When Picture-Day Combs Don't Actually Comb

How differences fundamentally shape even our smallest rituals

Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

Like Sunday school and Friday night football games, Picture Days are rituals in the South. I went to a lot of different schools in different cities and towns, and had to memorize new customs, traditions, mascots, and slogans at each one, but the anchors that made the experience of school cohesive were the days we did the duck-walk to school in uncreased penny loafers to spend 30 seconds in front of a camera and get envelopes full of our faces three weeks later.

Picture Days are theater and pageantry, one of the small ways we established order in our own chaotic lives. We all got dressed to the nines—to the tens if they exist—all patent leather and starched slacks and vests and fresh haircuts and pomade. Also, a little Blue Magic and white stockings for the girls. Mamas kissed us on the forehead and doted on us even as they hissed, “Don’t you ruin them clothes before you get your picture taken!” My warnings from my mama were more precise: It took 20 years for my face to realize the difference between a grimace and a smile, and my glasses have never been clean.

We behaved on Picture Day—only the worst monsters among us would ever disobey direct orders from our mamas—and did our little duck walks in little duckling lines to the photographer’s room. We sat in the hallway in advance, and students eagerly awaited the final accoutrement that made Picture Day whole. Our teacher gave us each one small, cheap black comb--the most spartan of designs. The final directions were simple. Each of us went to the bathroom mirror to “fix ourselves,” and use the comb to make sure our hair was just right for the photo. Mama’s orders.

All good, except for one thing: Those combs were absolutely useless for my hair in any hairstyle I wore. My low fades and Caesar haircuts were best maintained with brushes. The teeth of the comb would simply graze over my hair with no effect at best, or actually disrupt my carefully-maintained waves at worst. When I wore my hair higher, the teeth would snag in my dense curls immediately. Picture Day combs always made my situation worse. The ritual glamour of unison inevitably flickered for me in this one step.

Combs like those have never really been a hair utensil of choice for me—I mostly use brushes and picks—and I was never more aware that this is a somewhat uncommon position than at Picture Day. The combs’ symbolic importance gave them a strange real-world value that lasted even after our close-ups were done. In our grade-school bartering markets, children traded the combs like currency—and many kids went home hungry after trading lunches or lunch money to accumulate the most little black combs.

With an outsider’s eye and fully detached from their significance, I became a broker of black combs in the mold of Dutch tulip merchants. My biggest score came from trading a handful of black combs for a slightly wobbly X-Brain yo-yo, quite the haul for a pocketful of nothing. But at the back of my mind, the absurdity of it all never quite left me. I was trading something that was absolutely worthless to me, and nobody seemed to understand why I didn’t value it. And I was always aware that the other children in my neighborhood and family who went to different schools didn’t seem to have the same experience with black-comb mania.

Now listen, this isn’t some sepia-colored essay about realizing I was different, and embracing a conflicted racial identity through the experience of receiving a single comb. Little combs certainly ain’t colored water fountains, and I wasn’t exactly Ruby Bridges. I’ve never really had a moment of questioning who I am in the broader scope of America. My father studies black history, and I’ve always known it. I’m black, I always knew that I was black, and I always knew that my blackness manifested in ways that made me different in mostly-white spaces. One of those happened to be how my hair grew. I was never mystified by the fact that people often wanted to touch it, but I never allowed them to, either. My detachment was colored by knowing amusement more so than bemusement. “White people,” so the black mantra goes.

Still, the memories of Picture Days and of black combs brings to mind just how fundamentally our differences shape our rituals and our blind spots. How many teachers that organized Picture Days thought that combs might not be universal hair-care items? How many photography companies in our southern towns thought to offer little black soft-bristled brushes or afro picks or dreadlock grease and beeswax and beads to black and brown boys and girls, or white kids with “difficult” hair?

I hate the Picture Day combs and I love the Picture Day combs. They are maybe the earliest beauty product I remember, which is a strange thing since they had no purpose for me. I still have the X-Brain yo-yo, and I do relish the arcade time I earned with my classmates’ lunch money. And I do recall that after each Picture Day I’d go home and brush my hair a little harder. In our envelopes three weeks later, the boys had their parts done just right and the girls had every strand in place. My smile always looked like a grimace.