A head and shoulders photograph of Emma Dabiri, looking to the side with a slight smile.

Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Academic, broadcaster and author Emma Dabiri brings a broad range of sources and inspirations to her books, Don’t Touch My Hair and What White People Can Do Next, from the legends of Orisha to African American scholar George Lipsitz; James Baldwin to Margaret Mead’s A Rap on Race.

But there is one title, she tells Penguin Podcast host Nihal Arthanayake, that she discovered recently and couldn’t believe she hadn't encountered before. “I was going through escaped slave notices, and I found a reference to a runaway house slave and I felt very intrigued by her,” Dabiri said.

Dabiri explains that she researched the person further, discovering her name was Harriet Jacobs and that she’d written a book: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

“She had an absolutely horrific story that beggars belief,” Dabiri continues, “but it’s the only slave narrative that focuses particularly on the sexual exploitation of women during slavery.”

Written in the first person, Jacobs’ book is a “really important document”, Dabiri explains, but also a vital read. “Her voice is so contemporary; it feels in many ways so modern, that it's kind of mind-blowing that this record of her life exists.”

Also on the podcast, Dabiri talks about allyship, how she organises her bookshelves and the out-of-print book that informed What White People Can Do Next. Listen to the full episode above or on Acast, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you usually listen to podcasts.

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