Twisted is a book about black women’s hair. Why read this book? Because Twisted is about more than just hair. Twisted talks about slavery, freedom, the place of black women in society, the resilience of slaves and their descendants, their honor, their dignity, their strength. No one will be able to force an Afro hair to grow down. And so much the better. It will always grow upwards, and I hope that with this review we will raise our consciousness upwards too my friend my sister.
Here are the ten nuggets I got from the beautiful book Twisted by the author of Nigerian and Irish origins: Emma Dabiri.
1. Giving up control over women’s bodies
Emma Dabiri shares her journey from childhood. The idea is always present that you have to “manage” your hair: “From my earliest memories, my hair was presented as a problem that needed to be managed. The deeply entrenched idea of “managing” black women’s hair operates as a powerful metaphor for societal control over our bodies (…).”
It reminds me of this general trend of control over female bodies. Thus, Twisted makes me want to take back the power over my body. Sincerely my friend my sister, what an injustice for women with Afro hair: “Which other group of women on earth are expected to transform their features so drastically merely to fit in?” asks Emma Dabiri.
Control over women sometimes goes hand in hand with contempt for my friend my sister. How is it that women with darker skin than others are seen as less pretty? Emma Dabiri clearly writes: “Colorism in black communities is the product of slavery and colonialism”.
Besides, the term “black” is not really the description of a shade of skin color, but the reflection of an ideology. Emma Dabiri, however, does a good job of explaining how, in fact, having Afro hair or not is the only way to classify a person as “black”. Some people with very dark skin but straight hair will not experience the same racism. Afro hair is really political.
2. Freeing yourself from the standardized image of beauty
Basically, society has imposed the idea that to be beautiful was to be Barbie, blonde, tall, thin. Enough of that. Enough of trying to fit all women into one so-called ideal mold. In my humble opinion, it isn’t an ideal anyway. To present a single model of beauty to our girls is very damaging.
Emma Dabiri writes: “Beauty is, as ever, imagined through the characteristics of a standard not designed to include us. The only way Afro hair can seemingly fulfill the criteria for beauty is if we make it look like European hair – if we make ourselves look like something we are not”.
Have you noticed that in the professional world my friend my sister? As if straightening her hair makes a woman more professional? It is time to face these lies.
Again, the lesson from the book Twisted can make us aware of this injunction to change ourselves. This book is an invitation to embody what we are, my friend, my sister. Tall, small, thin, round.
On this subject, Emma Dabiri quotes in her book the work by Naomi Wolf “The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women” which looks fascinating.
But breaking free from the standardized image of beauty also means refusing to buy into what the cosmetics industry wants us to believe: “Entire industries feed off our engineered insecurities to peddle products designed to interrupt our connection with ourselves and the universe.”
3. Honoring Africa
When I told you that the book Twisted is about much more than hair, it’s because from the history of hairstyles for Afro hair, that of Africa emerges. However Emma Dabiri expresses it clearly: “European history interrupted African development.”
By choosing to lower their standards to the point of cruelty and abandon their humanity by engaging in human trafficking, Europeans have shocked, hurt and impoverished the entire African continent. Again, I don’t want to call for guilt but for responsibility.
Responsibility begins with learning about it. Did you know my friend my sister that contrary to what we are taught Africa does not only have oral but also written traditions? On this subject, see the book recommended by the author of Twisted: The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm.
And then not being able to see beauty doesn’t mean beauty doesn’t exist. Many European settlers failed to realize and appreciate the fleeting beauty of the sophisticated hairstyles they saw on African women, just as they failed to understand the value of oral transmission as they apprehended it through the prism of their written tradition.
An interesting clarification here my friend my sister: the first European explorers did not have this contemptuous look towards Africans because the system of looting and theft of Africa’s resources to get European economies off the ground had not yet developed. Therefore, the lie aimed at denying the humanity of Africans and making their culture inferior had not yet been invented. For example, some early 17th century explorers reported with admiration that they identified more than sixteen different hairstyle styles in Benin alone (see Pieter de Marees, 1602).
What is colonialism? “Colonialism was essentially the creation of an infrastructure to facilitate and legitimize the theft of resources from the colonies, and for Europe to accrue the profits.”
But the system thus prevalent is based on individualism, the unconscious exploitation of resources and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few. It brings to mind current thinking around the system we live in, doesn’t it? Is this system that we want my friend my sister? Do I really want children to kill themselves in mines for make-up products in my bathroom for example (see documentaries on mica such as “The Ugly Face of Beauty: Is Child Labour the Foundation for your Makeup?”)?
Much of Emma Dabiri’s book revolves around these social issues. Concretely, how to claim your values in a truly honest way because wearing a t-shirt defending a noble cause rings a little false when this t-shirt was made by children in sweat-shops. There is no such thing as a quick fix, but asking the right questions first is urgently needed to get things moving forward.
