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My Gay Black Hair

My identity as an African immigrant has always been tied to my hair.

In Congo, a country that was almost entirely black, natural hair was considered unruly. Relaxed or exquisitely braided hair signified class, which was in turn dictated by western popular culture. So much so that my father, growing up in the 70s in a rural Congolese city, had a Malcolm X belt buckle. Nonetheless, the time spent getting my hair done was where I learned about emotional intimacy and trust. Largely because it was a rite of passage — a mother passing down her skills to her daughter.

The memory of getting my hair done gives me a visceral reaction. I can feel the metal comb tooth on my scalp and smell all the hair product and feel hot steam on my neck.

Then in South Africa, protective styles were everything. There was an abundance of braid textures, sizes, colors and length; it felt like a never ending fashion show. American culture felt surprisingly less evident, with South Africa being so insular when it comes to their popular culture. Still, natural hair was unruly in a country nearly 80% black — where little black children are chastised for speaking their tribal language and made to learn Afrikaans, the white language, in school.

The ritualistic experience every three months felt bittersweet and tiresome. Looking forward to a new style but dreading the sleep the first two nights. Picking out the jewelry you could put in your braids during the weekend and hoping it wouldn’t take more than eight hours this time.

The concept of natural hair only began to make sense to me when I was learning about the civil rights movement in high school onced I moved to Orlando. I remember white boys making fun of my braids while I simultaneously learned about the myriad of options black girls had. And boy did I try them all. I was a different person every semester. I got really into my natural hair journey, wore head scarves for god knows how long, used African threading to blowout my afro only to walk into the Florida humidity and have it shrink.

That felt like the peak of my black womanhood. I felt myself almost physically growing with my hair.

I had shaved my head twice before I knew I was gay, but the third time felt different. It started with an undercut and vaguely identifying with not being completely straight. It changed into shaved around the sides with dreads on top. Then it became the kind of hair cut boys in primary school would proudly wear after a long weekend. That felt like reaching the last level in a video game.

That’s where the word dyke began to feel more than comfortable and I was no longer concerned about the roughness of the word lesbian.

My to-do list when I realized I was gay began and ended with cutting my hair; it felt so deeply tied into my queerness. It was a liberation from something I didn’t know was somewhat oppressing me. It was letting go of nostalgia. I was throwing away so many of the stories and the traditions and that bond that black hair inherently creates between black women. So there was the conflict, the multitudes of my identity stopped feeling like layers and became mismatched puzzle pieces.

Recently, my love for Lena Waithe only grows exponentially. When I saw her interview about why she cut her hair, I had a visceral reaction. I could smell the hair product and feel the metal comb-tooth on my scalp. It reminded me of the freedom of not basing your identity on how you assume the world is going to interact with it. To exist from within yourself out as opposed to the other way around. It also made me mourn the history of the rituals.

I’ve always believed my black womanhood and my queerness informed each other. Even when the women that felt like real family would say something homophobic at the hair salon. Even when being in queer spaces felt like being the fly in Alanis Morissette’s chardonnay. Still, I’ve never known if the two could be reconciled. Or even if they needed to be.

What I know for sure is that hair continues to be at the hinge of both my queerness and my blackness.

The depths through which my hair grows out of my scalp weighs all of this history, and every hand that has touched it has only added more stories, some of which I’m sure I’ve forgotten. All of this makes me think of all the things we could ask of each other as human beings, things so much more interesting and meaningful than who do we think we’re always going to be. We would save so much time wasted on chasing versions of ourselves that don’t exist. Not constantly feeling like we have to choose one part of ourselves over another.

We could, just like Lena Waithe, exist from within.


Andrea Ngeleka

Andrea Ngeleka is a writer in Los Angeles.