The N Word We Rarely Discuss: NAPPY
During my childhood, in the 60’s, the term “Black” was a label that was avoided when characterizing a Black person. Back then, the word “Black” was often used as a prejorative by Black people as well as white in the U.S.
It was common to hear disparaging words spoken of people who were “black with nappy hair” as if those were insults. The truth is, those were fightin’ words back then. This was before the R&B singer James Brown gave us license to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. I remember when that song was considered radical.
In the 60’s infrequent black images shown on television, usually in the news, were invariably negative. Even today, subtle and not so subtle messages sent through the airwaves, in advertising, in movies, and in pop culture send the message that whiteness is the preferred mode of being in America and globally.
The LA Progressive published an article by K. Danielle Edwards (“Get the Colonization Off Your Crown, Michelle“), chiding the much admired First Lady for the message her straightened hair sends to young black girls. Not surprisingly, the article rankled some of our readers, reminding me how much pain and ignorance there is around black women and their hair.
Our hair — nappy hair — and the way we treat it could be indicative of how accepted we feel as a people by the larger society. It could, perhaps, be viewed as an indicator for the acceptance of blackness globally. These ideas bring to mind a story my mother told me.
“I’m Black and I’m Proud”
Back in the sixties, when my mother was a young woman, afros were popular and James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” was the mantra of urban America — we lived in the Bronx. But my mother preferred Diana Ross and the Supremes over James Brown; she emulated their look by wearing socially accepted coifs that almost looked like helmuts but most often were wigs.
In our home, wearing your hair in its natural state was frowned upon — truth is it wasn’t even allowed. When I asked why, I was told, “It’s just not done”. Weekly, my mother would straighten my hair with a straightening comb that was heated directly on the stove. The hotter the comb, the straighter the hair. Occasionally the comb was left on the fire too long, resulting in burnt hair and sometimes a burnt scalp. This was an unpleasant, often painful experience but it was drilled into me that it was necessary. This painful ritual was typical among black girls and women at that time. Back then, I didn’t know a single black girl with nappy hair who wore it in its natural condition. All of the black women I had ever encountered in my life, with the exception of the minority who were born with straight-to-wavy hair, went through the hair straightening ordeal.
When I was finally old enough to care for my own hair, I decided against straightening it. This wasn’t an easy decision. I was bucking against hundreds of years of conditioning – pun intended. But I wanted to rid myself of the burden that comes with straightening. Whether using a thermal method or a chemical one, the cost was more than I was willing to bear. I was just tired of the weekly ordeal and more specifically — tired of feeling like my head was on fire for two days out of every week. So I challenged the conventional wisdom and started wearing a “Fro”.
Initially, my mother was unhappy with my decision. She tried to get me to change my mind but I wouldn’t. At one point, she had her mother — my Granny — fly from Long Beach, California to our home in New York to discuss my hair and how wearing it nappy was a bad reflection on the family. But even Granny who I loved and respected couldn’t get me to straighten it. In time, my mom accepted my decision. Back then we rarely saw eye to eye on issues of racial and gender identity. Now its something we hardly discuss.
African Nappy Hair
Not too long ago, my mother visited Africa. It was her first trip to our Mother Land. Even though almost 50 years have passed since Black Pride was birthed in the sixties, my mother’s standards for beauty have not shifted with the times. She continues to define “good hair” as straight hair. And she still straightens her hair almost every day. When she went to Kenya, she took along her trusted friend, the straightening comb though now she has an electric one. Unfortunately for Mom, the transformer she brought along for the trip didn’t fit into the sockets in Kenya. So she couldn’t use the comb. More importantly to her, she couldn’t straighten her hair!!!
I cannot emphasize enough how big a deal this was to my mother. And to make matters worse, it was extremely hot and humid while she was in Kenya — weather conditions that are the bane of a nappy headed woman’s existence — especially when she’s ashamed of her naps. My mother told me that she even considered staying in her room for the entire 10-day excursion because she didn’t want anyone to see her hair!! Then she thought, “hey, I’m in Africa. My natural hair will probably be accepted here. I should be able to just fit in.” So, she ventured out wearing her hair in its natural state. Later that afternoon after she had taken a brief tour of the city and visited an open market, she telephoned me. “Sharon”, she said, “you’re not going to believe this. I have the nappiest hair in Africa!!”
Turns out, every woman she saw,– and she saw hundreds — wore synthetic hair (wigs, extensions, weaves or fake braids). She talked about one young girl, who she’d met at the market. The girl was very poor but had won a scholarship to attend a college in the United States. In addition to the scholarship, almost all of the other expenses were covered, including air fare. The only thing the girl had to pay for was the cost of ground transportation which was the bus from her home to the airport. The girl didn’t have the fare and was trying to sell a few things so that she’d be able to scrape up enough money to get to the airport. My mom was touched by the girl’s story but couldn’t help but notice that even though this young girl didn’t have enough money to get to the airport, she seemed to have enough to get her hair done. She was wearing bright red synthetic hair extensions!
I had a good laugh when my mom told me she had the nappiest hair in Africa but I also felt some sadness. American women, especially those of us who are black, brown, or Asian, are in a position to redefine and broaden the boundaries of beauty to be more inclusive of the many variations of humanity. Black Americans often set trends around the world. Just look at how hip-hop culture has been embraced from Tokyo to Cairo. We could celebrate nappy hair instead of disparage it. Some women are doing that and it’s a good thing because the impact can be global.
