“Afro-textured hair had no stigma before the dehumanisation of black people that emerged from slavery”: Emma Dabiri discusses the changing perceptions of Afro-textured hair

Emma Dabiri talks to Matt Elton about her book, Don’t Touch My Hair, exploring how perceptions of Afro-textured hair fuelled historical prejudice, oppression, slavery and colonial attitudes

Emma Dabiri in conversation about her book 'Don't Touch My Hair'

Matt Elton: Your new book covers a fascinating range of subjects. How would you describe it?

Emma Dabiri: Ostensibly, it’s about black, Afro-textured hair and its history, politics and significance – but really it’s about a lot more than that. One of my friends described it as a kind of Trojan horse: something that presents itself as being about one thing, but which also kind of smuggles in a lot of other ideas.

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ME: What’s interesting about your book is that it considers hair as an artefact. You talk about societies in Africa, for instance, that use complex non-verbal languages including hairstyling. In what ways is it useful to view hair through this lens?

ED: The texture of African hair means it’s incredibly versatile and lends itself to being shaped in a huge range of ways. Because this innate material was part of people’s lives and reality, cultures developed to suit that reality – and because this hair can do so much, a strong and lively hair culture emerged.

Many of the cultures I explore in the book would traditionally be described as ‘oral’. There’s often an assumption that, when you speak of orality, you’re talking only about the verbal – but in most of those societies there would also have been a plethora of other sorts of language. For instance, Yoruba culture [of west Africa] uses the batá drum to mimic the tonality of the spoken language. And there are many visual languages, too, of which hair and hairstyling would have been a part.

A lot of early western observers in Africa were struck by the diversity and creativity of hairstyles

ME: You mention Yoruba culture. Does its folklore specifically reference hair?

ED: There’s a genre in Yoruba called oriki, of which there are many different types, but the term can essentially be translated as ‘praise poems’. When a person is born, traditionally they would have their own oriki, which is a long name or song that reflects the conditions of their birth, their family background, their parents’ aspirations for them, and so on.

I looked at oriki of the orisha – Yoruba deities who act as intermediaries between the Supreme Being and humans. There’s a very powerful orisha, known as Oshun, who is the deity of the river and fresh water, luxury and pleasure, sexuality and fertility, and beauty and love. Her oriki talk about her being the primary hairdresser in Yoruba culture. Because she’s such an important figure, it makes sense that a lot of the creativity, innovation and beauty that comes from hairstyling can be associated with her.


Listen: Emma Dabiri explains how the history of black hair reflects themes such as capitalism, slavery and colonialism on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


ME: One of the big ideas you explore in your book is the way in which European settlers, when they first came to Africa, admired the cultures they found there – a reaction very different from that of later invaders and settlers.

ED: There are accounts from the 17th and 18th centuries in which Portuguese and Dutch observers are staggered by the size and organisation of some of the cities they saw. Even in the early to mid-19th century, when the British ventured into the interior of Nigeria, they described how easy the journey was and how orderly and well-functioning the place was.

For example, when [Scottish explorer] Hugh Clapperton travelled in the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, in what’s now Nigeria, in the 1820s, his party travelled with ease and safety. He commended “regular government which could not have been supposed to exist amongst a people hitherto considered barbarians”. They were travelling through parts of the continent now seen today as dangerous and lawless. Yet in that period, when Africa was supposedly even more underdeveloped, things functioned a lot better than today.

ME: And they often explicitly mentioned different hairstyles they saw on these journeys, didn’t they?

ED: Yes. A lot of early western observers were struck by the ornate hairstyling culture and the diversity and creativity of hairstyles, because they hadn’t seen anything like it before. So there are quite a lot of descriptions of hair.

The accounts of Alvise Cadamosto, a Venetian explorer who visited west Africa in 1455 and 1456 on behalf of Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator, include the oldest extant European references to African hair. Describing the Jalofs of the south side of the Senegal river, he wrote that: “Both sexes go bare-footed and uncovered, but weave their hair with beautiful tresses, which they tie in various knots.”

ME: That ornate hairstyling is an interesting facet in those African cultures, because it can be a time-consuming process. In your book, you explore the ways in which that process led to time being seen in a different way from in western societies.

