Leila Noelliste, creator and editor-in-chief of Black Girl with Long Hair, is a lot of things: daughter, wife, mother, journalist and Chicogoan. She is also incredibly busy. How she manages one of the most popular Black culture and beauty websites while balancing quality time with family amazes me. Yet, despite the hectic schedule, she took the time to play Q&A with me, and it’s a total win.
Tell me about your childhood. You were born in Jamaica? How was life like there? Describe your family.
I grew up in a ‘ministry family’, meaning both my parents were heavily involved in the church. My father was a theologian and my mother was a Christian psychologist. I wasn’t born in Jamaica, but Chicago. My father migrated from Haiti to the US in his early 20s. He met my Mom there and they married. They moved to Jamaica to live when I was a baby. I left the island at age 17 for college.
I lived in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city — and it truly is a cultural center. Jamaica has an insanely rich history. We were a colony of Span and England at different times. We were also a pirate capital of the world back in the 1600s (Pirates of the Caribbean is actually set in Jamaica!) Slaves brought to Jamaica were notoriously resistant, and the slave uprisings in Jamaica set off a chain reaction in the rest of the Caribbean.
We are the land of Reggae, Rastafarianism, Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey. A very pro-black nation that is fiercely proud. Still growing up in Jamaica in the 90s was difficult. There was a lot of poverty, a lot of political violence, the epic gas riots of 1999 and very little economic progress. Also, issues of identity like skin bleaching have emerged strongly of late. Still I credit my sense of hustle and my propensity to see the beauty in black culture to my Jamaican upbringing.
How old were you when you moved to the U.S.? Where did you live here? My husband is from Trinidad and definitely felt a bit of culture shock moving here. How was your transition?
I moved to the US when I was 17 and it was a hell of a culture shock. Looking back I think I was probably in culture shock for the entire first two years of my college career. I went to Wheaton College in Illinois, a socially conservative, evangelical Christian and largely Republican school that was very low on diversity. It was difficult, but I still managed to do well. I was student body vice President my senior year, had a column in our school’s newspaper and graduated with honors in 2006 with a degree in Media Studies.
You’ve described yourself as being, more or less, a highly driven perfectionist. How did you balance the rigors of college with exceedingly high expectations of yourself?
I didn’t. A couple semesters I really drove myself into the ground because I had way too much on my plate. At one point I was taking 18 credit hours and working 4 (yes, FOUR!) jobs at a time. I definitely fulfilled the stereotype of the Jamaican with tons of jobs, lol.
If I could do college over again I don’t think I would have taken on as many extra curriculars. I would have spent more time exploring Chicago (we were just a 30 minute train ride away), dating and learning about myself. Come to think of it though, I probably wouldn’t go to a Christian college if I could do it all over again, lol.
After the big chop.
You started BGLH as a personal blog. What triggered your wanting to go natural? Did you BC? How did your family and friends react? What year was this?
I actually went natural because this gorgeous and intelligent Chinese-American MIT graduate that I was going on dates with said he didn’t want to be my boyfriend, lol. We’d been dating for a couple months and I liked him soooo much and I was dreaming of our perfect interracial future. When he said he didn’t want to date me any more it really crushed me. I had just graduated college and I was lonely to begin with, and working a job I didn’t like. On top of all that my hair — which I was regularly flat ironing — was clearly breaking off at the ends. So I called in sick to work, drove to a storefront salon on Chicago’s West Side and told the stylist to cut it all off. She gave me a really pretty buzz cut and I loved it! It represented a fresh start for me. This was November 2006. I started BGLH about 18 months later, in April 2008.
At what point did you realize BGLH was growing rapidly beyond your expectations? Did the growth make you happy? Excited? Scared?
BGLH started growing rapidly in Fall 2011. And it’s still currently growing beyond expectation. We get 4 million monthly page views, more than double what we got a year ago. The growth makes me happy in the sense that I work very hard on all aspects of BGLH, so it’s rewarding to see it thrive. But there’s definitely a little fear too. You don’t want to invest too much of your identity in what you do. It’s never a good idea. But when you’re doing something that’s so successful, there’s a big temptation to do that.
