I received Red: A Natural History of the Redhead by Jackey Colliss Harvey as a present last Christmas from my Granddad. Whether as a joke or as a serious present, or a mixture of both (all three are always possibilities where my Granddad is concerned), as the only redheaded grandchild on both sides of my very brunette and blond dominated family tree, the idea of learning about my history was immediately intriguing. I have to say I was not disappointed.
Colliss Harvey’s Red is a cleverly written, extensively well-researched work, that details the history of red hair from its initial genetic emergence some 50,000 years ago up to the festival Redhead Days in Breda in the Netherlands today, covering an impressive range of biological, social and cultural history.
It is a book in which you learn a great deal about red hair, more than you thought you would. I acquired beyond the amount of historical and biological factoids I was expecting to learn from reading this book. Like how red hair did not originate in Scotland or Ireland as commonly believed, but began to emerge somewhere between our migration from Africa and settling in Central Asia’s grasslands. Or how there were ginger, freckled Neanderthals. Or that the pain thresholds between redheads and non-redheads differ – redheads need about 20% more anaesthetic to be knocked out than other patients. Who knew that?!
Not only does Colliss Harvey expand you historical and biological knowledge, but also exposes you to modern social projects that attempt to tackle stereotypes towards red hair, often by redheads themselves. Like Thomas Knights‘ RED HOT 100 project launched in 2014, that used photographs of very handsome redheaded men and shared their stories about growing up red to help confront sexual stereotypes of male redheadeds being unattractive.
Yet despite the extent of historical and cultural material that Colliss Harvey examines and exposes the reader to, it is her witty tone that pervades her work which really wins me over. A book that is overwhelming factual can often lead a reader to lose focus and become easily bored of the material in front of them. This is not the case with Red. Not only is the material that Colliss Harvey examines and the conclusions she draws interesting in their own right, it is her humour, her sarcasm and her colloquialism that really brings you in, that make this work so absorbing. A history of red hair not only written by a redhead, but by a redhead who knows how to engage with the reader on a human level and make them smile. Now there is author who is immediately engaging.
By the time I had finished the book, Colliss Harvey had instilled in me, or reminded me of my inner sense of pride about my being red. Red hair for hundred of years has been the hair colour of difference, of mystery, of threat. It is not uncommon for redheaded children to be bullied for their locks, or for their hair to be the one defining characteristic people notice about them, overshadowing all others. But despite these side-effects, I doubt whether many redheads would want to be any other colour. To be red is to be different, to be unusual, to stand out. Red is something to be proud of.
Overall it is an eye-opening and deeply fascinating lesson on the biology, history and social attitudes towards red hair, that tackles folktales, demythologises stereotypes, but most importantly, it is a celebration about being red, being different, being unique – a lesson more of us should learn and take on board.
Eloquently and amusingly expressed, this spellbinding blend of scholarship and wit is a must-read for the redhead and non-redhead alike.