Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I See Nappy People!

Tis' true. I do see nappy people…going to work, walking their dog, jogging, raising families, and going about their usual day. But their usual sunny day almost turned into a dark night because what they found beautiful about themselves was seen as something ugly and worthy of ridicule. So just how did these nappy people earn their distinction? Let's check the history books, but do so wisely. American history books are not often the most accurate resource of information about nappy people, but they are a start. So students, turn your books to page 14. It's where you'll find the letter "n".

To begin our exploration of the origins of the new "n" word we must first travel back in time to the late 1500s. According to our hsitorical research the word, nappy, was part of the British language and used to describe a cloth that was worn for incontinence=--basically a diaper. Think Huggies or Pampers sans the cute baby inside, the sweet smell of baby powder, and the super absorbent center. To get a better understanding of it let's use it in a sentence: I need to change the baby's nappy. To hear it used in modern times, check the film "Notting Hill". Hugh Grant's character, Garret, asks Spike, his untidy housemate, about the nappy on his head. In the film, Spike was actually wearing his underwear on his head.

So how does this definition apply to Black people? One word: slavery. Isn't interesting that many of the issues concerning African-Americans in this country stem from it. I'm sorry I digress. Slaves often wrapped soiled cloths, not necessarily diapers, around their heads to protect themselves from the glaring sun while they worked. And as some primitive form of hair care, they also applied different types of grease and oils to their hair that probably soiled the cloth as well. So it is not a far stretch to assume that in describing an enslaved African's appearance a European slave owner may have used the term nappy.

As the word evolved in American language, you can find in some English and online dictionaries the term nap, which derived from the Old English term noppe. This definition states that a nap is a "wooly or villous surface of felt, cloth, or plant, etc." The correlation between this definition and a general description of African and African-American hair is not lost. The texture of natural Black hair, without straightening chemicals, has been compared to wool for generations, in fact centuries. Even the Bible describes the hair of Jesus as wool. Don't clutch your cross! I'm not saying Christ wore an afro or locks, I'm saying, according to King James, he couldn't have worn a pony tail. Da Vinci has most of the world fooled.

Now let's fast-forward several more generations in the evolution of the term nappy. This is where modern culture comes into play. According to urban legend a nap is the little puff of cotton found at the base of the cotton plant. Because that little puff reminded someone of the tightly curled hairs at the base of the neck and around the hairline of African-Americans the word stuck. On the surface it seems to be a harmless and accurate description Black hair. So why get mad at Imus? Because, since the existence of enslaved Africans in America, the texture of Black hair has been viewed as something ugly, dirty, unkempt, and a threat to the European comb. Nappy hair was a reminder of the true origins of Black people and thus deemed inferior by Whites. Nappy hair was then something to be ashamed of and when possible treated with chemicals to make it tame and easier to comb. Psychological the damage was done. As Indie Arie states in her song, I Am Not My Hair to have nappy hair meant you looked like a slave. And once mixed race children began playing in the slave quarters, the distinction of their hair texture and skin tone determined whether they would work in the field or in the big house. And thus the origins of "good" verses "bad" hair and "jigaboo" versus "wannabe" began.

My Nappy ROOTs addresses these issues and their history and attempts to redefine nappy as a positive not a negative. But with all the strides that have been made in race relations in this country, seemingly a film like ours would not be needed, right? WRONG! Obviously, there is a great need for films like ours not only to educate some and remind others of American history but to demonstrate to everyone how far we still have yet to go in truly understanding each other.

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