Leila & Norm
Tell me about your husband. How long have you two been together? What does he do? When did you get married? What are his feelings about your writing? Does he read your stuff? Is he West Indian, too?
I met my husband through a mutual friend in 2007. We married in August 2010. We have been each other’s best friend, sounding board, no-bullshitting-truth-tellers and support system. Most recently we became parents (it still blows my mind that we created this little person who is a representation of the two of us.) Of course my husband approves of BGLH. (A man who doesn’t approve of the things I do — as long as they’re healthy and productive — is just not an option for me. Ever.)
Your life has changed drastically with birth of your beautiful son, Noah. How do you balance work and motherhood? Have you developed a routine? What role does your husband play throughout the day?
It’s tough and it’s something I’m still figuring it out. I probably won’t have it all figured out for many years. Noah and I have a routine. We wake up (around the same time, we’re both early risers). I get him ready for the day and he plays by himself (this is the hardest part because he really doesn’t like playing by himself in the morning!) I work on BGLH posts. Noah takes his nap around 11 a.m., and when he wakes up (around 1 p.m.) and I’m done working, it’s Noah time. We might run errands around the city, go on a play date, do his baby gymnastics class or go to a park. Once Norm gets home from work, I literally hand Noah over to him and he entertains him then puts him to sleep. I’m also off Noah duty on the weekend. That’s time for him to bond with his Dad.
Supreme cuteness! Baby Noah.
You have been totally honest with your readers about your issues with breast feeding and losing the pregnancy weight. What advice would you give other new moms?
This may not be politically correct, but I’m going to be honest. Speaking from experience, do NOT eat everything when you’re pregnant! Because when the baby comes out, you won’t just be trying to lose the weight, you’ll also be trying to break a horrible habit.
For breastfeeding I would say, DO NOT BE AFRAID TO SUPPLEMENT! I say this in all caps because I wish someone had yelled that at me when I was in the hospital, lol. I was so determined to do it all myself that I drove myself half crazy and ultimately stopped nursing sooner than I would have had I given myself the breathing room that supplementing provides.
Also, production issues are TOTALLY normal when it comes to breastfeeding. Just as women have different heights, bust sizes, hair textures, we all have different production capacities. Not everyone is built to breastfeed exclusively and that is totally fine. Don’t be surprised if you can’t. Just pump/nurse what you can and keep it moving.
You’ve mentioned being thankful to God for your career success and wonderful family? What role does your faith play in your life on a day to day basis?
My faith gives me a sense of responsibility. The Bible says to whom much is given, much is required. It also says that we are stewards of what God gives us. My husband, my son, my material possessions, they are not MINE. They are gifts that God has entrusted me with. So I have to ask myself daily, “How do I act as a steward of this gift?”
What’s next? (And yes, I’m leaving this wide open for you!)
I don’t know! That’s the beauty of life I suppose.
Do you think journalism is dead?
Not at all. I think it’s more important than ever. The delivery method and pay/economic structure need to change, but the stories that journalists tell, and the things they uncover are more important than ever.
Where do you see yourself in seven years?
No clue. But I’d love to get to a point where work is an option, not a financial necessity.
Pastels or bold colors? Pastels
Twist-outs or braid-outs? Braid outs (more definition and better stretch)
Ellen or Katie? Neither 🙁 I’m an Oprah purist
iPhone or Droid? Droid, duh, lol. I am soooo not an Apple person
Yo Gabba Gabba or Sesame Street? I haven’t watched Yo Gabba Gabba yet so I don’t know.
Tablet or paper books? Tablet.
Do you still see yourself as “Black Girl with Long Hair”?
Nope. It’s what I do, not who I am.
A huge thanks to Leila for this interview and the lovely pictures. Want more? Check out BGLH or its Facebook page. Also, do visit the BGLH Style page on Facebook, and check out Leila’s newest baby, Baby&Blog, and on Facebook here.
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