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19 November 2020

Emma Dabiri’s Hair Power explores the politics of black hair

A new documentary from the author of Don’t Touch My Hair offers a sharp understanding of black identity, culture and history through “curls, kinks, locs and afros”.

By Samir Jeraj

The first time Sadie was taken to the hair salon by her dad, things did not work out the way that was expected. “It was an African-Caribbean hair shop in Huddersfield,” the artist recalls. The hairdresser had straightened her hair and then cut it, much to her mum’s distress. To get Sadie’s hair back to its normal curls, her mother proceeded to quickly “dunk” her in the bath.

From Cleopatra’s weave to Angela Davis’s afro, black hair is embedded in culture: it is political and deeply personal. Emma Dabiri’s new documentary Hair Power: Me and My Afro follows on from her book Don’t Touch My Hair as an exploration of black identity, culture and history through “curls, kinks, locs and afros”.  

The documentary explores those personal stories and journeys of being a black person with black hair in a predominantly white culture and society. The experience and legacy of slavery and colonialism mean “good hair” is often seen through European standards. Those standards, Dabiri explains, persist in modern workplaces and relationships, exerting a profound effect on black mental health.  

Hair Power hears from black models musicians, entrepreneurs, and writers as they recount their often painful journey of growing up and learning to love their hair. Some were bullied in school, targeted by teachers for infringing uniform standards and codes, marking them out as trouble just for having the hair they had. Others were marginalised because their hair could not be put into the fashionable “curtains” style of the time. Jade, an entrepreneur, explains how at 28, after becoming involved with Black Lives Matter, they realised they never left their house without straightened hair: “You realise you never loved yourself.”  

Another side of that pain and trauma comes across in what was and is done to control afro hair, a “billion-dollar industry”. Chemical relaxers are promoted to black people in adverts featuring flowing straight European-like hair. But relaxers burn the scalp, they hurt, and the interviewees recount the scabs and scars from forcing their hair straight.  

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Singer-songwriter and poet Abena explains how she always had afro hair, but had no idea what it looked like until she was 17. “I just cut off the relaxer and started letting it grow,” she explains. Abena describes the sense of peace that came with realising her hair is beautiful, saying “it was really just that step to really give myself the freedom to breathe.” 

Raven, a lifestyle vlogger, recalls, “I struggled for so long to accept the hair that grows from my scalp.” Many of those positive hair experiences, are memories of family, sharing and learning from the older generation, passing down knowledge and practices with long roots into black history. In recent years, social media has enabled the natural hair movement to grow and expand, with YouTube tutorials providing a home and a lifeline for people to embrace their hair and self-love.

Dabiri explains that while we are more aware of “unconscious bias”, most people are not aware of the role of hair in the decisions we make. But hair does influence us: like when a black man is assumed to be a drug dealer because of his hair, or when black women are disciplined at work for wearing a natural hairstyle, or when a white person asks, “Can I touch your hair?”  

This last act, Dabiri explains, degrades and humiliates, reducing people to “a toy, or an animal or a cat” in a petting zoo or a circus. It recalls Sarah Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus” who was toured as a “freak” for the entertainment of Europeans, or the black boys who served as a fashionable accessory to Georgian women. From this same entitlement to touch – to grab – comes the appropriation of black hairstyles. David Beckham, once the curtained pin-up, wore cornrows to meet Nelson Mandela. This cultural appropriation is a microcosm of the extraction of people and resources from Africa by Europeans, without any understanding or appreciation of the deep cultural meaning for people who wear particular styles.  

Dabiri’s documentary offers a joyous insight into the black salon experience: the way you have to let time stand still, relax and enjoy the environment as home, one of the few places where black people could be black. When the Windrush generation arrived in the UK in the late Forties, there were few black hairdressers and salons – few people who knew how to work with black hair. Splinters International was established in 1970 as the “greatest black hair salon” under Winston Isaacs, the late virtuoso of afro hair in the UK. Black men speak to the “rowdy” barbershops that quickly become comfortable, where they can “take off the mask” they have to wear in a white-orientated society.  

Hair Power shows us how black hair is confidence and armour, activism and expression, tradition and history.  

Hair Power is on demand on Channel 4.

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