Natural, Not Nappy: Surviving Back-handed Compliments On My Kinky, Curly Mane

Denene_Afro

The thing of it is, I’ve had natural hair for about 12 years now—years before Shea Moisture and Miss Jessie’s found a home on Target’s shelves, long before YouTube birthed a nation of natural hair stars, eons before Solange became the patron saint of afros and anyone thought kinks cute, fashionable and manageable. I remember the groans I’d get when I walked into hair salons full of stylists who specialized in fried, dyed and laid to the side. All of them were blacker than me, but none of them knew thing one about how to wash, dry and style black girl curls. I remember, too, the evil eyes I’d catch from sisters and brothers at work; you would have thought my choice to wear my hair the way it grew out of my head put their jobs in jeopardy.

Basically, I’m a natural girl from way back; wearing my hair in afros and Bantu knots and twist-outs and cornrows is not some trend for me. I did daily battle in my quest to wear my kinky hair. My scars tell that story.

And though, all these years later, we are at a place in time where we can finally look across a room full of black folk and see just as many sisters fiercely rocking natural hair as we can those fiercely rocking relaxed tresses and weaves, we’ve still got some serious work to do. Not everybody is up on the natural hair protocol.

Case in point: this weekend, while I was out at a function enjoying the fruits of a bountiful buffet, out of nowhere, a woman—old enough and black enough to know better—reached her gnarled fingers deep into my afro and announced with much gusto and might: “I just love all this nappy hair.”

Dead Fish Eyes.

“I know I’m not supposed to be touching your hair like this, but…” she continued, her fingers picking at my hair as I stood, immobilized. Mute.

My entire body stiffened. My eyes temporarily crossed with rage. It was everything for me not to grab hold of her wrist and snap off her offending hand. I was two seconds off recreating that scene in The Color Purple—the one where Ms. Sophia cusses the white woman for suggesting her babies were cute enough to be her maids.

Alas, I did no such thing. She was, after all, an old black lady. You don’t cuss them out. You don’t slap them. You don’t sassmouth them or correct. You say, “Thank you,” and let them be.

At least that’s how Bettye Millner raised me.

But what I really wanted to tell her was that calling my hair “nappy” and touching me the way she did was offensive. As racially charged as some Confederate flag waving red neck calling me a “nigger.” Except worse. Because from the red neck, I expect that kind of talk. Not so much from the lips of an old black woman, chocolate, gray-haired with locs.

Maybe, like the white woman in The Color Purple, she meant well. Had good intentions. But really, what she did in just a matter of moments was seriously fray 12 years of pride—unearth generations of pain that black people have unleashed on their children and their children’s children and their nieces and nephews and child charges for just… being.

Her utterance of that one word—that one backward compliment—took me right back to my days as a child when I was warned to stay out of the sun and the pool, lest I get blacker, and told to stop eating so much, less my ass and hips get bigger. It reminded me of how I was encouraged to break the rules and get that relaxer every four weeks instead of the recommended six, because my hair was too thick and unmanageable and “nobody needs to see all those naps on your roots.” That woman’s backhanded compliment brought me right back to the day I stopped talking to my brother for three months after he teased my baby for having “nappy, nappy, nappy hair.”

To me, saying such things is akin to black-on-black crime.

It is an insult.

And painful.

And when it comes from an old black woman, it’s as if she’s looking deep down into you—into your soul. Like she’s judging my grandmother for raising my mother to raise a daughter who would walk out of the house looking like that. And there’s nothing you can do about it because, well, who checks old black women?

Nobody.

I guess at 12 years in, with all the natural hair rah-rah going on, I thought we’d evolved.

Clearly, we have not.

And that is the shame of it all.

RELATED POSTS:

1. The Joys (And Pains!) Of Kinky Black Girl Hair
2. The Attack Against Black Girl Beauty
3. A Beautiful Black Girl Finally Says, “I Love My Hair!” 
4. Little Black Girls With Natural Hair: Lessons On Touching, Rocking and Loving Kinks & Curls
5. WTF: Mom Straightens 4-Month-Old Black Baby’s Hair—She Is Decidedly NOT Happy Her Girl Is Nappy

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

19 Comments

  1. Denene,

    I echo your frustration and disappointment. When I transitioned from relaxer to natural 5 years ago, I was not immune to the fact that I my decision was opening the door to the ignorant views of some. What I did not expect is for those ignorant few to be members of my family. For 5 years now I have heard them say everything from, “why don’t you put a texturizer in it so that it’s easier to handle” to “It would probably be cute if you wore it low instead of letting it grow and get out of hand”. Yes, to my dismay I was preparing to battle co-workers, my boss and college classmates, but I never expected to be hurt by my family. When will the self-hatred of our own image end?!

