My Life As Chaka Khan (A Hair Story)

by Danielle Belton of Black Snob

Two weeks ago I took out my two-strand twists. It was agonizing. I complained about it over and over again. I kept having dreams where someone else would do the dirty work of detangling my hair, washing it and styling it. But in the end, the person who had to do it was me. Because I didn’t have the time or money to hit up a salon, I simply washed it, oiled it and put it in large two strand twists that I would later unravel.

Then I went outside to meet a friend at Union Station. The frenzy began with three words from a little old black lady dressed in white, sitting on a park bench.

“Heeeyyyyyy, Chaka Khan!”

I’ve always had a lot of hair. Always. Anyone who’s followed this blog for any amount of time, has read my journal, looked at old pictures of me or met me in person, knows the hair is the first thing most people notice. It’s second only to my gigantic smile and my gigantic butt (Gawd, that thing is a whole other post).

When it’s in twists, I get polite compliments. When I blow it out straight I get random women stopping me on the street, shaking me until hair secrets fall out. But when it’s big and curly something truly strange but beautifully dynamic happens.

Like, getting called Chaka Khan by strangers and friends alike, twice a day, for nearly two weeks.

If you ever want to feel what it’s like to be a celebrity for a few days, ladies, get a your hair done in the biggest, curliest, craziest afro possible. If you can’t grow it, sew it. You will be amazed at the response. In two weeks I’ve had strangers ask to take pictures with me. I’ve had white people assume that I “must be somebody” (especially when I was wearing sunglasses). I’ve had men knock down old ladies to talk to me. (Literally. Dude knocked down an old lady!) All drinks are free and everyone is amazingly happy to see me.

And it’s the hair, man. It’s the hair.

The giant hair draws people in like butterflies and bees to a large, blooming flower. And it goes beyond race, gender or age. Even little kids look up at me with big smiles and point. They don’t know what it is, but boy, they like it.

Not everyone is a fan of gigantic curly hair. Take my mother, for example, the woman who originally nurtured my crazy, triple thick hair into adulthood. Even though she enjoyed the afro herself as a young woman in the 1970s, she always preferred straight hair on me. She spent hours each week doing my hair as a child, straightening it and decorating it in ribbons, balls, barrettes and bows.

Oh, sure. She thinks my hair is “cute” like this. But the way she says “cute” really means, “It would look so much better straight.” Even after hip surgery she was secretly longing to bust out the pressing comb for old time’s sake. She’s probably the only person who loves my hair more than me. When I first did the big chop of my formerly chemically straightened hair back in 2001, she took forever to adjust to my new look.

And because black hair is woefully political, I have a plethora of hair issues. People sometimes think I’m making a statement by wearing it natural. I just think it’s cute this way and thought it would be thicker and healthier the less product and stress I put on it. I have a recurring nightmare about it falling out. When I interviewed interior designer Sheila Bridges about how her once super curly mane fell out completely in a shower due to alopecia it scared the devil out of me. Nearly all the decisions I make about my hair is about preventing it from falling out or thinning or developing a receding hairline.

For years, I thought all my beauty was tied up in my hair. I thought it was the only thing that made me pretty because it was the only thing people complimented me on regarding my looks. I once thought I could only be pretty with straight hair because that’s what the men I dated told me. (I got over that as well.) I get depressed, like seriously depressed, when it looks bad. I feel “hair guilt” when people who pine for a ton of hair make an overly big deal about mine, like I won the genetic lottery for hair.

When I was a teenager, I was visiting my relatives in Newport, Ark. and all my hair anxiety came to a head after meeting a little girl. My sister Deidre and I were running around with neighborhood kids, goofing off and talking, when a little girl joined the gaggle of teenagers. She was really young, maybe nine or ten. And she had severe damage from over-processed hair. Likely where her mother or someone else who wasn’t a beautician was applying a perm to her scalp, damaging the roots, making it short, stringy and choppy all over.

All she wanted to do was touch my hair, which at the time was straight from a perm. The level of longing in her voice was so strong and sad. I remember she longed for a lot of things. Like for her father to claim her. And for her family to not be poor. And for the kids we were playing with to be her real cousins. She just wanted someone to love her so badly. Then, she broke my 16-year-old heart when she told me how she would comb the white girls’ long hair in her classes at school, and how she thought they were so beautiful and that I was beautiful because I had hair like them.

She said she’d never seen a black girl with hair so long and pretty, “just like a white girl’s.”

It was like Pecola Breedlove from “The Bluest Eye” was real and I was having a conversation with her on the streets of Crossroads in Newport.

Years earlier, in junior high, I had a girl who had her hair break off from a bad perm scream at me that my hair would fall out too when I got a perm. She was so angry. Angry over her own hair loss and angry that I had so much hair. I can still remember her shouting at me from across the lunch table. Her face all scrunched up and on the verge of tears. Even when I explained that my hair would be fine with a perm because my mother had waited until I hit puberty and that I would be going to a salon, that only made her more angry. How could I have all this hair and she couldn’t? It was like she thought my hair was mocking her simply be existing.

These little girls eventually grew up to be women and I wonder, did they ever make peace with their hair?

We can say that hair is just hair and that it doesn’t matter. But those would be lies. Hair, for many people, is a symbol of health and beauty. And in the case of some black people, it becomes an issue of everything from pride to self-loathing. I’ve felt it all over my hair.

I’m always in the process of making peace with my hair. When I start to complain about it online, I often pull back, remembering how much people like it and how it sounds vain to complain about hair some people wish they had. And even though I knew better than to say it out loud as a child, when I was little, I too, wanted “white girl hair.” Which seemed strange since the white girls in my gifted and talented program at school wanted MY HAIR. Their hair was thin and they would ask me how I got it to “puff out.” They actually wished they could wear it in the same twists and ponytails I wore my hair.

I don’t know what it is about hair that triggers something in people. But I never thought a day would come when people would make such a fuss over a giant, fluffy natural. Not when I grew up hearing about the dreaded, loathed “nappy” hair. Not when society told me to fear the curl, to kill it and suppress it in order to be beautiful. It’s refreshing to have men, black men, like my big curly hair and not talk about how I need a perm like they did when I was in college. It’s a sign of progress when everyone, from young men to Persian cabbies to little old white ladies think an afro is cool.

Still, there’s always that one person, usually black, who can’t resist. Even though they like it big and fluffy, they just have to ask.

“Is that all your hair?” said the woman behind the bakery counter.

“Yes,” I said.

“How long have you been growing it out?”

“The last time I cut it short was four or five years ago, but it’s always been long.”

“Do you ever wear it straight?” she asked, eyes blinking.


Then, with a look that’s a mix of awe and desire, she finally said:

How long does it get when you straighten it?

Some things never change.

This post originally appeared on Black Snob. Republished with permission.

Want to see your work here? Email me!