Latest chapter in 6,000 year story of the afro comb

It was a must-have accessory of the 1970s, which could be carried in the back of one’s trouser or skirt pocket, its handle preferably jutting out for all to see. Better still, it would be stuck in the hair itself and displayed like an ornament.

I’m talking of course about the afro comb, as much a symbol of pride as the afro itself, liberating black hair from costly visits to the hair dresser to help create a natural look favoured by political icons and pop stars alike.

A new exhibition attempts to capture the era from the point of view of those who lived through it as part of a wider look at the amazing 6,000 year history of the afro comb.

Hosted by the Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham in collaboration with Cambridge University, it displays a range of combs in all their glorious variety – from cheap and cheerful plastic to those made of sleek wood, as well as some exquisitely designed combs from history that you’d proud to have on your front room shelf.

Alongside a photo of himself sporting a mini ‘fro, Tottenham MP David Lammy recalls a popular  ‘pick’ of his childhood that had green and red folding handles and lethal metal teeth. “It would  bring tears to my eyes as I sat cross legged on floor while my mum deftly crafted my Michael Jackson style afro and my brothers looked on anxiously waiting their turn,” he says.

Elsewhere we are told that metal afro combs were often confiscated by police as offensive weapons, just one aspect of the demonisation of black youngsters during the dark days of the stop and search laws known as  ‘sus’.

The exhibition, part of a much larger display currently running at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum,  charts the history of African hair combs, which pre-date Ancient Egypt and were made of a variety of materials, including brass, bone, ivory, bamboo and wood.

Combs had a cultural as well as practical significance. For example, among the Akan of Ghana they were traditionally given as a declaration of love or as a marriage gift, hence their depictions of feminine beauty or fertility.

Recent excavations in the US and the Caribbean reveal that African slaves continued to use afro combs, as much a link to their past as it was a part of their grooming.

The comb dramatically took on a  life of its own with the emergence of the afro during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. Up until then, the fashion for hair straightened with hot tongs and chemicals had given rise to a multi billion dollar black hair industry, ‘nappy’ hair being frowned upon, especially in women.

The afro, forever associated with the radical campaigner Angela Davis, became a powerful expression of ‘black is beautiful’.

Ashanti hair comb, Ghana early 20th century  © Museum of Archaeology and AnthropologyEarly on it was difficult to buy the comb in Britain. The writer and Wood Green resident Mike Phillips remembers the excitement he felt when he came across them en masse during a visit to New York in 1971, noticing that it was the fashion for boys to bury their combs in the back of their afros, adding to their height.

“I had to have one,” he says.  “The one I bought had metal teeth and seemed to glitter like treasure. Whenever I think of my ‘pick’, I remember being young and cool, gleaming with shiny hair [and] swaggering down the sidewalks. Great days.”

The arrival of hair shop Dyke and Dryden in Tottenham in the 1960s,  Britain’s first black-owned multi-million pound business, helped create a mass market for afro combs after it teamed up with a Nigerian company to exclusively distribute them.

Among its best sellers was one bearing a clenched black fist on its handle in reference to the Black Power salute made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. Others might bear carved motifs of the map of Africa or traditional male and female heads.

Bruce Castle Museum is keen for local people to become actively involved in the exhibition. “We want as many residents as possible to share their afro comb stories with us… so we can put our local community at the heart of the museum’s work,” said Cllr Richard Watson, cabinet member for communities for Haringey council, which runs the museum.

Any stories – and images – will be published online and also become part of a new archive on the afro comb being developed by the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The counter cultural moment of the afro burned bright for a few years before giving way to the chemicals-laden Jheri curl. But it has staged a small come back and is now one of the many natural styles that continue to challenge the fashion for straight hair. You can still buy afro combs but they are no longer as widespread as before and tend to be strictly utilitarian. For originality and beauty you have to go back to the source, Africa.

Main picture shows Ashanti hair-comb from early-20th-century Ghana, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology/Article first published in Camden Review, October 24 2013

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