On Having an Afro in Britain
My white friends from Sheffield always mock me…. “He only pulls ’cause of his afro” they say, if I ever get attention from the opposite sex. I’ve shaved it off on numerous occasions to try prove them wrong, but, alas, I’m afraid they might be onto something.
Even past girlfriends have encouraged me to keep it because they think it makes me look ‘pretty’. Perhaps having a huge ‘fro is a natural way of what so-called ‘pick-up gurus’ call peacocking: showing off and standing out from all the other male suitors – expressing my uniqueness, demanding the attention of any prospective mates.
I have weird hair; it doesn’t know whether it wants to be white or black. When it is short it is the consistency of what is depicted on old greek statues – waves that break into curls like the riptide of a Hokusai Tsunami. My frilly prose makes that sound more attractive than it is.
In reality the waves are bouncing around all over my head – a whirlpool of wiry springs they can’t be shaped like full Afro hair, but can’t be gelled and styled like European hair, and so I either have to keep it really short or grow it really long.
Short doesn’t suit me much, and I’m not the type that can be bothered to visit the barbers every couple of weeks to keep it neat anyway, so I often grow it out to an Afro because it takes minimum effort. I wash it every couple of days, and only comb it out on the days I wash it. It doesn’t look right when it’s too tidy – I’m aiming more for Maxwell rather than Shaft.
Once, when I was at a stand-up gig, the comedian told a funny racist joke, and had a bit of banter with my friend Andy and I, who were the only black people in the audience. Andy is a full blooded Yoruba Nigerian, with skin as close as it can be to actually being black. “And you…” the comedian said looking at me: “You’re mixed-race aren’t you…but you’ve got an Afro which kind of makes you more black”.
I’d never thought of it that way, but it’s true – when my hair is short it’s me sort of sitting on the rabbit-proof fence. In the past people have thought I was Arabic, Berber, Fijian, Brazilian, and I even got half-Japanese once. When I grow my Afro though, I’m standing more firmly in the realms of blackness and entering the territory of great pro-black Afro-wearing icons through the ages… Huey P Newton, Angela Davis, Mohammad Ali… Black Belt Jones…
But when my Afro is in full swing, I always have the desperate urge to chop it all off again. When it’s short I miss it, when it’s long I resent it. And why? Because in Europe you can never own an Afro. Once it has grown past a certain length – I’m going to say five inches in all directions – it suddenly becomes public property. You can be on the bus, in a club, at work or at the gym, but there is no escaping the straight-haired clan when they give you that look. A complete stranger will lurch towards you like a zombie with possessed eyes that aren’t making eye contact but focused instead on the space above your forehead, and in almost all instances they’ll touch your hair and say on the breath of an orgasmic release of pleasure “Affrrrrooooo”.
This bothers me, and I’m not the type that necessarily shies away from attention. But why? I found out the reason on one particularly tactile night out when I went home to Sheffield. I played a little experiment on the fifth girl who reached out with the Afro-goggle eyes and stroked my hair.
I stroked hers back!
She was attractive, and her hair, falling past her shoulders, was mousie brown and silky soft. There was a brief moment where we were stroking each other’s hair in the middle of a club, as complete strangers, and it obviously made her feel deeply uncomfortable. She looked at me like I was out of my mind and scarpered off. At that moment I knew I had found a perfect antidote to the Afro-touching and also why my hair being touched bothered me: It is because the person touching it didn’t see me, they saw a caricature… a funny plaything… a Furby fro… a big piece of black fluff that reminded them of a cute little animal. That’s why they never asked to touch my hair before touching it – you don’t ask a dog if it’s okay to pet it.
It isn’t just white straight-haired women who cause me to get a trim though, it is also other Afro-topped black men, because if you’re going to rock an outlandish ‘fro, you have to make sure you’re the only ‘fro in the village. Going back to the idea of the peacock – there is no doubt that sometimes my hair has got me good attention.
Afros are cool in the right setting, and to be the only man with an Afro at an art gallery, or a member’s bar, allows one to masquerade as an eccentric creative… a Jean Michel Basquiat-type who is black but earthy and cerebral (I use ‘but’ because blackness and anything remotely complex are often promoted as being mutually exclusive).
This is why there is NOTHING worse than when you have finely crafted a niche only to enter the room and see some other scruffy looking arty black dude with a large unkempt ‘fro.
Seriously – the next time you see two men with Afros in the same room, or pass each other in the street watch their body language. They either:
A: Pretend they haven’t seen each other…
B: Stare at each other with hatred for a few moments and move out of each other’s space as soon as possible or…
C: Get caught by one of their white friends who finds the situation hilarious and INSISTS on taking a photograph to put on Instagram.
This doesn’t happen too often though – a lot of young black men choose razor sharp beards, perfectly crafted fades and severely sheared hairlines. My kind of Afro doesn’t always go down well with the black crowd and when I last went to my black hair barber, he took one look at my natty hair and tatty clothes and said “are you looking after yourself John? You look like a homeless person”.
I think this obsession with clean lines and fresh ‘swag’ stems from of an insecurity stemming from colonialism. I wonder if the fear of being seen as ‘jungle bunnies’ still lurks at the heart of the black British subconscious, and so we challenge it with neatness and newness.
This isn’t just a black phenomenon – I’ve noticed how my working class white friends from up north get uber preened for a night out in a way that the upper-middle classes of London mock in their self-assured slobbish understated-ness. There are straight men who are plumbers by trade during the day, and at night get their ridiculously low V-necks out to show off waxed chests and salon-tanned skin. Some even have plucked eyebrows.
It seems that if you’re from a community who have historically been seen as an underclass, you try to clean the metaphorical soot and grease off your working class ancestry by over-compensating on the tidyness. I reckon that whole Geordie Shore/Only Way is Essex aesthetic is born out of a desperation to escape ‘Chavdom’, or what Owen Jones calls ‘the demonisation of the working class’.
Indeed, the clothes we associate with ‘Chavs’ themselves are only worn as a way of trying to show you aren’t poor. I myself used to buy brand names on sale from markets in order to ‘keep up’. But when I left home I started to learn you could only keep up in a race you choose to run all by yourself.
So, having black ancestry rooted in slavery on my Dad’s side and working class white heritage on my Mom’s, I have often tried to dodge and weave my way through class and race by non-conformity, and my hair, whether left long or cut short, seems to be a good starting point when trying to embrace my dual heritage whilst also attempting to transcend it. Just remember that heavy paragraph the next time you mindlessly reach out to ‘pet’ it then, yeah!? 🙂