ED: This is an important point, and I’ve dedicated a chapter to talking about time. There’s a pretty strongly held concept that caring for black hair in its natural state is too time-consuming, so people straighten their hair because that makes it more ‘manageable’ and less burdensome.

That attitude was really interesting to me, because it seems to suggest that black hair is deviant in some way. What I think is actually going on, though, is that the society in which we live is underpinned by the logic of capitalism in which time has been repurposed for the maximisation of profit. So anything that isn’t seen as productive in that specific sense is seen as unnecessarily time-consuming or as a burden.

I looked at how different African groups organised time before the imposition of wage labour, capitalism and colonialism. [Kenyan philosopher] John Mbiti said that “man is not a slave of time; instead, he ‘makes’ as much time as he wants” – the idea being that people have enough time for whatever they want to prioritise, including hairstyling. It’s only in a different system, created with different standards and norms, that hair and its management has been reimagined as burdensome.

ME: Were traditional methods of hairstyling, such as braiding and twisting, ways for societies and communities to bond?

ED: Definitely. Rather than being seen as a time-consuming burden, the hours spent in grooming and doing one another’s hair were seen as important social time during which information was exchanged and the bonds of a community strengthened. The physical proximity involved in hairstyling was important in developing intimacy between a parent and child or two members of that community, too.

ME: What were some of the reasons why later colonisers of Africa came to regard hair in a less positive way?

ED: There was a shift in attitudes that happened once slavery and, later, colonialism become the primary reasons Europeans were in the continent. The more complimentary descriptions were quite drastically replaced by far more negative ones, and the idea was introduced that Africans are incredibly idle and that they weren’t using their time productively – in other words, for the maximisation of profit.

Part of the justification for slavery and other oppressive systems of extraction was that African people were not seen as fully human. One of the ways in which this idea was advanced was that, unlike European people, Africans didn’t even have hair – they had wool, like livestock. Because they were seen as being like animals, that became one of the justifications for enslavement and for colonialism: it was a ‘civilising mission’, bringing the light of civilisation to this dark continent.

African people weren’t seen as fully human. They didn’t even have hair, but wool – like livestock

ME: This view was hugely toxic. What is its legacy today?

ED: Because these narratives were so powerful, because the power dynamic was so balanced in favour of white European norms, and because these norms were extracted from Africa and the Americas to other parts of the world, the idea developed that Afro-textured hair was inadequate, inferior and associated with a kind of non-humanity. These ideas were internalised, and hair began to be seen as deviant and problematic. That led to the birth of hair straightening and attempts to make African hair resemble European hair.

ME: What techniques have people – perhaps even you – used to achieve this throughout the 20th and 21st centuries?

ED: The first hot combs were in use by the early 20th century. The most permanent method, though, uses ‘relaxer’, in a process first invented around a century ago in the US. It’s a chemical process that deforms the elliptical shape of the hair, breaking it and making it straight, meaning that you can achieve a kind of facsimile of European hair. It was invented by Garrett Augustus Morgan in 1909, but popularised by hugely successful ‘hair capitalists’ including Annie Malone and Sarah Breedlove – known as Madam CJ Walker.

Afro-textured hair had no stigma before the dehumanisation of black people that emerged from slavery

These recently emancipated African-Americans, often women, became self-made millionaires through the production and marketing of hair relaxer. On Walker’s death in 1919, for instance, she was the wealthiest self-made woman in the United States.

Relaxer works – it completely transforms the way your hair looks – but there are associated costs. There are links between the chemicals involved and endocrine disruption, cancers and fertility issues. I relaxed my hair for almost 15 years, and I would always have chemical burns on my scalp. I didn’t really mind them, even though obviously they were painful, because in my mind they were evidence that my hair had become even straighter.

Madam C.J. Walker made a fortune marketing hair relaxer to Africa-Americans in the early 20th century
Madam CJ Walker (originally Sarah Breedlove), who made a substantial fortune marketing hair relaxer to Africa-Americans in the early 20th century (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

ME: So the pressure you felt to look a particular way was so strong that you were happy to put up with burning your skin in order to achieve this look?

