Nappier Hair In Brenda’s Own Voice

Nappier Hair In Brenda’s Own Voice, or Setting the Record Straight

Uncle Mordecai telling stories at a family picnic.
Uncle Mordecai telling stories at the family picnic.

Hello everyone. I’m Brenda. Carolivia Herron wrote the book, Nappy Hair, about me and how my Uncle Mordecai loved to tell stories in the backyard. It was back in 1997, we were having a picnic at my parents’ house in Washington, DC. Of course Uncle Mordecai was there telling all kinds of stories. Stories about hamburgers, stories about the school children running past his door in the mornings, stories about pullets—a pullet is a young chicken. I remember that was the first time I heard the word pullet. I was just eight years old then. Now I’m twenty-three.

Carolivia has asked me to explain how I feel about the whole controversy that surrounds this book concerning me and my nappy hair. I’ll explain how I feel and answer some of your questions. I keep hearing your questions from emails and blogs and Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes a prominent person uses the word nappy and I see the controversy on the television news and in the newspapers. And then some of you find Carolivia and ask her your questions, and she comes to me and we think through the answers. Well, here are my thoughts, thoughts that may or may not be answers.

Some Book History

First of all, it was the black folks at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture (Washington, DC) who asked Carolivia to share this story with everyone. She was there sharing another book she wrote, Thereafter Johnnie, but that book left people so sad that she decided to share a happy story at the end. So she said, “Before I leave, let me share this story, ‘Nappy Hair,’ that was recorded at a family picnic last summer. It’s a story about little Brenda and her nappy hair.”

That’s how it began. She read the story and folks began to laugh and shout! They weren’t laughing at me or my hair; they were reclaiming part of my and their shared story about the historically communal and communally divisive “good hair” vs. “nappy hair” debate. Then they asked Carolivia, “How come you haven’t published this story? This is a really good story.” And one woman came up to Carolivia and said, “This story is about me and my hair. Nobody else in my family had hair like mine. I’ve got to have this book.” So those folks all wrote to Carolivia’s editor at Random House, and Carolivia herself sent in the book, and lo and behold, it was accepted for publication the first day it arrived in the Random House office.

I’m not saying that the letters had anything to do with getting the story published, but those letters were sent. So don’t you believe it if someone tells you that black folks don’t like this book and didn’t want it to be published. Black people, African Americans, demanded the publication of this book. Carolivia tells me that this is what happened when the book arrived at Random House. The administrative assistant, a black woman, opened the packet, started reading, and then started laughing so hard that the editor came out and asked her what she was laughing at. She handed him the manuscript. He read it and decided on the spot to accept it for publication. His name is Simon Boughton and he heads another publishing company today.

So Nappy Hair was published in 1997, sold about 13,000 copies in a year and a half—and then the trouble began. Ruth Sherman a third grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York, used the book as a teaching unit during the fall of 1998 as a way of teaching reading and writing. Each pupil was assigned one page. At first, they just memorized their individual pages. Then they expanded their pages and the story by adding their own words and rhythms and songs, sometimes even adding a little dance to it. It was a success.

By the end of October, every one of the kids could read and write, something they couldn’t do before. In November, the pupils carried their projects home, all with their individual photocopied pages of Nappy Hair. One black parent looked at the project, and that’s when the trouble began. The parent was mad and came to the school fussing at the teacher for using such a book. She came back to the school with fifty people from the community hollering and screaming at the principal and the teacher.

They chased the teacher right out into the street and since they had called the news media beforehand, all the networks had video of this white teacher being chased out of this school in Brooklyn. The kids were African American and Puerto Rican.

Well, the news of the trouble went viral. Carolivia, who was teaching in California at the time, flew back east to go on the Today Show to defend her book. She also appeared on Good Morning, America and Montel Williams and spoke to the late Johnnie Cochran. The New York Times defended her, and USA Today, and the news magazines covered the controversy. Carolivia went back to Brooklyn to meet with the community that was so upset.

