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Tuesday 31 December 2019

Review: Emma Dabiri, Don't Touch My Hair

Hard on the heels of Coca Cola, international conglomerate publishers have discovered diversity. It’s partly a function of modern book production technology which has drastically reduced the cost of producing physical books. The biggest  printing companies can deliver two thousand attractive hard bound books printed (in black and white - colour is still expensive) on good paper for five thousand pounds ($6500 at today’s rate) or less, including the cost of typesetting and jacket design (both often the work of freelancers working cheaply from home). They can do a thousand books for half that. A big publisher can use its existing publicity and distribution network to place two or even one thousand books into a niche on Amazon or Waterstones and end up with  a small profit even if they do not sell more than the initial print run. So far, good news. There is a catch. A publishing house editor’s time is valuable, like that of a lawyer. An editor carries overheads - London or New York office space, for example. So an editor’s time has to be costed at maybe a hundred maybe two hundred pounds or dollars per hour. Five hours devoted to a single niche/diversity book risks killing  the profit. Twenty and you would lose your job.

It’s my belief (expressed here in an essay published on 5 March 2016) that quite a few books are now published to all intents and purposes unread by anyone but the author and, maybe, their partner. Neither content nor style has been subject to serious external review. Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair is a readable combination of memoir, rant, history and critique but it’s a ramshackle affair - a work of what we now call cut and paste. Her final page Acknowledgements are unusually short and non-specific so they provide some kind of  indirect confirmation for my claim simply by what they don’t say. But there is one place in the book  where I suspect a reader has pointed to a problem, and another where a critic is quoted. I will come to them in a moment.

Emma Dabiri’s background is Irish-Nigerian, a niche not quite in the same category as snakes in Ireland but in her childhood, getting close. She has Black Hair almost off the Richter scale on the chart she provides at page 18 which runs through 1 (straight), 2a,2b,2c (seriously curly), 3a, 3b,3c, 4a,4b (seriously kinky, double helix stuff, and the point at which Dabiri locates herself),4c. By way of aside, I discovered when I was in my late teens and freed from the regimen of short back and sides required by school rules and convention, that I was a 2b or 2c. Before then, I did not know I had curly hair. I let it grow, which was the thing to do at that time, and there are photos to prove it. My first girlfriend (this was the 1960s) was up there in the 4’s, one reason I read this book. But I am now simply Bald. That is a category not on Dabiri’s scale, partly because she is almost exclusively concerned with female hair. That is  problematic because hair grooming seems to be almost always structured by the binary divide and can only be understood in terms of the contrasts the binary allows. In passing, Dabiri provides a nice photographic illustration of that truth - a photograph captioned, “While Masai men had long, ornate and intricate hairstyles, Masai women favoured shaved heads annointed with red cohre and oils” (page 169). That is the kind of thing which should be at the centre of a structural sociological or anthropological analysis of hair but is here merely an aside.

Black hair has history as well as  structural location, a grooming history which starts in Africa and a stigma history which starts in America. One of the most interesting small sections in Dabiri’s book (pages 65-68) comprises quotations and summaries of the accounts of early European visitors to the old pre-colonial African kingdoms, notably the kingdom of Benin. They are complimentary about many things, including hairstyles. Stigma develops in tandem with the slave trade, colonialism, and Christian missionaries (the experts in stigma) and Dabiri’s book gives chapter and verse.

I want to pick out two places where there is an acknowledgment of difficulties. At the end of a fairly long and predictable rant about cultural appropriation (p 178ff), Dabiri writes, “[Fred] Astaire is certainly worth further consideration when discussing the important distinction between appropriation and borrowing, the latter undoubtedly the basis of evolving culture” (page 190). That is a tacked-on remark which goes nowhere, and was maybe added in response to some criticism. But if it’s true it ought to be worth quite a few pages trying to establish where evolutionarily-dynamic borrowing ends and appropriation begins. Evolution has never been very popular in the U S of A, the main focus of this book, and is still disbelieved by a significant part of the population, drawn to fundamentalist world views of one kind or another. It’s arguable (I’d argue it) that the hair police Twitter-rants are religious-fundamentalist in character, opposing themselves to any evolution of culture. The ranters prefer their cultures in museums where they can be celebrated as history and heritage. (New Year’s Resolution: Avoid the word Heritage for twelve months).

That does connect to a second moment where there is an intervention, unusually in the form of an actual quote. The search for “Roots” (forgive the pun) is problematic because it usually stops when satisfying ones are found. Dabiri’s Africa is characterised by “wholeness” (a word which belongs in a chain which goes down all the way to wholesome and wholegrain). There isn’t much local violence in the African past which interests her and none at all in the African present: kleptocrats and tyrants don’t figure in the story at all. Her history remains fairly firmly in the realms of Uplifting Story, which publishers like. But she quotes an email from someone (Ron Eglash) who it seems to me is trying to re-focus her Roots-based approach toward something more structural:

“The temptation is to dive into the competition over ‘who discovered it first’. But that kind of competition is a framework created for Intellectual Property rights…. Reversal never works. ‘We discovered it first’ is not a rebuke of white supremacy, it is just adopting their tactics. That is what Audre Lorde meant when she said, ‘ the master’s tools will never tear down the master’s house’ (pages 216 - 17)

That isn’t going to trend on Twitter.

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