What Love Taught Me About Blackness
A year in Paris and a complicated relationship — with a man and with my hair.
It was spring of 2010, the end of my freshman year of college abroad in Paris, and I let a man convince me to leave my hair behind. It wasn’t the fact that Omar claimed he was not French but actually Senegalese, even though he had a French passport, French driver’s license, and French minor crime record. It wasn’t because he had lived in banlieues, complicated neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris, all his life and had a sort of streetwise charm to him.
Or that I often found myself mesmerized when he pursed his lips around a joint, with an amused look in his eyes when I always said no. Stop. It was not that he towered six inches above my 5-foot-5-inch frame as he spoke a little too enthusiastically about Allah, God’s mercies, the importance of Ramadan, and the beauty of Islam, with tiny bits of spit flying from his mouth to the tip of my nose. It definitely wasn’t when he giggled like a small girl, shoulders shaking, and nestled my mane of hair into his chest when I pointed out that he barely visited the mosque and drank too much Hennessey to be a good Muslim.
Maybe it started with the brief bout of college-age rebellion I felt that night when my mother called and shot horrified questions at me, after I told her I had been on a few dates with a 24-year-old man. I imagined her pacing up and down her office in the dusty, small town of Arusha, Tanzania, phone in hand, eyes hard behind her rimless glasses and immaculately braided hair, treading the line between the mother she was at home and the lawyer she was in the courtroom.
She just wanted to care, the right way, even though she was on another continent, trying to lasso a leash onto a lost child, heaving her voice all the way from Tanzania to my small studio in the heart of Paris. “Did you have sex with him?” After all, I needed to remember that I was Christian. We could not be together. If we were, there would be a price to pay. I kept silent. “You know he’s too old for you, and you never know, people might have AIDS. You just don’t know.” After all, we weren’t the same type of “black” or “African” that went together, and she wasn’t the type of mother who believed in romantic bullshit. He was muscular, dark, scraping lower middle class with a low-paying administrative job, and francophone; I was short, baby-faced, and fresh from a Long Island Christian boarding school, with an upper-middle-class family, a Zimbabwean passport, and British tendencies. “Are you there doing work? You know we sent you there to do well.”
I didn’t know what I was doing. But I pretended I did. That year, I refused to be naked for anyone. I wanted to be a serious writer, the kind who went to war zones, Marie Colvin-style, with an African twist. Not the kind who wrote about not knowing what to do with boys, or what to do with their own hair. I wanted to be my mother with a pen – the woman who held her faith close enough to her heart for it to mean something, but the same woman with an incisive brain and logic that carried her from the rural farm life in Buhera District, Zimbabwe, to a trial room at the U.N. I wanted to end the phone call, but she did first, with a prayer that left me with guilt that sat at the bottom of my conscience like dregs of bad wine.
But it was never about sex. It was about the divided soul I didn’t know I had, the one that struggled to let Omar touch my hair. For years, I had pretended that it was “just hair” and shrugged when boys asked why I didn’t get my “hair did” well enough. At boarding school, I hid it under dozens of weaves that made my skin itch, heavy extensions that would latch onto my fragile front strands, and hair relaxers that burned and left scabs on my sensitive scalp. In my hair’s natural state, I was almost as ashamed of it as I was of my chubby feet, which swelled out of my shoes during hot weather because of my mild lymphedema. When Omar would wait a little too long after walking me to a hair salon, I would squirm in my seat, hoping he would leave before the stylist started complaining about my crazy hair. He never did.
But as my hair shed when he gingerly unknotted it with his long fingers and combed it out in my apartment, my guard went down as well. My awkward problems, the ones I didn’t want to say out loud — being the only black student in my classes, feeling like the only one lost for words and conjugations on the streets of Paris — disappeared for hours at a time as he tried to sing along to pop songs in English blaring from my laptop, occasionally lifting the comb from my hair to his lips.
