This post is based on a fuller article by culture blogger Kirsty of MisBeee Writes on the Origins of the Afro Combs - 6000 years of Culture, Politics and Identity exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Use of the Afro Comb dates back 6,000 years. Combs may have started out as functional tools but soon became symbols of femininity as well as political & social struggle.
hair and the dua’afe (wooden comb) are linked to femininity and beauty
Afro Combs and Womanhood
In Ghana – my country of origin – hair and the dua’afe (wooden comb) are linked to femininity and beauty. Similarly, in Egypt, hair was historically linked to fecundity, as a result, Egyptian women used wigs as a means of ‘protecting’ their womanhood. Egyptians modelled their hairstyles on Nubians with many popular styles having roots in Sudan, Madagascar and Nigeria.
The exhibition showcased 19th century images of young girls with intricate cornrows coiling and looping their heads. These artistic styles were not confined to just women. Men were considered to be as important in the hair grooming culture and were often featured devoid of hair but for a long pig tail at the back of the head, or micro dreads.
Afro Combs and Black Power
Fast forward to the 60s and 70s when the symbolism behind the comb took on a political dimension. Fuelled by the Civil Rights Movement, afros and afro combs become all the rage.
Many of you will be familiar with the iconic fist afro comb. According to the exhibition’s records, this was created by Italian businessman Anthony R. Romani in 1972. Mass production, largely from China, has introduced more flexible, plastic designs with a splash of colour, reducing the popularity of those original rigid wooden combs.
Your Afro Comb
The exhibition lovingly wove together history, politics and socialism whilst leaving room for personal experience too. For most Black people, hair grooming is a communal experience and this exhibition actively encouraged visitors to share those stories and become a living, breathing part of the showcase. One of the exhibits recreated the typical hair salon complete with the iconic hair dryer... with a difference.
What does the afro comb mean to you?
Unlike your standard dryer that blows hot air or steam, this one tickled the auditory senses with hair stories from ordinary people piped through the dryer helmet. A perfect end to a great day.
Many of us have our own intimate hair stories to tell, whether that involves being sandwiched between your mother's legs or Saturday outings to the hairdresser. What does the afro comb mean to you?