  2. Hmmm…”old black woman, chocolate, gray-haired with locs.” Using the word “nappy” may have felt liberating, and maybe she thought she was evoking solidarity between you two natural-wearing sisters. I don’t know…I’ve been natural since 1991, and I’ve seen all kinds, and heard many things about my hair. The most interesting thing for me (or it used to be anyway) is that I don’t have any natural worries or concerns (and that I’m not really even considered natural) because my hair has a larger curl pattern than some. I am amazed at the revolution we see today. I am proud of it, but I guess it’s not enough for us to get pass the scars associated with the word “nappy.”

  3. …I have to ask. What did you mean when you said the hairdressers were blacker than you?

  4. Wow… you almost brought me to tears. I’m reading this from the perspective of a White woman with thick curly hair that my mom couldn’t handle (so I have a personal understanding of the practical frustration, although I know it’s nothing compared to cultural/social frustration you’ve experienced) whose 1 year old son is Black with super tight curls. I think I’ve been so intent that I will learn to keep his hair natural and let it grow, partially because I want him to love his hair in a way that I never could (and partially because I just think he looks adorable with his twists!). Yet, I am reminded by your post of how it’s even more important for me as a White person to be extra careful with the words I use and the work I do with his hair. Thank you for sharing.

  5. 12 years of liberation cannot over power decades of emotional, physical and psychological unconscious oppression. I find many people that do not understand or care to understand natural hair are not conscious of themselves. This story made me cringe.

  6. Denene, I am usually in agreement with your posts however this one made me cringe and not because an elder black woman touched your hair.

    Although she shouldn’t have touched your hair without your permission, maybe she as a fellow natural thought that your concept of nappy was not the old, tired, and divisive one. I wrote in my hair blog about the Defense of Nappyness because I am personally tired of the stigma of the word nappy. It’s not a bad word, unless you let it be’ the roots of the word are benign. http://naturalblkgirl.blogspot.com/2012/08/in-defense-of-nappyness.html

    Also, as Brooke alluded, what does the shade of brown of the hairstylists have to do with their knowledge or lack of knowledge of natural/nappy hair? Unfortunately, most black women are still relaxed although the natural ranks are swelling. So, most people (even stylists) only know how to obliterate the naps and not coax them into beautiful styles. Also in cosmetology school there is little to no training on black natural, kinky, coily, curly, or nappy hair.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      Brooke, K. Nicole and Liane,

      Thank you for your comments—they are much appreciated, as is the perspective you bring. But it’s just that—YOUR perspective. I do not consider the way I feel about the word “nappy” to be “old, tired and divisive.” I consider it REAL, rooted and wrapped in a lifetime of negativity. “What you gonna do with that nappy ass hair”—I heard that countless times growing up. Heck, I’ve heard it as a grown woman with children. There is nothing endearing, special, sweet, gentle, kind or motherly in the way it was said then, and I feel the same is true today. It’s great that she was enlightened and comfortable enough in herself to wear locs, but if she were really conscious, she would have known that the word “nappy” still has negative powers for some—enough that using it randomly and at will to characterize a stranger’s hair simply may not go over well. I happen to be of the ilk who feels that telling me that I should “embrace” the word nappy is just as ridiculous as telling me that my embracing the words “nigga” and “bitch” is empowering. There is nothing powerful about holding onto those words—erasing the century of hate and history that accompanies each of them. I’m just not down for that. Period.

      As for the color of the hairdresses: I pointed out it out because, frankly, I’m disgusted when a black woman who professes to be an expert in haircare doesn’t know how to care for our hair as it is, growing out of our heads—especially when she’s a black woman. They’re not being taught in the cosmetology school how to care for their own hair and hair like it? Be industrious: find one that will teach you. Or heck, go onto YouTube like every other natural sister on the planet and figure it out. But don’t turn your nose up at me, roll your eyes and put your hands in my hair like you’re disgusted and it’s a problem that my hair is kinky and you’ve never, ever in your entire life so much as touched let alone styled black girl hair in its natural state. Again, I’ve been at this for 12 years—well before it was cute and trendy to rock a natural. I’ve had hairdresses sneak relaxer into my hair (!), complain about my hair (!), claim they knew how to press it and then burn the crap out of it with too-hot hot combs (!). You name it, I’ve been through it with “hairstylists.” Thank God I finally have someone who knows how to do my hair and actually LIKES doing it and respects my decision to wear my hair natural (shout out to Jamilah Long!), but it took me forever to find her—and a whole lot of trial, error and nastiness to get to her.