It is interesting to learn, thanks to the book Twisted, that the natural Afro hair movement started as a rejection of the consumer society to evolve into a nice movement of black women’s self-confidence, liberated expression and highlighting the beauty of Afro hair.
4. Acknowledging when science serves the bad
The idea of the so-called superiority of some peoples over others is not new and has shamefully been used to justify racism and slavery. More serious still, “(…) by the nineteenth century this had evolved into “scientific racism”, which established the idea that empirical scientific evidence could be used to demonstrate that “Africans” were an entirely distinct species”.
I have the impression that today we realize that the science argument is not always used for the good my friend my sister. Science often seems to me to be a reflection of an era and a mentality, but not at all an absolute and indisputable truth.
5. Finding an alternative to an unfair system
The book Twisted is definitely about more than just hair. It illustrates how African mathematical science (see “Ron Eglash: The fractals at the heart of African designs” and his channel Ron Eglash) offers an alternative to both capitalism and communism: the concept of “generative justice” is illustrated by a genius idea: “By feeding you, I feed myself”. Emma Dabiri calls this the “gift economy”. Concepts definitely to dig in further my friend my sister.
Interestingly, “Du Bois felt that a people who had once been positioned as objects of commerce should have particular insight into the shortcomings of capitalism.”
The book Twisted invites us to think: “We need to reimagine the way we think about progress, about modernity, about success, about development, about “civilization”.”
6. The power of the African woman
Before slavery, the idea that women are inferior to men had not been exported to Africa. Emma Dabiri explains it very well in her book Twisted: “(…) gender was not an organizing principle in Yoruba culture. Accordingly, lineage and seniority were far more important than the presence or absence of a vagina in determining an individual’s position in society.”
The African woman did not let circumstances and five centuries of cruel slavery tarnish her soul. The African woman is a model and an example of creativity and resilience for all women: “The ability to take what you are given and fuse it with what you’ve got, even in the most challenging of circumstances explains the enduring appeal of so many black expressive forms”.
I really encourage you to read the book Twisted my friend my sister as it would be impossible for me to sum it up in one article and of course I’m focusing on the African woman here but Emma Dabiri is talking about both men and women.
7. Imagining Africa without slavery and repairing the damage done
“We have no way of knowing what might have happened in the continent had millions of the most active and able not been shipped away, if traditional family and kinship structures had not been decimated (…)” and if scarcity replaced abundance.
Emma Dabiri is an advocate for reparations for the damage caused by slavery and the events that followed.
8. When black people reject black people
The author of the book Twisted talks about colorism, when black people with darker skin are looked down upon by black people with lighter skin. How to explain this phenomenon?
For instance within men: “When a black man rejects a woman for possessing the same features he himself has, we know that this is often born of the legacy of slavery and colonialism: a toxin that breeds in the resulting ecosystem of black inferiority.” Indeed, “Colorism in black communities is a product of slavery and colonialism.”
This phenomenon is all the more painful because it is often denied: “The internalized and deeply entrenched anti-blackness that exists in black communities is often denied.”
However, the fact of straightening one’s hair sometimes at the cost of one’s health is an illustration of this internalized racism: “Chemical hair strengthening was seen as an example of this tendency and one of the most pronounced displays of internalized oppression”.
What about the Black is Beautiful movement? “Until very recently, the message was loud and clear: You can be black and beautiful (that was just about permissible), but you cannot have tightly coiled Afro hair and be one of the beautiful people.”
9. About cultural appropriation
When an oppressive group has for centuries humiliated another group (e.g. whites often shaved the heads of their black women slaves to punish them), and this group allows itself to copy traditions and styles belonging to the oppressed group, there is cultural appropriation. It is a question of power. Therefore, “The practices around black hairstyling are, like our hair texture itself, dismissed as coarse, then elevated to an entirely different status when copied or appropriated by white people.”
Why when Brazilian actress Tais Araujo posts a picture of her with naturally frizzy hair she receives comments like “I did not know that [the] zoo has a camera” while when a white woman copies this hairstyle, will it be said to be pretty?
Africa has been plundered for centuries to serve European interests. “In many ways, the appropriation of black hairstyles behaves as a microcosm for the continued extraction of resources, both cultural and physical, from African peoples.”
10. Afrofuturism and creating a new reality
I was shocked when I read Emma Dabiri’s description of Afrofuturism because it made me think of a French guy, Franck Lopvet, who speaks about parallel realities and how our current self is helping our past self while our future self helps us today. The author of Twisted writes: “(…) African spiritual belief systems in which time is cyclical or repeating, concepts of time in which the unborn, the living, and the ancestral exist in a perpetual cycle of communication. This is the basis of Afrofuturism, where the present informs the past and the future informs the present.”
Emma Dabiri promises herself to never again mutilate any part of her body for a standardized and racist beauty ideal. She adds: “We have the freedom to design a reality of our own making, one that recognizes our humanity and thus reflects our highest needs.”
Let’s build this new reality together my friend my sister.