“I had so many people tell me I was the first black person they’d ever met, and while for them that was the first time they were saying that, for me it was something I was dealing with constantly, and it was quite exhausting.”
On April 21st, Irish-Nigerian writer, BBC presenter, and academic Emma Dabiri visited Professor Lucy McDiarmid’s class in Contemporary Irish Literature for two-and-a-half hours of interview and discussion with students and guests from the Montclair community. Dabiri’s highly acclaimed 2019 book Don’t Touch My Hair (retitled in the 2020 U.S. paperback Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture) was the final text assigned in the class. Eloquent, passionate, and dryly witty, the book is a memoir of Dabiri’s youth in Dublin, a cultural history of African – especially Yoruba — hair traditions, and a manifesto about Western racism.
No one else in the Ireland of the 1980s had a background as unusual as Dabiri’s: her white Irish mother, the daughter of socially conservative parents from Ireland’s County Mayo, was born in Trinidad, where her father was working at the time; her black Nigerian father travelled to Ireland to attend University College Dublin, where her parents met. Dabiri was born in Ireland but as a small child moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she and her parents lived in a house with many of her Nigerian relatives. There she got to know her paternal grandmother, who wore her hair in the traditional braided Yoruba style. Moving back to Ireland at age four, Dabiri suddenly found herself living in a homogeneously white society where people told her she “wasn’t really Irish.” And, she said, “I also had an American accent, so I was very much an anomaly.”
When, in 2019, Don’t Touch My Hair became the number two best-seller in the British and Irish bookstore chain Waterstones, Dabiri was wryly amused, because as a nine-year-old girl, quietly absorbed reading a book in the Dublin Waterstones, she was wrongly accused of shoplifting. Her mother blew up at the security guard and the sales people, and young Emma was given a £20 book voucher.
More than her skin color, Dabiri’s Afro-textured hair made her stand out among Irish people, and as a child she prayed every night that she would wake up with the kind of smooth, bouncy hair that all the other girls seemed to have. In those years, there were no hair products or stylists for African hair in Ireland. In Dabiri’s Dublin youth, trauma followed trauma. When her classmates elected her “class captain,” the principal of the school marched to the classroom, sent Emma out to the hall, and gave the students a lecture on the mistake they had made. Listening through a crack in the door, Emma heard her say, “When milk is fresh, cream rises to the top. By electing Emma, you have prevented the cream from rising to the top.” So, Dabiri told us, “I never knew what the class captain was supposed to do, because I was not allowed to be captain.”
When it came time to go to university, Dabiri was eager to live in a city where she would not be the only black person everyone knew. What she discovered in London, however, was that she was Irish. Having been told for so many years in Dublin that she couldn’t possibly be Irish, Dabiri observed, “I came to see that lots of things that I thought everybody did were specifically Irish – my outlook, my sense of humor, my sensibility. I had a long journey of making sense of that, of reconciling being black with being Irish. Cultivating an integrated sense of myself was a long process and took me years.”
Woven into Dabiri’s autobiographical remarks was a history of racialization in the Western world and comments on the different racialized histories of the U.S., England, and Ireland. Students were eager to find out more about Dabiri’s ideas and experiences, asking questions about the books she read growing up and the various hair treatments she had tried, and (in Dabiri’s words) “the stigma that still exists around Afro-textured hair.” When, in London, she “went natural, the energy around me shifted. I started hanging around more black women with natural hair.” She has taught her young son, the older of her two boys, to value his hair and to enjoy all its stylistic possibilities. Her second book, What White People Can Do Next, has just been published in an American paperback.
By the time Emma Dabiri had answered every question, it was already Thursday in London. The Zoom meeting ended, and the audience was left with much to ponder, and with great admiration for a new kind of Irish writer.
Story by Professor Lucy McDiarmid