      Again, I respect each of your opinions. But I do have the right to mine—to feel the way I feel about it—without being called “old” or “tired” or “out of touch.”

  7. Like K. Nicole in the comment above I usually agree with your POVs, but not this time. I understand that your anger comes from deep accumulated psychic pain – but the old lady’s intention was not to harm. She rocks locks herself, and she LOVES your hair. Look beyond the words to the spirit. She’s on your side. She has diffused the negative power of the word ‘nappy’ and embraced it, subverted it to reflect a certain aesthetic that she loves. Hopefully certain words will lose their emotional charge for our children and grandchildren and they’ll be able to just accept a compliment and move on.

    (This comes from an 11-year veteran of natural hair who often has to contend with people asking when I’m going to ‘do something’ with my hair.)

  8. Denene, you’ve lumped my name in a response that certainly cannot be for me. I didn’t criticize how you felt about the word nappy at all. How you feel is how you feel. Only you can get to the root of it and be a peace with it, or not. I was merely pointing out to you what the older woman may have been feeling herself. Just to invite you to see her side of it, just in case you hadn’t considered it.

    Now your response about how black the hairdressers were doesn’t address how offensive the statement was, but I think you are dealing with some very personal things related to this incident. We all have our own baggage to unload, and battles to fight. I am not here to fight you, I never have been.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      Brooke,

      You asked a question. I answered it. Sorry if my answer doesn’t satisfy you, but it is what it is. Don’t worry, I don’t have my dukes up. As I stated above, I have nothing but respect for your opinion. You have the right to it.

  9. Denene,
    I loved your post! I laughed and emphasized with your hurt and disappointment…the Ms. Sophia reference was hysterical…you’re wrong for that!

    I applaud you for having the guts to be natural long before it was vogue.

    A few years ago my sister abandoned the chemical devil aka relaxer as part of a black pride self discovery movement. At the time I thought she’d lost her mind but I still supported her decision to try something new. But we clashed because she began criticizing my dependence to chemical processing to achieve what she called the white standard of beauty. Needless to say our relationship suffered. Last year she got married and rocked her beautiful afro with a Vera Wang gown…she was stunning!

    I’ve had shoulder length hair for more than 10 years faithfully relaxing every 6 weeks, but a few months ago out of the clear blue I chopped it off…that was the beginning of my TRANSITION.

    Natural is the new normal! After relaxing for more than 20 years I was just curious to see what my real hair looked like. More than that, I want to be a good role model for my baby girls. 3 months into this journey I’m learning to embrace the strong often unmanageable hair God gave me. Now I’m in chartered territory pairing headbands and barrettes with pant suits…but it’s all good. All around me I surrounded by career women of color proudly rocking their natural tresses!

    We may have a way to go, but smile and appreciate how far we’ve come! It’s truly beautiful and so are you. Keep up the excellent work you’re inspiring:)

  10. Nappy means a piece of yarn,that was passed down from the.
    british. The british then came to america,then used it against black slaves. Black slaves at were hurt by the word then started to use that against there owned people. It stuck in American to dsy because of the word that has been used for centurys. I look up black culture it said that before slavery alot of culture in west africa loved there hair,and thought of it as art. It was a dishonor to cut there hair off. White people new that and when black slaves arrived in america there hair was cut of ,to stop any since of pride. Our ideas to our hair has never been the same.

  11. You are a BEAUTIFULLY natural sister! I’m 15 years into my natural and, like you, I STILL get all kinds of crazy comments from both black and white women. Some positive and others negative but what I know is…the opinions of others don’t have ANYTHING to do with ME. Their opinions have to do with their life experiences, confidence, self-esteem, and NOTHING to do with ME! For you to be 12 years into your natural, you are CONFIDENT about your decision, your look, your style. What others say is their issue. When older sisters who you might normally look to as mentors say ignorant things about your natural hair it should give you license to school them on the BEAUTY and HEALTH of natural hair. Maybe when she touches your natural hair, you can tell her “Thank you! I made a choice years ago to do what is healthiest for my hair. I don’t regret it for a minute!” and keep it movin’.

  12. I agree with a couple of others. Unless her tone said otherwise, nappy was being used as a compliment. It sounds like no one has educated her/updated her to understand that nappy is not accurate or complimentary. Hopefully, someone gently will in the future.

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