So why were folks so upset? I’ll tell you two of the real reasons. They were upset because they did not want a white teacher talking about black hair, and since many of them always used the word nappy as a negative word, they couldn’t appreciate a book that used nappy as positive. But of course, that’s not what they said. They said they didn’t like the language of the book, the black dialect or Black English or whatever you want to call it.

Well, Carolivia answered that. First of all, my Uncle Mordecai praises me in the book because I do speak Standard English, “the King’s English” he calls it. So the book should be understood as one that promotes good English rather than as one detracting from it. Further, although Uncle Mordecai does not speak Standard English in the story, Carolivia had to be artistically true to his way of speaking.

Well, she did change a few things. There are some kinds of grammatical mistakes that Carolivia can’t stand, there’s no getting around it. She can’t stand the incorrect use of “at” at the end of a sentence, and she will probably misquote anybody who does it wrong. And nothing drives her as crazy to hearing someone say, “I seen,” instead of “I have seen.” If you say, “I seen” I can’t be responsible for what she’ll say to you.

But the rhythms and cadences and vocabulary of Uncle Mordecai’s speech had to be preserved in order to maintain the artistic call-and-response aesthetics of African American storytelling. The fact is this country—these United States of America—is in love with black dialect, or vernacular, but does not like to admit it. We find it enthralling whenever we want to share some incident with particular vigor and emphasis.

One day someone will figure out that this English—this African American vernacular—is an amazing storytelling language. Like the passé simple in French that is only used in books well this African American English will be reserved for when someone wants to tell a really good down-home story. Instead of “Once upon a time” it will be, “…, let me tell you…” and then everybody will lean in to find out what happened.

Finally, as Carolivia told them in Brooklyn that night, it is not we ourselves, but those who come after us who will decide what is “standard” and acceptable in the English language. Dante, Chaucer, Milton—all defied tradition in language and word choice, and made the language bend. I hope all of you have had the thrill of reading Milton’s hymn to the English language when he finally decided to write in English rather than in Latin:

Hail native language, that by sinews weak
Did move my first endeavoring tongue to speak.

Do a Google search on these lines on the Internet, and you’ll find that all the lost rejected disparaged languages and dialects on the face of the earth cling to the thought that good stories, good literature, can transform language itself. May the nappy hairs and the hip hop and the black sermons and all the African American ways of telling, including the King’s English, find their own way to their own aesthetic honor.

Six weeks after Nappy Hair was banned in New York public schools and in many other communities throughout the United States, the sales jumped from 13,000 to 125,000. It had its few weeks on the best-seller list. Carolivia left her job in California and came home to Washington, DC.

The Children’s Stories

While the news headlines told us how some of the black parents responded to Nappy Hair, many of you have asked me about the effects of my story on children. Let me share some of the scenes Carolivia has told me about. In Binghamton, New York, there was a little girl named Brenda. She had to write a school essay: “What would you save from your house if your house caught on fire and you knew that all the people and pets were safe.” Brenda wrote that she would save her book Nappy Hair. Brenda was one of three children in her African American family, and she was the only one with nappy hair. My story helped her to be strong, and she joined in more activities at school. She even played a major part in the school play after my story helped her to believe in herself.

And there are other stories. During group readings of Nappy Hair at Barnes and Noble stores, Carolivia has seen young black girls first look at each other in astonishment, and then stand three inches taller, as the community chants its praise of their nappy hair. Once in Kansas City, a ten-year-old black girl got up from the back of the room and just walked to the front in silence, everyone wondering and waiting, and she just hugged Carolivia, silently. She never said anything. After the hug she just turned around and walked back to her seat. It was a “thank you,” of course. She had that thick marvelous, who-would-have-believed-it-was-possible, deep-dark-not-easily-bound hair that is the sheer glory of hairdressers.