Beyond the hair, our problems with blackness were still embarrassing — like the times taxis wouldn’t stop for him but would stop for me if I stood a few feet away from him and pretended not to know him. The complications of blackness in Paris came in layers and genders and classes and accents. We laughed about it, but it stung. We laughed almost as hard as we did at my bad French between yassa and fish at his favorite Senegalese restaurant. Almost as hard as the time purple bissap juice oozed out of my nostrils in front of everyone.
On many weekends, we tried to do some of the iconic “Parisian” things I’d read about in high school textbooks. We planned to go to Père Lachaise cemetery, where people like Oscar Wilde were buried, and where couples supposedly left letters at the foot the tomb of Abelard and Heloise — two doomed lovers from the Middle Ages. Omar met me at the Gambetta Metro station near my apartment and declared last minute that we needed to go to a happier place. We took the train to the Latin Quarter instead and ate too much bread in a small bistro. We planned to go up the Eiffel Tower hand-in-hand but never made it there. We attempted to visit the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay but it rained before we even got to the train, and we ended up in my apartment eating soggy falafel. There was never a candle-lit dinner with very old wine at a very expensive restaurant. We were never that kind of pair.
As my French got better, he listened as I recalled the day I left Zimbabwe when I was 10, not knowing that the home as I knew it was gone forever. I listened to his stories about the women he had dated, the police chase he had escaped in Spain, and the time when he was 17 and got caught with a bag of cocaine at the airport. He said all this slowly, unraveling, sometimes lowering his eyes in shame, as if I would be there forever. He detangled my hair and swept the floor and unclogged the shower drain too many times, with too much patience, as if I would not be leaving, as if our souls were not divided, as if this was that story about that deep black love I’d always heard about.
And I thought leaving would be much easier than staying. At the end of spring, I had promised Omar there would be no grand speeches of deep friendship the night before my departure, no talk about what could have been or never was. No long, lingering hugs after loading my luggage into the taxi and no crying in public when I got my boarding passes. He was not to see me off at the airport. The day before, I walked two of my favorite footbridges across the River Seine alone, as if I had shown them to myself. I gazed forward as I checked in my bags at Charles de Gaulle, spoke fast and casually as if I were ordering a meal from a fast-food joint. When the plane left the runway and took off, I went to sleep as if my heart didn’t hurt.
Fall moved slower in New York than it did in Paris, as I sat in parks, phone card in hand, watching yellow leaves lick the pavement, and wondering how much longer the calls would last. The calls got rationed: once a week, then once a month. Soon I ignored the foreign number. When I did summon the courage to answer, often after another bad fling with a college boy, too often after said boy had asked why I didn’t get my rowdy “hair did” for the date, Omar would shoot questions at me in frustrated, fast French. “You don’t want to talk anymore?” Silence. “Could you please make sure to find someone good?” Silence. “Someone who really knows you and wouldn’t want sex from you?” Silence. “Someone who knows the difference?”
The calls broke me. He was there, I was here. Even if I were there, same language, same god, no hair, we would always be in a state of away-ness, where I overthought everything and knew how to express nothing. I was the writer who didn’t know how to talk about feelings. Even at 19, I knew my feigned aloofness was crippling. I couldn’t help it. We would fail. As usual, I stopped answering — somehow thinking my silence would postpone the hurt.
I knew it was the end when I started thinking about the beginning. Since Paris, I had been more at peace with my hair, letting it be and grow out the way Omar had encouraged me to. I stopped straightening and frying it until it lay limply to the side. I cut all the lifeless ends off. I shot back confidently when, on a date, a boy asked me to get a hair relaxer. And when I washed my hair — which I had grown to love for the first time since elementary school — I stupidly played the first scene of that journey over and over again, as if it were the only song I had left.
It was the time I first met Omar in the Metro station during my first few weeks in France. My hair was a mess, as usual, even with tiny braids at the roots, there to fight the power of late-summer sweat and heat until I got it together. My bra strap hung to the side under my sleeve and my sneakers were slightly torn at the right toe, but I didn’t care. I had only a two-euro coin in my pocket, a stupid ploy to stop me from spending money on pastries between school and my apartment, but just enough for a train ride home. Omar, seeing the foreign mess that I was, offered, in a broken mixture of French and English, to take me out for dinner. He said he liked my hair.