In partnership with COS
Author and broadcaster, Emma’s new book Don’t Touch My Hair launches on 2 May 2019
If you’re a documentary-lover, you’ll probably be familiar with Emma Dabiri. She’s the slightly sardonic, quick and intelligent presenter on shows such as Britain’s Lost Masterpieces or Back in Time for Brixton. These are roles that require much more than turning up to look pretty and talk at the camera. Emma’s past work as a writer, author, teacher, academic, broadcaster and researcher have led her to predominantly focus on issues surrounding the history of black culture, something for which she is becoming very much in demand for due to her incomparable and ever-expanding knowledge.
Alongside working on multiple TV shows at one time, Emma lectures a ‘Culture in Africa’ class at SOAS and is completing a PhD on scholarships around mixed race. Meanwhile, she is bringing up her son and is currently in the proofing stage of her book Don’t Touch My Hair. “The book is a very comprehensive look at like black hairstyling culture in pre-colonial West Africa before there was any stigma attached to hair,” Emma explains. “It was really important for me that the conversations didn't start with the stigma but instead started in a world where it could just be judged on its own merit and according to its own value and characteristics and beauty.”
Emma was born in Dublin where her mother is from. Recently, when she was watching Channel 4’s Derry Girls, Emma was taken on a trip down memory lane. Growing up in 1990s Ireland, a lot of the style, dialect and scenery in the show mirrors her own adolescence. “There was this look in the mid ‘90s when I was about 14, that was like a white shirt with a big pointy collar,” Emma explains. “The white shirt would be fitted but long and then over that you'd wear like a kind of a cropped tank top…it's actually horrible, but it was like the height of sophistication then.”
Back in the heady days of crop tops and long white shirts, Emma would help her mother buy and sell vintage clothes, importing them in from the States or Liverpool and supplying white, collarless grandad shirts to the new romantics of 1980s Dublin. During that time, Emma was enduring an unpleasant journey through high school. Growing up as one of few mixed-race children in a school proved problematic: teachers over-punished her for her behaviour, schoolmate mothers warded their children away from her. It was only later, during research for her upcoming book Don’t Touch My Hair that Emma fully realised how entrenched negative racial ideas were in the Irish community back then. “I was reading some stuff from the Department of Education in Ireland that was written in the late 1960s which spoke about how difficult mixed race girls, in particular, were in school: how difficult they were to control and how they were short-tempered,” says Emma. “I feel those kinds of attitudes were very much played out in my experiences in school and when I found that report, I was like, ‘ah okay, here's the official attitude, kind of written out for me.”
Emma has chosen to fight negativity with knowledge: dedicating her life to teaching, research and the publishing of her findings. She’s excited to share Don’t Touch My Hair with the world. “What I'm most looking forward to is sharing the largely unknown aspects of black history that I explore that will always be relevant to hair,” Emma says. “That, and bringing some of that pretty unknown but incredibly rich and valuable information into the public discourse.”
All photography by Flora Maclean