Emma Dabiri chats to Kuchenga Shenje about her new book, oral cultures and Beyoncé's blonde hair
“She ha di skin, but she na ha di hyair”
That was the patois punch line to an anecdote regaled to us at the dinner party of a light-skinned, middle class, Jamaican teacher in North London. Her family having West African, Chinese and European ancestry resulted in siblings of various shades. In post-colonial Jamaica, a pernicious pigmentocracy dictates that light-skinned "elites" receive social and economic privileges denied to the dark-skinned "proletariat." There is plenty of discourse focusing on the modern phenomenon of skin bleaching in the African diaspora, but, in her first book, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” the sociologist and broadcaster Emma Dabiri posits that ‘texturism’ is the equally ugly twin sister of ‘colourism’ and should thus receive as much attention in anti-racist discourse.
Don’t Touch My Hair starts off as memoir, detailing Dabiri’s unique story from Atlanta to Dublin to London with Irish and Yoruba ancestral heritage extending back through millennia. She explores the history of black Afro hair, which at first I assumed was merely an attempt to place her emotional self in a latterly traumatic and chaotic narrative. However, Dabiri is particularly audacious and the book becomes a far-reaching defence of African metaphysics and philosophical systems of thought.
The book is delightfully well researched and Dabiri’s academic prowess means we are nourished with examinations of hair practices and linguistics in indigenous African cultures in the diaspora. She explores the resistance of slaves in the Americas and particularly San Basilio de Palenque, the first African free town of maroons in Colombia. The extensive dramatic back story of Madame C. J. Walker, America's first black female millionaire, and the bittersweet aftermath that fed and funded the Harlem Renaissance. The Shea Moisture case study is also superbly detailed in why the modern natural hair movement has left the 4c sisters which birthed it smarting with anger at a very capitalistic betrayal.
Nina Simone is quoted as saying “An artist’s duty, as far as I am concerned, is to reflect the times.” Emma Dabiri has done that – the scope of her book captures the zeitgeist of a black diasporic political perspective. We, generations after the birth of pan Africanism as a political movement, are able to speak of our histories, our present selves and our hopes for where Afrofuturism might take us. Writers like Octavia Butler, Marlon James and now Emma Dabiri have wrestled with what’s on and inside of our heads. They are the space ship conductors who are dinging in our notifications saying: “Next Stop - The Sublime!”
Kuchenga Shenje: Tell me about your surname.
Emma Dabiri: If you’re Yoruba and from Lagos, a lot of people will recognise my name. It’s an established specifically Lagotian family. But it’s not actually a Yoruba word. It’s from another language. The only other Dabiris that I’ve met are Iranians. So, I’ve heard that it’s actually in the Farsi language. I don’t know the history, or how we acquired it.
Kuchenga Shenje: With regards to both your Irish and Yoruba oral histories how have they impacted your understanding of yourself?
Emma Dabiri: Well I guess the difference is that I have actually studied Yoruba oralities from an academic perspective. I’ve not done that with Irish oralities so my knowledge is different. But I have an awareness. I mean it is a primarily oral culture. All cultures are primarily oral, that’s the thing. Widespread literacy is a relatively recent thing. Even in Europe, there would have been very few people that were literate until very recently. All cultures are primarily oral, but some have more of an emphasis on written text and others have more of an emphasis on oral text. The ones that have more of an emphasis on oral texts, it’s not just words that are spoken. Orality is also encompassing of musical traditions and visual language in oral tradition. Hair is actually part of that in the African context.
Kuchenga Shenje: And when it comes to grounding, home and belonging; Inua Ellam’s really explored that well in his play ‘The Barbershop Chronicles’. Do you think a black women’s equivalent is needed?
Emma Dabiri: Yeah, that would be great. I’d love that. Why don’t you write that? I’d love to see the female version!
Kuchenga Shenje: Well the reason I ask is because when reading your book I had flashbacks of the ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ video by Destiny’s Child. Do you think it’s aged well?
Emma Dabiri: Beyoncé has blonde braids in that one right?
Kuchenga Shenje: Yeah, so I think the braids are plaited to like an inch or two down and then it just flies free. I think we always have certain locations in black R&B music videos; swimming pools, cars and stuff. So I think we are ready for another black women’s salon video.
Emma Dabiri: Oh yeah right, the salon!
Kuchenga Shenje: Yeah, it’s her mum’s salon in Houston, Texas.
Emma Dabiri: Come on Ms Tina!!!
Kuchenga Shenje: Yaaaaasss.
Emma Dabiri: I’m surprised Solange hasn’t done that yet actually, because she talks about growing up in the salon, and obviously ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’. That would be rich.
Kuchenga Shenje: Do you think Beyoncé’s committal to celebrating black culture so ardently without shedding the signature flowing blonde hairstyles she’s become known for is a vindication for black women who don’t ‘go natural’?
Emma Dabiri: Yeah, I make the point quite strongly that I am not pitching #teamweave against #teamnatural in my book. The scope of black hairstyling is extremely vast and there’s so much creativity and innovation. And black women can make their hair look like ‘anything’. So I still see weaves, extensions, natural hair as part of the scope of black hairstyling. I occasionally wear wigs. I occasionally wear my hair straight. But even when I was relaxing my hair there were different motivations at different times. There were times when my social life was very black. I wasn’t necessarily trying to make my hair look like European hair. I was just partaking in the beauty practices and norms that were typical for black women and I was conforming to them. Like just having an Afro isn’t a specifically West African style because of the cultural practices around hair and artifice. So it’s the intervention in the hair that makes the hair ‘done’ and that makes the hair ‘beautiful’.
Kuchenga Shenje: What hairstyles would you like to see in Black Panther 2 or The New Star Trek then for example? What will black hair of the future look like?
Emma Dabiri: Oh! I was very happy with the black hairstyles shown in Black Panther. Both because the actresses, the female protagonists, the love interests, they all had hair that was more tightly coiled and were darker skinned. It was a watershed moment. I just want our natural hair texture to become normalised. I think we need more hairstyles like we saw on Lupita in Us. I think she had like small locs in that film. I just want to see more of the kinkier, more tightly coiled hair texture in a range of hairstyles and it’s not like a thing. It’s just how their hair grows.
Kuchenga Shenje: How will our awareness of texturism impact our black feminist discourse moving forward?
Emma Dabiri: Social media is great but sometimes we really miss the nuance. I would like to see more visibility, acceptance and finding beautiful the type of hair that has been the most stigmatised. That’s what the rejection of the dominant standard should be about. It shouldn't be about a more palatable version of black hair. It has to be about the hair that is outside of those boundaries of the dominant European standard of what constitutes beautiful hair. We have to end the tyranny of straighteners!