ED: Yeah! It’s staggering, now, to think about the level of cognitive dissonance, but the way I saw it was as though I had a chronic malaise that required treatment – and this was the treatment. That’s how I imagined it.

ME: Does this internalised dislike also extend to men?

ED: These are definitely issues that affect men as well, but I think we associate it more with women because, until recently, there has been more of a culture of long hair being entwined with ideas about femininity and womanhood.

I’ve spoken to men who have texturised their hair, using a type of relaxer that doesn’t make the hair bone straight but gives it a loosely curled look – because there’s also a hierarchy of the types of curly hair. White people often say to me: “Oh yeah, I’ve got curly hair – I understand where you’re coming from.” And I get it – prejudice against curly hair is definitely a thing – but it’s not actually stigmatised in the way that Afro-textured hair is.

In the hierarchy of hair types, which comes from a western beauty standard, the most Afro-textured hair is the most reviled. The looser curl of many people with mixed ancestry is perceived as the beauty standard of black hair, and is more comparable to the type of curly hair that some white people have. Even though I’m mixed, my hair very much favours the African side of my heritage, so I don’t have those loose curls.

ME: Can we trace all of this back to the experience of slavery?

ED: Absolutely. There was no stigma associated with Afro-textured hair in the continent before the dehumanisation of black people that has its origins in the power relationship that emerged from European expansion and then slavery.

ME: One of the most well-known ‘African’ hairstyles is, of course, the Afro. What is the history of that style, and to what extent is it truly African?

ED: The Afro is indeed iconic, and is I think what a lot people would first think of when they think about natural Afro-textured hair. It’s achieved by leaving the hair to grow naturally from the head, unmanipulated – and it grows up and out rather than down.

Because of the name ‘Afro’, and because it’s the way in which our hair grows out naturally, there’s an assumption that it’s the most ‘African’ style of hair dress. But women in Yoruba culture wouldn’t have ever really left their hair out in that way, because it would make it prone to dryness, tangling and breaking. Instead, it would typically have been moisturised, braided and twisted.

So actually the Afro is, instead, more of a diaspora response to racism: a retaliation against the stigma associated with hair. The argument was that, if people were going to say black hair was ugly and ‘lesser than’, it was an act of defiance to showcase it in its full glory. That imperative wasn’t really there in precolonial west Africa, so people didn’t have to make that statement. It’s also important to remember that, when we look at the history of the Ashanti [of what is now Ghana] and Yoruba peoples, artifice was actually an aesthetic norm. Just ‘leaving’ your hair wasn’t really the beauty standard: what was considered beautiful was the skill of manipulating your hair into braids and so on. So, because it was a reaction to western culture, it can be argued that the Afro is situated more in the countercultures of European societies than in Africa itself – which is unexpected.

The Afro was popularised by Black Power but, as it became increasingly commodified, its political intent diminished

ME: The Afro is a style that, in popular culture, is often associated specifically with the 1970s. Why is that the case, and what led to it subsequently diminishing as a cultural symbol?

ED: The Afro was popularised by Black Power and, initially, the Black Panthers’ revolutionary anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, socialist moment. But the hairstyle became increasingly commodified – and with its commodification, a lot of the political intent behind it diminished.

Also, maybe the beauty standard had never really shifted. By the 1980s and the end of Black Power, straighter hair had re-emerged as the default, ‘normal’ style for black women – and men, too. The 80s saw the emergence of a range of different texturising treatments and hairstyles, such as the Jheri curl and the S curl, which resulted in a looser hair texture.

It was only with the birth of what’s called the Natural Hair movement in the 2000s that people again started rejecting relaxer en masse and stopped straightening their hair. The difference between today and the Black Power period, though, is that a lot of people today are adamant that their decision not to straighten their hair isn’t primarily politically motivated.

African-American activist Angela Davis at rally, with an 'Afro' hairstyle which was seen as a political statement - 1974
African-American activist Angela Davis speaks at a rally in 1974. The ‘Afro’ hairstyle worn by Davis was a political statement in the 1970s, but fell from favour again in the 1980s. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

ME: It seems, though, that you think that hair is political in this context – and that there are ways in which people today can use it as a political symbol.

