Last week The Root published “The Nappyheaded Black Male Revolution Is On”—a piece articulating my reasons for deciding to grow my hair out, and also tying this decision to a trend I’ve observed over the last couple of years, in which young black men seem to be experimenting with and embracing new hairstyles. The piece was originally published at 1839, where it received a positive reception. (As it did at The Root.)
Actually, let me rephrase that. It received a mostly positive reception. Not completely. And it seems like most of the negative reaction had to do with the use of the word “nappy.”
From The Root’s Facebook page, where the piece was posted:
Nappyheaded??? The other ‘N’ word. Our oppressors used that word to describe the unique texture of our hair. Our hair is not ‘nappy’ its NATURAL!!!! I would implore the author of this article to change the word from ‘nappy’ to NATURAL!!!!
There were many others like it.
‘Nappy black male’ are you kidding me! Find another word to describe our hair
How dare you call someone’s hair nappy? When God created man in His image, He blessed that man and said it was good! That would include the very hairs on His man's head. If God said it is good, don't you ever call someone's hair NAPPY! Get out of that colonialism mindset and the brainwashed ideal of beauty! The nerve!
Nappyheaded?? Seriously? That reference alone made me have no interest in the article.
Now, I am a person who Writes Things On The Internet. And as a person who Writes Things On The Internet, I’m fully aware that one of the first rules of Writing Things On The Internet is that you can’t be thin-skinned. And usually I read criticism the same way I read sports box scores. (“Oh, Carmen from Brooklyn said my piece was ‘dum-ass hell’ yesterday. She misspelled dumb.”)
That said, sometimes it strikes a nerve, and the negative reaction some had to the use of “nappy” definitely did. Particularly because it made me wonder if I was ignorant of the word’s etymology. Was it truly “the other ‘N’ word,” as the Facebook comment suggested, and did I use that loaded word too flippantly? Or, perhaps, did it just have a negative connotation for many of us because of what the word has represented historically? Have we been conditioned to consider “nappy” an insult for so long that the criticism stemmed from an inability to consider “nappy” to be a positive thing?
Now, it is true that “nappy” has been used as an insult, like many other terms with any association with “blackness” or “the state of being a black American”—including the word “black” itself. My dad (who is 68) has told me more than once that, when he was a child, calling another black person “black” (e.g., “You black-ass liar”) was one of the worst insults you could deliver. My own recollections of high school bus rides and cafeteria “ripping sessions” are peppered with memories of “black” being added to an insult to make it really stick. Basically, you’d have one black person using “black” as an effective insult against another black person, in front of an audience of black people who’d verify the insult’s effectiveness by laughing at that person’s blackness.
This negative association with blackness is so deep, so pervasive, that it permeates all facets of life. There are still many black Americans who consider dark skin to be inherently unattractive. S—t, there are some of us who have so internalized the idea that “black” equals “wack” that we carry that skepticism to any and everything black, including black-owned businesses and black-managed publications.
Our hair is one of the more unambiguous characteristics that distinguish us from nonblack people, and this hair has a nuanced, contentious, oft-politicized and powerful history. And for the first couple hundred or so years of our existence here, it has not been given a positive reception. Decades ago, the word “nappy” became a colloquial way to describe the tightly wound and coiled texture associated with black hair. Naturally, since having black hair was not considered to be a good thing, the word used to describe black hair was considered—and used as—an insult. That context in mind, it is understandable why some of us would recoil at the use of that word in a positive manner.
Understandable, but wrong.
“Nappy” is not an inherently negative word. It just has a historically negative connotation because it’s describing something that has had a historically negative association. But if you do not consider having traditionally black hair to be a negative thing, then describing someone’s hair as “nappy” is not an insult. It’s no different from saying “curly” or “kinky” or “frizzy” or “coarse” or “straight”—all words that describe hair in its natural state.
I have nappy hair. As does my wife, who has been growing her locks for over a decade. We are expecting our first child in December, and if this girl is anything like her parents, she, too, will be brown-skinned, and she, too, will have a head full of thick, healthy, kinky and tightly wound hair. And one day, when she’s at school or at the store or at the playground, someone might refer to her hair as “nappy.” And she’ll ask me how she should respond.
And I’ll say, “The next time someone says that to you, say ‘I know! Thanks!’”
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.