Tight. Kinky. Coiled.
All three have been used to define the word “nappy,” and, historically, the term nappy has been used to describe the hair that grows from the heads of most African-Americans.
While accurate based purely on the definition, it has been perceived by many as an insult to be called “nappy-headed.” Undeniably, radio shock jock Don Imus’ reference to the Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team last week as “nappy-headed hos” was demeaning and degrading.
Mr. Imus has been suspended for two weeks amid calls for his ouster, and the basketball team has agreed to meet with him at his request.
His comments, however, have raised once again the ghost of racism past and its lingering impact.
All would agree about the derogatory reference to hos (whores), but there’s a movement among African-Americans to reclaim the word nappy as something positive.
The tightly wound curls of African- Americans have been involved in as much verbal tugging and pulling as they have physical attempts to dekinkify them.
“Historically, people have always looked at nappy as something negative, especially black folks,” said Nate Mitchell, owner of Natural Choice hair salon in Oakland.
Mr. Mitchell’s salon caters to those who’ve made the choice to forgo relaxers and return their hair to its natural texture. Still, some of those people, because of the negativity associated with nappy hair, are reticent about the path they’ve chosen. “Even here we have to convince our customers a lot of the time, that their hair is beautiful so they can feel good about what they’re getting done here.”
In the upcoming film “Nappily Ever After,” based on the Trisha Thomas book by the same name, Halle Berry will portray a woman who shaves off her chemically treated hair. She must then deal with her perception of herself as well as how others perceive her.
For some, however, whether the term “nappy-headed is a good or a bad thing depends on who uses the term and how it’s said.
“A while back when African-Americans said ‘nappy headed’ it was said either as a put-down or it was said routinely about other blacks,” said author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
Imus’ use was clearly a put-down, he said. “It didn’t matter if [the basketball team] had the straightest hair on the planet,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “He said it to make them the butt of ridicule.”
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the positive aspect of the natural or afro was a sense of pride in one’s African heritage. Wearing a ‘fro was a symbol of revolution, positive change.
By the 1980s, however, many African-Americans had returned to chemicals, most notably the drippy Jheri curl. All during that time, though, a growing number of African-Americans were returning to their natural hair texture, wearing it in braids, twists, locks or shortly cropped.
Books such as “TyteCurl,” “Good Hair” and “Hair Story” celebrate the look of natural kinks. “Nappy Hair” by Carolivia Herron, which is aimed at children, tells the story of a little girl with the “nappiest, fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted hair.”
But in 1998, parents in a Brooklyn school were outraged when a white teacher read the book to her mostly black and Latino students. Many felt the term “nappy hair” was a racial slur.
In a Washington Post article on the matter, Ms. Herron said, “I wrote it delighting in nappy hair. I love my own nappy hair and the stories my uncle used to tell me about it.
“It was a celebration, and I had no idea it would be political. I am a ‘60s person and thought we had already dealt with this problem of being ashamed of our hair.”