It’s not only little black girls who are affected by this positive story of self-affirmation and cultural affirmation. Once in Minnesota, a white mother thrust her brown blond nappy-haired son onto Carolivia’s lap. “Tell him, please tell him again what I’ve told him, that his hair is beautiful.” And right at Katie C. Lewis School in Washington, DC, a little boy who had learned to hate his hair, stood up with pride and asked Carolivia, “May I stand up there with you? Because I win, I have the nappiest hair in this class room.” He was so happy to stop hating himself.

The Back Story

If it hadn’t been for my father, this little book about my nappiest nappy hair would never have been written. I really did have nappier hair than anyone near me. And back in those days, I guess folks used to tease people who had nappy hair. But my father didn’t allow it. He always talked about how he loved my hair and if anyone said something negative about my hair, he asked them not to come around me. I didn’t even know that, but because of him, my Uncle Mordecai and everyone around me made up wonderful stories about my hair.

When I came home one day from junior high school and told him about how the curlicues on your brain related to intelligence, he said, “Yep, I know, and you have so many intelligent curlicues on your brain that they kept on growing right up through your skull and made your hair.” He always made up funny stories like that about my hair. I’m really glad that my father loved my hair.

But I can hear Carolivia fussing at me now. “You know, Brenda, I wasn’t really trying to talk about hair when I published your story. I was talking about call and response and storytelling and art. Hair is just the topic.”

So let me tell you more about what Carolivia thought she was doing. She was scheduled to teach epic poetry at Harvard University at the time, and along with Homer’s Iliad, she wanted to show an example of contemporary oral poetry. So the summer before the class she decided to record Uncle Mordecai telling stories in the backyard. She didn’t really care which story it was, and she was surprised that he decided to tell the story of my nappy hair. He told it well and the folks joined in. Also, she remembered other times when others told the story. She added in some lines she recalled and took it back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to share with her class.

Oral poetry still exists and that was the main part of the lesson. Carolivia showed how Uncle Mordecai used the blues as a backup genre of poetry when he had to link different parts of the story. Uncle Mordecai used the blues (“Sold your momma for a nickel”) in Nappy Hair the way Homer used literary formulae and epithets like “swift-footed Achilles.” It was as simple and as skillful as that.

So you can understand why she was so confused about the controversy. Carolivia was talking about art and literature and poetry, but the angry folks were telling her, “Who gives you the right to say I’ve got nappy hair?”

It was baffling, she was not talking about them at all; she was talking about me, Brenda! And she never even said one word about them. Their confusion even got on my nerves. What made them think that my story applied to them in the first place? But what can you do? Human beings pick up any idea they like and apply it any way they want. That’s the power of art and literature and stories. And Carolivia didn’t help matters by giving my story the title she gave it: Nappy Hair.

And you can understand we can never quite answer the question, “What grade level is it for?” Random House may think it’s for fourth grade, or first grade. But Carolivia and I know it’s for graduate students in epic poetry and for folks who need self-affirmation and some cultural awareness about what seems so insignificant in the big scheme of our worlds—hair.

A Single Story That Connects

Yes, “Nappy Hair.” I agree with Carolivia that the title Nappy Hair is so open, so uncommitted. If she had called it, I Love Brenda’s Nappy Hair, or Nappy Hair is Wonderful, or even, as scholar bell hooks did for another children’s book, Happy to be Nappy, some people wouldn’t have gotten so angry. These other titles tell readers what to think, “love—wonderful—happy,” but the title Nappy Hair doesn’t give a clue what to think. A reader is free to think anything with a title like that. A person is free to remember all the good and all the ill and all the history associated with these words, and before the cover is opened is bringing baggage—cultural and personal—to and into this book and my story. That’s what really happened.

