I recently watched a television show about standards of beauty around the world. I sat in awe as little Chinese girls went ga-ga for White Barbie, and their mothers and sisters stood in a drive-thru line to have a surgeon slice away the fat from their eyelids to make them more Euro-chic. On one level, it felt good to know that African-American women are not alone in the emotional struggle to love ourselves enough to call ourselves pretty. But that feeling quickly vanished as the show then focused on Nigerian women who loathed their natural locks, opting for lye to straighten them out and a needle and thread to weave in wigs of women’s hair from places like India.
It reminded me of that scene in the movie, Good Hair, where Chris Rock took bags of African hair all over town trying to “sell” it to beauty aficionados who turned up their noses and, in some cases, were even afraid to touch it. Sadly, Chris would not even have been able to sell that African hair in the Motherland amidst an emerging Euro-centric redefinition of beauty. Even without a social scientific interpretation of the now-infamous “Doll Test” – a 1950s experiment where the majority of Black children tested preferred White dolls and attributed positive characteristics to them – my anecdotal evidence convinced me that little Nigerian girls and little Chinese girls were no different from little African-American girls.
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Last month, at a signing for my book, Nappy, one African-American girl asked me, “What does Nappy mean?” I explained to the audience that Nappy was a strong word used to describe the kink and the curl in our hair. In the book, I use it as a metaphor to for strength, explaining that Black women in history were strong just like the kink and curls in our hair. Women like Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune and Ella Baker endured unfairness in our society but rose above it because they were strong. Nappy. Women like Rosa Parks and Josephine Baker may not have had hair that was as tightly coiled as mine, but Nappy represents them too because it is about strength, self-esteem and standing up for yourself and your community.
Not convinced, the girl’s mother later asked me if Nappy was a word that could really be “reclaimed” as something positive. Unlike the other controversial “N” word that most of us believe cannot, I told her “Nappy” is a word that is nowhere close to needing a funeral. Social scientists have written tomes about the power of language and word choice on our minds. Clearly, if we are to have any hope of winning the war for our children’s minds being waged by Barbie and the mass media, we need a word with superpowers to let our girls know that they are beautiful and strong. Nappy means that we must always remember to love our history, our hair and ourselves. It is a message that I hope Nigerian, African-American and even Chinese mothers will bring home to their children.
Charisse Carney-Nunes is the author of the award-wining children’s books, I Am Barack Obama, I Dream for You a World, and Nappy. She is a Harvard Law schoolmate of President Obama and was recently at the center of a national controversy pitting alleged school indoctrination against children’s expressions of civic engagement. Charisse is also the creator of “Nappy Narratives,” a companion video weblog series to Nappy that connects hair and women’s history. Watch them online at www.BrandNuWords.com.