I had been getting my hair relaxed since I was in middle school and I decided, at 24 years old, that it was time to stop chemically altering my natural curls. "The big chop" is a transition; it's the act of cutting off all of the relaxed hair, leaving only fresh, untreated growth. In getting this dramatic cut, one I only recently learned the name of, I unintentionally became part of a natural hair movement for Black women that's been brewing since before I was born. Black hair has been appropriated and stigmatized throughout history, and it's what Emma Dabiri extensively unpacks in her new book Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture.
Maybe it's because I wasn't actively seeking information about natural Black hair. Or maybe it's because Black hair "continues to be erased, appropriated, and stigmatized to the point of taboo," explains the description of Twisted. Maybe it's because I don't see Black women in the media wearing their natural locks. But until I read Twisted, I thought the hate, shame, embarrassment, and insecurity about the natural state of my hair was a problem unique to me. As it turns out, the distaste for wavy, big, Black hair that grows up and out in defiance of gravity is deeply ingrained in worldwide racism (shocker!).
Black hair is unlike the hair of any other race. And as Dabiri, an Irish-Nigerian points out, "Our hair is the physical marker that distinguishes us from all other racial groups." A light-skinned Black person could pass as white if they have "good hair." The same person with a head of tight, "kinky" curls is undeniably Black. And as the Black Lives Matter movement shows, being Black has always meant being considered inferior and inadequate.
Twisted is not a light read. Dabiri, a contributor to The Guardian and a prominent BBC race correspondent, weaves (pun intended) an engulfing, information-packed collection of essays about her personal hair journey, while giving "insight into the way racism is coded in society's perception of black hair, and how it is often used as an avenue for discrimination." She discusses pre-colonial Africa, what exactly is "good hair," the relationship between words used to discuss Black hair — always called unmanageable, frizzy, time-consuming — the criminalization of dreadlocks and "unprofessional" Black hair in the workplace, and every nook and cranny in between. There's so much I could say that wouldn't even scratch the surface of Dabiri's work in Twisted. Her writing is straight to the point, sharply researched, and powerfully resonant.
I went into Twisted thinking, "Cool, I will learn about the history of Black hair and be done." I didn't realize how much I needed to read something like this, and I came out with a deeper appreciation of what's growing from my head. I feel more confident and self-assured. I wore my hair not-in-a-bun for the first time in months.
While I know there will be days where I fall into the trap of comparing myself to European beauty ideals, which I will never be able to fit into, I realized that that "the big chop" was just the first step in my natural hair journey. I was never taught out to properly care for my delicate hair, how to appreciate it's pliable form. Reading Twisted was the second step in my hair journey, recognizing that I live in a society designed to exclude me, and that the education of Black life and uplifting of Black bodies is only just beginning.
Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture is available now via Harper Perennial.