Herron: Nappy Hair Is Beautiful, Calling Names Isn’t

Editor’s Note: Carolivia Herron is a former English professor and the author of the children’s book “Nappy Hair.” The book tells the story of an African-American family extolling the strength and wonder of young Brenda’s natural hair while affirming her beauty and culture. Uncle Mordecai is the principal character who praises Brenda, and Herron has written the following article from the perspective of what Uncle Mordecai would say about the sullying of the word “nappy.”

Uncle Mordecai was sitting on his front porch where his garden was going to be when I walked up. Do you remember Uncle Mordecai? He was the one who told me the story celebrating his niece, Brenda, in my book “Nappy Hair.” All of us in the Kenilworth neighborhood were curious to hear his thoughts on these insults that have been flying around. Before I could get through the gate he had already started complaining. “My, my, my, have you heard what’s happening about nappy hair?

“Do you know what those folks are up to now, trashing my good word? Here you helped me tell everyone about Brenda’s beautiful nappy hair, and now I’m just sitting here worried about her. What if she believes these lies and insults?

“I don’t want my little Brenda thinking that her old Uncle Mordecai lied to her when I said her hair is good in all its nappiness. Sure I know she’s not little any more, smart as she is up there in college now. Do you remember . . . one time I told her that her hair is nappy like that because the more curlicues you have in your brain, the smarter you are. And she was so smart the curlicues just kept growing right up through her skull and into her beautiful nappy hair.

“But some white dudes on cable did the damage. The first dude called that ace women’s basketball team a bunch of whores. Ain’t that nothing? Because you know the team is mostly black. I know I’m supposed to say African-American and not black, but I’m an old man, just bear with me. It’s a good team, and here they played for the championship of the whole country and he insults them like that. It’s an ace team from Rutgers in New Jersey. And then the second dude added the word nappy-headed to whore, spit out the word nappy like it was pig slop somebody dumped in his coffee. He said it was like it’s all right to be a whore as long as you don’t have nappy hair.

“And all these years I’ve been telling my little Brenda, ‘If anyone uses the word nappy like an insult,’ hold up your head and smile and say, ‘Thank you for the compliment. I’m glad you like my hair so much.’ But how’s she going to turn the insult back on them when they connect it with whore? They linked my precious little Brenda’s nappy cool hair with filth and just plain meanness, took my nappy word of blessing, and made a curse. That’s no way to do!

“I sit here thinking back to the times we worked in the garden together, we planted corn and radishes. She never wanted to plant four kernels of corn in the same spot; she thought it was a waste. But I told her that’s the way to do it. You’ve got to plant more than one if you want one to grow.

“Now the folks are mad at the white dudes, and they’re looking like something that snuck into the corn bin to bite into a potato but found out it was an onion. They’re firing that one, but why can’t those basketball players decide what to do with him? That’s what I would do if my little Brenda got an insult. I’d let her decide what to do if I could, because it seems to me that the ones most insulted ought to have the strongest say.

“Well, I know they’re not going to listen to me. I’m just an old black man sitting in front of a house that’s falling down behind me. And I can understand too, those women may be too nice to tell the dudes to go jump in a lake somewhere and keep swimming. They sure looked strong and brave in there on the television, made me so proud.

“Did you hear about the sponsors of the shows? Those companies can’t jump loose from the dude fast enough, worried about brand protection. Hah, brand protection. Well that’s what I need, and the brand I’m protecting is nappy hair. I don’t want folks to think nappy is a bad word because the dude used it so bad.

“They just shouldn’t mess up the word ‘nappy.’ Why would anyone give up something as cool as a nap, the only perfect circle in nature. That’s what nappy hair is. The perfect circle. Nappy is worth keeping.”

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