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Black History Week: Journeys

How a 1950s barber’s license from Kingston, Jamaica ended up in an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in London.

My grandfather, Arthur Malcolm, was the first Afro-Caribbean barber in Reading, a town not too far from Newbold College.

He was part of the generation who, at the invitation of Her Majesty’s government, travelled to the UK to start a new life and help rebuild Britain in the aftermath of WWII.

When my grandfather passed away in 2014, we discovered that he had kept a number of items from his journey to England, including his original boat ticket. I have fond memories of him; his home became a hub for the black community in Reading, and whenever I went for a haircut on a Sunday, the house would be buzzing with people.

Arthur Malcolm was also a master storyteller and would always share tales about his upbringing and the Caribbean. Among my favourite memories of him were his tellings of Anansi, the original Spider-Man. These were oral folktales that travelled from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas in the memories of those who survived the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. Anansi was a trickster who would find clever and creative ways to overcome his stronger opponents, a trope that undoubtedly brought courage to those living in the shadow of empire — little did I realise those moments would have such a profound influence on my own research and interest in traditional storytelling.

My sister, Helena, studied Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London. Being a creative at heart with an interest in archives, she responded to an invitation in 2015 to submit items for an exhibit titled ‘Journeys’ at the Jewish Museum in London. Her submission was accepted, and alongside the display were the following words: “Arthur Alexander Malcolm was born 26 February 1929 in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. He moved to the capital, Kingston, and worked as a licensed barber for a number of years before emigrating to England in 1961. He resided in Reading, Berkshire, where he became the first Black barber to set up shop in the community. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Arthur was a devout Seventh-day Adventist who kept the Sabbath. Arthur’s suitcase contains his credentials and tools of the trade, which includes trimmers, combs used for Afro-Caribbean hair, and a heavy-duty leather strap for sharpening razors.”

'Journeys' Exhibit

The curators described the ‘Journeys’ exhibit as one that “explored the theme of journeys, ranging from geographical migrations to spiritual and emotional transformations. The intimate testimonies that accompanied these objects were just as important as the pieces themselves. There was pain in some of these stories – born from the loss of homelands and loved ones – but there was also beauty and celebration.”


As I reflect on my grandfather’s journey, I see all the elements mentioned above in his story: migration, spirituality, transformation, pain, loss, beauty, and celebration. During Black History Month, I remember him and his generation with pride, not only because they brought a ray of sunshine to these oft rainy isles, but because they paved the way for all who enjoy the rich cultural diversity that the best of this country has to offer.

For me, it’s important that the legacy of his generation, the Windrush generation, is remembered and honoured, especially in a climate where history and knowledge of journeys such as theirs can all too easily be revised. [1]

[1] See ‘Windrush Scandal’
 Written by Julian Thompson