ED: Well, I don’t want to argue that anyone should do anything. Black people’s bodies are so heavily policed anyway, I don’t want to take that further and say: ‘you should wear your hair this way and not that way’. Everybody has their own reasons and motivations for how they wear their hair, and there is so much creativity in black hairstyling culture and so many different types of hairstyles that you can choose from.

But for me, personally, making the decision to stop relaxing my hair was political. I know that I was doing it because of the shame that I had associated with my hair texture, so I had to undo all of that and embrace that texture. I actively sought out other ways of grooming and maintaining it, and I now embrace a whole range of traditional braided hairstyles.

ME: In your book you discuss cultural appropriation, which is an idea that’s attracted a lot of attention recently. How do the ideas we’ve been discussing interact with the ways in which black hairstyles are co-opted by people from other backgrounds?

ED: We’ve seen several flashpoints – notably when white people, often white celebrities, have adopted traditional black hairstyles. If there was a level playing field between black people and white people, there wouldn’t be an issue – anyone should be able to style their hair any way they want to! – but when you look at the historical context, there isn’t a level playing field.

Hairstyles for which a white celebrity would be celebrated and lauded in high fashion circles and in the media are the same styles that will cause black children to be excluded from schools or black employees to be told their hair is inappropriate for work. Discriminating against black people on the grounds of their hair has happened with such frequency that, earlier this year, such discrimination was recognised and declared illegal in New York City.

The irony here is that there’s a disparity between the treatment of white people, who choose these hairstyles, and of black people, who actually need to use them because of the way in which they maintain their hair.

And, again, the historical context is important: the relationship between Europe and Africa, and the descendants of Africans, over the past 500 years has been largely based on a process of extraction of resources for the benefit of western economies and cultures. So this kind of facsimile of ‘blackness’ that celebrities create or appropriate – which often makes them seem like edgy, hugely successful performers but for which black people are demonised – is part of that process of extraction.

So although some people often want to dismiss claims of cultural appropriation as frivolous and silly and shallow, or say: ‘Oh, this book is just about hair, and hair’s really superficial’, those arguments betray an ignorance of the wider historical picture.

ME: You write that “everything you’ve been taught about Africa is a lie”, and that it’s a story designed to justify the continent’s continuing exploitation. How does the story of hair fit within that, and how would you like this book to change people’s impression of its significance?

ED: More than just changing people’s attitudes towards the significance of hair, I want them to reassess the ways they think about things such as cultural appropriation, precolonial African societies, and present-day African society and culture.

The quotation that you referenced in your question is taken from the final chapter of my book, in which I look at the relationship between braided hair and fractal mathematics, which was used in urban planning in Africa (for example, in the vast walled compound of Benin City) as well as in hairstyles such as the braided pattern known in Yoruba as ipako elede.

The African continent has a lively mathematical history that we never really hear about, because it doesn’t fit the established narrative of African primitivism. We hear stereotypes of black people excelling at physical activities – in athletics, for instance, or sports more generally – but we don’t really hear about their successes in what are seen as intellectual or cerebral traditions. So I want to encourage a deeper understanding of African history, of which hair is just a part.

ME: Are there recent, positive cultural images of black hair that you would like to highlight?

ED: It’s not even necessarily about positive representations – it’s about any representations at all. The kind of textured hair that I have was something that had to be hidden or transformed, and you were never going to see a main protagonist on the big screen with that type of hair. So, as well as celebrating it, we need to just normalise it and present it simply as ordinary hair that grows from ordinary people’s heads.

And we are, increasingly, seeing that portrayed across various media. The 2018 Marvel [superhero] film Black Panther was one of the most significant moments in this story, but even on television series such as [US comedy-drama] Atlanta, it’s now quite ordinary to see some of the rituals of black hairdressing or hairstyling.

So we are now seeing women tying headscarves, opening their twists in the morning, or taking off their wigs – historical rituals that you just wouldn’t have seen before, made normal.

Emma Dabiri is a social historian, writer and broadcaster, and a teaching fellow at SOAS University of London. Her new book is Don’t Touch My Hair (Allen Lane, 2019)

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This article was taken from issue 17 of BBC World Histories magazine