The Afro comb

As any fule kno, different is always less. Me and my lot are simply the best way to be: if there were a better, we would be it! We look at those lesser types with sympathy.

Lemn Sissay was fostered by a white family until he was twelve, when they demanded that he be taken away and he was kept in a series of children’s homes. That white mother each morning would comb his hair, with “a strip of metal with barely visible slits”. “Mum dragged the comb through the roots until my skull felt like it had been dipped in acid and was pouring with blood.”

She just accepted this pain. “You have hair sore,” she would say. I don’t know why she didn’t use the kind of plastic comb I used to use, but possibly the tines broke.

Mum was a midwife, and one day she took Lemn, whom she called “Norman”, to see Errol Brown, the lead singer of Hot Chocolate. He had been visiting the hospital, they got chatting and she told of her Black foster-son, and Errol Brown promised her Lemn’s first Afro comb. “I stared at the strange and elegant genius of design and style: an Afro comb. ‘Your very first Afro comb,’ said Errol Brown.”

A comb that would not hurt him. Who would have thought it? If the comb hurt him, the problem was obviously him- his hair, so unlike that of normal people’s, the best kind of people’s, which would cause no kind of difficulty with a normal people’s comb.

It took a Black man to give Lemn Sissay the comb he, as a Black boy with Ethiopian hair, needed.

Francesca Happé studies autism. She notes that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association would not recognise PTSD, necessarily, in autistic people, because it requires the trauma to be life-threatening. She gives the example of a man who takes the bus to work every day. One day the bus goes on a detour, and he has no idea where he is, and no way of getting to work. After that he has PTSD: he may be triggered if he passes the bus stop he always used, or even by the colour of the bus.

This is a man who goes to work even though being late is a threat to him, and it actually happening traumatises him. I hope if I were in that situation I would tell my boss and they would tolerate it- it is apparently not my fault, don’t let it happen again. I would be irritated but not traumatised. We expect this man to live in a neurotypical society though it stresses him this badly.

One autistic friend suggests that autistic people don’t have jobs, often, because they try working and it does not work out for them, so they won’t do it again. If work can traumatise you, I am not surprised they won’t do it again.

It is hard work to see the value of difference, or the problems of difference. You comb hair with a comb. It is so obvious, no other solution is imaginable. When the child is hurt, the problem is with him.

6 thoughts on “The Afro comb

  1. Yes! Knowing is not the same as experiencing.
    You cannot walk in the shoes of a minority unless you are of that minority. I might learn about the difficulties that ethnic minorities, face or that transgendered face, but I cannot experience the reality of living with those difficulties day in, day out. On the other hand, I do experience the reality of being autistic day in day out.

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  2. As any fule kno.. I loved Molesworth as a child – so anarchic! Loved St. Trinians too.. & am still a rebel, albeit of a different hue nowadays. Lemn Sissay is a friend and my daughter is both Autistic and trans, I am on the outside of the LGBTQ[QIAN] community as my experience is secondary in trying to support my daughter. I find my current hometown depressingly monocultural, moving down here from the NorthWest 7 years ago for my mother, but I am pleased that our local XR brought have aligned with and strongly support the BLM Movement. I try to listen and to understand, coming from my white, middle class, neurotypical and cisgender background, which does hamper me sometimes!

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      • Lots of anger, but not so much nowadays as he’s worked much of it out through his writing and stage shows & finding his parents etc. and his IQ is much higher than 90 as you’ll know if you’ve heard him speak. The Social Workers got many things wrong, but he has made his peace with some of them since. He also does lots of charity work for young careleavers etc. & is Chancellor of Manchester Univ. too. I’ve known him since the 80s when we were in a creative writing group together, but Lemn has many friends – What’s not to love? He’s such a fighter and an overall cool person and an ambassador for surviving life’s struggles. I’ve several of his poetry books and ‘My Name is Why’ too.

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