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CNN Exchange: Commentary

Herron: Nappy hair is beautiful, calling names isn't

By Carolivia Herron
Special to CNN
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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."

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- 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? (Hear Herron read a portion of her book in this audio slide show.)

"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."

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the writer. This is part of an occasional series of commentaries on that offers a broad range of perspectives, thoughts and points of view.

Your responses asked readers for their thoughts on this commentary. Below you will find a small selection of these e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling:

Angela Thomas, Port Arthur, Texas
I loved the book "Nappy Hair," and I absolutely love this commentary. I consider myself "nappy and happy." I love my natural hair. I love my African-American heritage. I love the dignity and the pride these young women have walked in throughout this ordeal. We have so much to be proud of, and that includes the texture of our "nappy hair."

Patty Valentine, Warsaw, Indiana
I think the commentary was good. But on the other hand, it just goes to show you, that still in America some people can get away with saying anything while others can't based on the color of one's skin.

Agnes DeRaad, Coralville, Iowa
It is a beautiful and touching commentary, but far more, it provides a sense of closure for me to the disgusting and degrading Imus saga. As a woman, I feel renewed hope for healing of the pain and violation caused by unrestrained hatred and bigotry that was unleashed on the most undeserving and, in the end, was turned back on itself. This commentary rises above the sordid drama and redeems what is good and right and true.

Ayanna Cummings, Louisville, Kentucky
I love this author. I bought the book "Nappy Hair" for my children ... three times. It gets very worn because my children love it. They also love that they do not have to conform in order to be loved, appreciated or accepted. "Nappy Hair" reinforces that notion, even though at the heart of the book, it is really about the differences between us all and how one should love him or herself regardless of others' efforts to make us feel bad about whatever it is that sets us apart.

Barrie Locke, Fairport, New York
I love that story from Uncle Mordecai. But I think he missed the point on "whores." While Imus was grossly out of line -- and I'm not a fan -- he used the word "ho," a term coined by the African-American hip-hop community as a general description of black women. As many commentators, of all races, have decried perhaps it's time we all take a look at foul language and trashy depictions of all races and genders in language, music, movies, etc.

D. I. Smith, Los Angeles, California
The term "nappy" has and (in my experience) always had a negative connotation for me. ... If your hair was referred to as "nappy," it was uncombed, unclean, unnmanageable. Not to be confused with the natural texture of African-American hair, which is the most versatile hair on the planet ... be it straightened, curled, permed, braided, dreaded, dyed, whatever. Though the character in the article sheds light on the beauty and positive attributes of "nappy" hair, I'm sorry I dropped the word from my vocabulary a long time ago.

Donna Dragone, Totowa, New Jersey
Smart, funny and much cooler and hipper than most everyone else speaking on this issue.

Brenda Johnson, Cockeysville, Maryland
While this article is cute and all, the reality of it is that Imus' statement was meant to hurt and damage the image of all black women. Plain and simple. It is up to all black people to voice their disapproval on this. There is a time to be passive, and a time to step up to the plate and defend you and your people. If we don't let people like Imus know that we are not going to accept this blatant racism, what are we doing here but letting them think that slavery was OK by us? I don't think so. This total disrespect of people must stop, and the people inflicting such disrespect must be held accountable.

Barbara Casas, Lake Isabella, California
God bless this Uncle. ... He knows what is important. The color of one's skin and the curl of one's hair should not determine the character of a human spirit. If it did, then we could judge the "hippie style" of Don Imus, a result of him not "growing up" and continually wanting to be "hip, slick and cool."

Almas Sami, San Antonio, Texas
Finally. Through all of this, I kept wondering when will someone point out to the African-American community that nappy hair is what God gave us and should be embraced. ... Notwithstanding Imus' intent, we should move away from the notion that our features aren't as "proper" as other human's features. Real black men love our nappy-headed queens.

Lisa Bloom, San Diego, California
I agree with the author. I like the thought of "owning" words. I'm a lesbian, and if I hear someone calling me a dyke, I say, "Yeah, I am and proud of it." I know that people who insult others have a low self-esteem of themselves, and this is a way for them to project, even if it's usually by saying something ignorant.

Harriette Jackson, Tallahassee, Florida
That was just wonderful. Mordicai is a brilliant old man. What a great follow-up to an out of control situation.

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Carolivia Herron is the author of "Nappy Hair."



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