves with some of that, and that it being a starting point to facilitate further knowledge”

Questions from the audience

What do you think about this whole concept of black women's hair being seen as unprofessional? How can we fight against this type of [discrimination]?

“I have seen increasingly black women in all types of spaces with natural hair, so incrementally it is better than it was. A lot of the idea that it is unprofessional or messy also comes from black people. Sometimes I feel like a lot of black people can’t tell the difference like they don’t notice the different textures. That tendency from black people is interesting because it’s not always about stigma.”

Do you think it goes back to knowing ourselves in the first instance?

“Speaking from my personal position, I internalised without even realising that I was doing it. From so many different sources, there is a message that you’re deviant or inadequate, so of course, that is internalised. And it's not just happening now for this generation; it has been happening for hundreds of years. I always say that everyone has internalised white; it only manifests itself in different ways based on who you are. I don’t know anyone who has lived in this society and has not internalised any aspects of it. What we can do is try to identify that and decolonise.

What do we do to reclaiming the market for ourselves?

“One thing I have observed with the Natural Hair Movement is a lot more black women going into making wigs, selling wigs, selling extensions and creating their own products… I will be interested to see how they emerge and develop.”

Could I touch your hair: how do we create space for appreciation while not appropriating?

“I’ve had black people ask me that question, and I haven’t minded it. I think personal and base on the individual. [Also] when it's just in its most natural texture, and it’s very tightly coiled, that is what I have the most objection to people wanting to touch. Its that element of ‘what is this’... Its when it is in its natural form that I feel that I am some zoo exhibit. That's me personally; I’m sure other people will have a take on it.”


Take Aways

For me, the most crucial element to the book is the reclaiming of knowledge and the steps toward undoing the misrepresentation of African culture. Wakanda Forever obviously comes to mind in celebration primitive knowledge and the language that is used the describe the nature of our hair with great familiarity. Something that is beautiful is the acknowledgement of sisterhood and to use Emma’s reference to Lorde: “We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit, because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other”. I will add that this is important in business, female friendships and how we related to those younger than us. To reference the book: “…we must do everything within our power to nurture this nascent revolution, to ensure that it does not devolve into preformative showboating on social media, and more importantly, as factionalism deepens, we must not turn on each other”

Audre Lorde, ‘Eye of Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,’ collected in Sister Outsider, p.171

Emma Dabiri, ‘Ain’t got the time’ in ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’, p.60

Thank you for reading,