Just a Nappy-Headed Sister with the PC Blues – Review

I’ve worn my hair shorn close to my head for at least the last 10
years, from time to time letting it get a wild and wooly inch or so
past my scalp. I’m a member of the “happy is nappy” school, and
gleefully so. For years, I wore the T-shirt of a sister whose naps
could be used as the illustration that went with a sign that said
“happy is nappy.”

Now, I’ve heard that nappy is a dirty word. And on top of that, the
New York City teacher who used a book about nappy hair to teach
tolerance is running from the New York school, reportedly fearing for
her life.

The imbroglio made national headlines in late November, and it is a
teachable moment for those who deal with multiculturalism, race, and
gender.

Let me deal with first things first. Happy is nappy. I get up in
the morning, dunk into the shower, and 10 minutes later, I waltz out
without that bouncin’ and behavin’ hair of which White girls are so
fond. No, my hair is one of the few things that isn’t bouncin’ on me,
because the rest of me is mile-a-minute action. I am the antithesis of
a shampoo commercial, with nothing to unfrizz or relax, and that is
causing me next to no pain.

But there is nappy, and then there is nappy. There’s the
celebratory nappy-headed woman, and then there is the nappy-headed
sister who has been demeaned.

My naps have been tossed at me as a term of endearment (“Come on
over here with yo’ nappy-headed self.”), and as a term of derision
(“Who that nappy-headed sista think she is?”). They have been seen as a
symbol of seduction (“Let me run my fingers through that nappy, red
stuff.”), and a token of rejection (“She doesn’t even have that much
hair — can you hear the finger snap? — and it’s nappy.”).

While most nappy-headed putdowns are verbal, some are implicit,
nonverbal reminders of the difference between straight and nappy. For
example, there are these women who toss their hair as punctuation and
exclamation, slinging their dandruff all over the place.

Back in the day when I carried a tree on my shoulder instead of a
simple mahogany chip, I was often sorely tempted to grab them by their
long, stringy hair and strangle them with it. Now, my plate is too full
to worry about somebody else’s hair. Secretly, though, I find
hair-slingers undisciplined and unkempt, which is fine since I’m sure
their come-hither hair language isn’t directed my way.

As wonderful as nappy hair is, some see it as negative, especially
when it is compared to the straighter stuff. It is part of an ugly
history that undergirds conversations about race, gender, and
appearance.

So, I’m not surprised that Ruth Sherman tore her hose in the
maelstrom of race in America when she tried to teach tolerance by using
a children’s book by Carolivia Herron called “Nappy Hair.” But in
saying she is disturbed by epithets and anger, and requesting a
transfer from PS 75, she is reverting to a “Miss Ann” stereotype of
White female helplessness. She is behaving like one of those
patriarchal liberals who insists, “My way or no way, because I know
what is best for you.”

Before someone like Sherman teaches nappy, she needs to understand
the power of name-calling among children. And she needs to be willing
to discuss her teaching, both with her students and with their parents.
She needs to understand, as she all-too-apparently doesn’t, “White
privilege.”

One of her privileges, for example, is to seek a transfer, a
privilege too many Black women don’t have. I don’t suggest that she
teach at PS 75 if she thinks her life is in danger. But is her life
really in danger, or is her request for a transfer a petulant,
foot-stomping protest that her curriculum choice was questioned?

Appreciative parents have showered Sherman with flowers, and school
administrators have asked her to stay at her post. Sherman says she
used the book to teach her students how to get along with different
people. But is she teaching her students to cut bait and run by
refusing to discuss the mixed messages that come from words like
“nappy” and how we negotiate them?

I don’t mind Sherman teaching Black and Brown girls from a book
about nappy hair. The whole point of living in this multicultural space
is that anybody can teach anything they are qualified to teach. White
folks teach African American Studies, African Americans teach Chaucer,
Latinos teach American politics, and so on. The press would turn Ruth
Sherman into an exceptional person and an empathetic heroine. But that
description is not quite accurate. She is a sensitive young teacher
doing her job.

Parents have the right to ask questions about the material their
children are being taught, though. And no teacher or principal ought to
try to mute those questions, even when they are harsh and critical. Too
often, we hear about uninvolved parents, especially in the African
American community. Now, involved African American parents are being
criticized because they triggered the departure of a seemingly good
teacher.

I wasn’t present when parents questioned Sherman. She says they
were yelling and wouldn’t let her finish a sentence. Knowing what I do
about race, attitudes, and communications, though, I can visualize the
body language, stereotypes, and misconceptions in the room. If a parent
threatened a teacher, it was probably the result of the parent’s
perception that the teacher was neither listening to nor respecting the
parent’s criticisms. I wasn’t there, but it isn’t difficult to see how
the meeting devolved into chaos.

And that’s the problem. Parents, a teacher, and a principal failed
to use this nappy misunderstanding as a growth opportunity. Instead,
people seemed to react in absolutes. So a question was raised, and a
misunderstanding escalates into an incident of racial intolerance.
Honest conversation is evaded. But the national media jumps in with all
enthusiasm, viewing this through a distorted lens. Meanwhile, our
community and society are so narrowly focused that we are incapable of
understanding that some words have mixed messages and ought to be
sensitively handled.

Let me make it personal. I wouldn’t trade my nappy hair for the
stringy stuff if you paid me good money to do so. But I’d take you to
task in the harshest of terms if you called my hair nappy as a
criticism and not a compliment. Somebody needed to communicate the
mixed meaning of “nappy” to teacher Ruth Sherman before she started
reading and teaching about nappy hair. Then we could all have avoided
the PC — as in, “politically correct” — blues that turned a classroom
misunderstanding into a national incident.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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