A few years ago, when I heard that Don Imus had called the Rutgers’ basketball team a bunch of “nappy headed ho’s”, I told my husband there would be trouble not so much because he called them “ho’s” (although that was a serious insult that shouldn’t be minimized) but because he used the N word — nappy. Even today, the word “nappy” can evoke painful emotions and bad memories for many blacks, something that most non-blacks are oblivious to. Sure enough, Imus was fired. He has since been rehired and is, no doubt, more careful with his language.
Black Hair at Work, in School
When my daughter graduated from Georgetown Law School and began her legal career in Washington D.C., she called to ask me for career advice about, of all things, her hair. Black women who are reading this article will undoubtedly understand.
My daughter went to a prestigious college and a prestigious law school. She graduated with honors from both. She was the publisher and founder of her college magazine. She went on to become editor and then editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Journal on Gender and the Law. Her list of accomplishments at the tender age of 25 were long enough to fill a couple of pages yet she knew that, with many in the power structure, her hair made more of a statement about her than her educational pedigree or hefty resume. Knowing she was in a position that could take her places, she didn’t want to risk the damage that could be caused by a hair misstep. We weighed her options.
She could either spend $400-$800 and dozens of hours per month to keep her hair straightened like Michelle Obama’s or she could spend considerably less money and a fraction of the time wearing her hair in a more natural state like dread locks. As a young attorney, time was something she was always short of so the dread locks option was the most attractive but we had to consider how that decision might affect her career.
While it can be argued that all people must make decisions about what is an “appropriate” look for the office, no group is as challenged as black women when it comes to finding a way to care for and present their hair that is both accepted by the dominant group yet isn’t overly burdensome on their time or pockets. This challenge is rarely understood by non-blacks. Black women have been fired or not hired because they’ve chosen not to straighten their hair and wear it in it’s natural state. The Atlanta Black Star posted an article entitled “11 Examples Highlighting the War Against Natural Black Hair” in their Dec 2013 issue. The piece discusses this issue and provides pictures of women and girls who have experienced negative consequences at the work place or at school for refusing to straighten their hair.
When my step-daughter, Nea, was in middle school, she quickly was tagged with the name “Afro-dite”. She attended a school where she was a racial minority. The kids went crazy when they saw her hair, free from her everyday ponytail, for the first time. My husband, who is white, didn’t understand why that experience led Nea to hide her afro for several years. The need to “fit in” and look appropriate extends to every area of life, not just in the office. Nea was barraged with people trying to touch her hair. She couldn’t handle that at age 12. (Though once she got to high school, poof!, back came the ‘Fro — perhaps because she got more self-confidence or cared a bit less what people thought, or perhaps because her now more mature classmates began to accept her as she is.)
Googling Black Hair
To prepare for this writing, I did a Google search using the key words: “black women hair”. This resulted in over 269 million returns. I did the same search but replaced the word “black” with the word “white”. This resulted in 85 million fewer returns. When I did this same search two more times but used the words “Latina” and then “Asian” the significant reduction in returns was staggering. Using the word “Latina” in the search resulted in 31 million returns while using the word “Asian” resulted in 65 million. Of course these quick searches don’t exactly amount to the rigors of conducting a study but they aren’t meaningless either. I think it’s fair to say that the disproportionate abundance of discussion on the internet is an indication of how much this issue weighs on black women. It’s probably fair to assume that African American women are dealing with hair issues in ways other women simply don’t have to. Many of these articles point out the hoops black women jump through just to be seen as “acceptable” or non-controversial. Conversely, oftentimes, when black women choose not to alter their natural hair, they are deemed unprofessional or inappropriate.
In a piece written by Rev. Irene Monroe, it is noted that the American Armed Forces has come down on African American women in the military for the way they wear their hair. In the article, Rev. Monroe notes, “the Army released an updated policy on appearance and grooming, titled “AR 670-1,” limiting or banning hairstyles — braids, twists, cornrows, and dreadlocks — inimitable to African American women.” The Congressional Black Caucus called the Army’s policy language “offensived” and “biased” but that didn’t change anything.
Today, nappy is an N word that continues to conjure up negative images but we can change that. I stopped straightening my hair years ago but every once in a while I’ll change my look. When I do, I get immediate feedback especially at my place of employment. White male senior managers, in particular, who are from a different generation feel the need to tell me how attractive my hair looks — but only when it’s straightened does this happen.
Michelle Obama has been criticized by some for never appearing in public with her natural hair. It’s always straightened. She has, however, allowed the Obama girls to wear their natural hair — except on special occasions which also sends a powerful message and not necessarily a good one. But I think Mrs. Obama knows exactly what she is doing and I trust that we will, in time, see her set trends that will make life easier for a lot of black women.
I know too many black women who dedicate an entire day of the week to the care of their hair. I’m not quite sure how to close this article but I have a feeling it won’t end here. Let’s see how many comments this one gets. I’m sure there will be many because as the Google search demonstrated, black women’s hair is a hot topic. Take a look at this video and then please drop me a comment. And, by the way, this issue doesn’t only impact women. Check out the shot with the President and a little boy who when meeting the President only wanted to know if the president’s hair felt like his (the little boy).
Lets keep this discussion going and check out the video below. . .