Nevertheless, I have to add this, talking about art versus sociology, and I’m pretty sure Carolivia will agree with me. Even though she did not share this story in order to talk about hair, and especially not to talk about any hair other than mine, Brenda’s, nevertheless she appreciates the gift that sociology has given this text. Although I was confused at first by folks taking my story to be their own, I am grateful and I am in awe that my story actually helps people to love themselves.

I thought we had only to talk about art and beauty and aesthetics and all would be well. But when I look into the eyes of children who have learned to stop hating themselves, I can only say, “What a gift! What a gift to me and to Carolivia that this story can reach into lives—or rather, readers can reach out and find in this story hope and support that makes life better, that improves the day.”

I can’t believe that it has been fifteen years since the publication of my story, Brenda’s story and Carolivia’s book. I’m a woman now. And I look on peacefully as the teachers and readers and scholars write to Carolivia for more explanations, more background. Nappy Hair keeps collecting friends, students, scholars, and enemies. Banned in some school districts in the United States, Nappy Hair also keeps winning awards and other recognitions. It has won four significant awards now: the Parenting Magazine Reading Magic Award, the Marion Vanett Ridgway Award, the Patterson Poetry Center Award, and the Be’chol Lashon Media Award.

Nappy Hair has also become a generational book, with readers growing up and purchasing the book for their children. In November 2012, a session at the National Council of Teachers of English honored my story, Brenda’s story and Carolivia’s book as a classic, Nappy Hair: A Classic Revisited. What a humbling and invigorating outcome for my little story, Brenda’s story, that began beside a bassinet at Howard University Hospital, formerly Freedmen’s Hospital, when my Uncle Mordecai, a painter at the hospital, stood in the hospital nursery laughing and shouting over the nappiness of my hair.


The Nappier Hair article in the journal "The Lion and the Unicorn."
The Nappier Hair article in the journal “The Lion and the Unicorn.”

Nappier Hair: In Brenda’s Own Voice, or Setting the Record Straight is from:  The Lion and the UnicornVolume 37, Number 2, April 2013 pp. 188-194.  Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nappier Hair was originally published in The Lion and the Unicorn, an international theme- and genre-centered journal, committed to a serious, ongoing discussion of literature for children. It is especially noted for its interviews with authors, editors, and other contributors to the field, and for its outstanding book reviews.

Further Reading

“After Objections to a Book, A Teacher Is Transferred.” New York Times 24 Nov. 1998. 29 May 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/24/nyregion/after-objections-to-a-book-a-teacher-is-transferred.html?ref=ruthsherman.

“Author Carolivia Herron Talks about the Controversy Surrounding Her Book ‘Nappy Hair.’” Today Show 2 Dec. 1998.
“Author of Disputed Book Is Criticized in Brooklyn.” New York Times 9 Dec.1998. 5 May 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/09/nyregion/author-of-disputed-book-is-criticized-in-brooklyn.html?ref=ruthsherman.

“Crew Defends Teacher in Book Dispute.” New York Times 15 Dec. 1998. 29 May 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/15/nyregion/crew-defends-teacher-in-book-dispute.html?ref=ruthsherman.

“Fervor Over Book Brings Pain and Pride to Its Author.” New York Times 25 Nov.1998. 29 May 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/25/nyregion/furor-over-book-brings-pain-and-pride-to-its-author.html?ref=ruthsherman.

“School Officials Support Teacher on Book That Parents Call Racially Insensitive.” New York Times 25 Nov. 1998. 29 May 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/25/nyregion/school-officials-support-teacher-on-book-that-parents-call-racially-insensitive.html.

“Stumbling Upon a Race Secret.” New York Times 28 Nov.1998. 29 May 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/28/opinion/stumbling-upon-a-race-secret.html?ref=ruthsherman.

“Threatened Over Book, Teacher Leaves School.” New York Times 1 Dec. 1998. 29 May 2013. < http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/01/nyregion/threatened-over-book-teacher-leaves-school.html?ref=ruthsherman>.

About Brenda's knotted-up, twisted, nappy hair and how it got to be that way!