As a mixed-race adopted child, I grew up in the 50s and 60s with very little contact with other black people, despite my 50% African genetic inheritance. This started to change in the early 70s, and I remember the day when I came across three black girls in my teacher-training college. I didn’t know them as they weren’t on the same course as me, but it seemed natural for us to greet each other. Almost immediately, one of the girls said “You don’t comb your hair, do you?” and before long they had given me my first Afro pick (they also recommended a hairdresser specialising in African hair, which I used once or twice).
In a way, the moment I received that first Afro comb marked my welcome into the ranks of the African diaspora – and not just because I started going out with the sister of one of the girls for a while. It was more that I now had a sense of belonging: without denying my European side, I now started to embrace the African side of my identity, sporting a big Afro (or ‘natural’) hairstyle at a time when black consciousness was rising, with slogans like ‘Black is beautiful’ and songs like ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.
Since then I have bought several more Afro combs, both wooden and plastic, and had other wooden combs given to me. Sadly I have lost most of these along the way, but I still have a small collection besides the plastic ones which serve for everyday use. Even though my hair is thinning now and the widely-spaced teeth of the Afro comb are not so crucial, I will never go back to the English combs I had to suffer as a boy.
Jonathan (Born 1949)