To some Black people “nappy” is completely embraced with pride and with others it is held in complete contempt and shame. There has even been an attempt in recent years to reverse the negative feelings about the word and turn it into a positive one, but ONLY in Black circles. As a result, there are hair salons now named things like Oh My Nappy Hair, Nappily Ever After or A Nappy Hair Affair. Making use of the word, I’m sure, an even more complex issue for non-Blacks to comprehend.
Feelings about the word differ from person to person within the Black community. It also depends on who is using the word, if it’s being flung as an insult or if the word is being used with even the slightest endearment. Black people, especially Black women, sometimes will use the word in a lighthearted or joking way, such as a mother telling her child, “You’d better get your nappy headed self upstairs and do your homework”. However, let a White person say the same thing, even jokingly, and a riot may ensue.
The fact is that a lot of what Black people say and do is carried over from slavery and has been passed down from generation to generation. Much like is evidenced with the other, much stronger “N” word, Blacks have sought to find all sorts of twisted ways to make something ugly actually endearing depending on who, why and how it is said. In fact, pre-Mark Furhman and pre-NWA (rap group N_ggas With Attitude), the “N” word wasn’t much of a discussion in the Black community. Okay, maybe for about 5 minutes after Richard Pryor came back from Africa and decided he would stop using the word it was discussed, but as a Black child of the 60’s and 70’s, I don’t remember it being an issue again until the late 80’s (with NWA) and then it absolutely exploded with the Furhman incident. Before then, it was “our” word, we knew what it meant and how it was meant and if a White person said it it was always a slur.
Someone asked me when this word “nappy” became offensive. In my experience, it has always been offensive if tumbling from the wrong colored lips. It is also offensive if used as a deliberate insult by another Black person. Every time it is used, its value is determined by who is saying it and how it’s being said, but a White person can NEVER say it and not cause pain…even if that pain is silent and unintentionally inflicted.
See, it became offensive when our ancestors were brought to this country in chains and forced into slavery. To physically enslave a strong, pride-filled people, a certain psychological slaughtering had to take place at the same time. A complete assault was made on the self-esteem of Africans brought to America. West African associated features, such as nappy hair, broad noses, thick lips and, of course, dark skin were considered grossly unattractive and undesirable. America has never embraced the physical beauty of Black people, particularly that of Black women. Until recent medical advances, other features could not be changed, but Madame C.J. Walker during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s created a Black hair care industry that, to the relief of many, meant that Black hair could be re-styled to a more popular and socially acceptable form (i.e. straightened). Black hair no longer had to remain in its natural state and, for years, those who didn’t conform were the subject of ridicule and embarrassment for still naturally wearing their God-given gift of natural hair. In those early years, the ones who didn’t straighten didn’t necessarily do so to make a statement, but it was usually an issue of economics, class and so forth. So, again, there still existed the issue of nappy hair, but now it meant someone couldn’t afford available hair care products or it was assumed they didn’t care to groom themselves or that they didn’t know any better. This, then, begins the wedge between Blacks who straightened and Blacks who didn’t. Such is a major issue in the Black community even today.
Another part of this history lesson that bears discussing is that, throughout slavery, by rape and even natural relationships, a lot of Black children were produced with lighter skin, straighter hair, perceived “Whiter” features and the like. This is important to note because often this made the difference between the “house niggers” and the “field niggers”. (Sorry folks who cringe at that word…but history is history and that’s what they were and are called.) House “N’s” were held in higher esteem within the slave communities as they dealt with less strenuous labor, often received better food, clothing and rare privileges. And, since more often than not, they were related to the slavemaster, they were of mixed race and regarded as more attractive due to their different skin color, features and, you guessed it, hair texture. Hair has ALWAYS been a big deal in the Black community, because the slavemasters of old sold the idea that nappy hair was inferior in beauty, style and desirability. This is but one of a million issues that are still silently endured among Blacks today. Often people will say that slavery is over and Blacks need to get over it, but so much psychological damage has been done and it’s so deeply ingrained in our culture and history that it’s almost impossible to escape without scarring, bumps and bruises. It’s that attempt to recover that has created the nappy backlash. Some may say it’s just a word and cannot understand what the big deal is. But for Black Americans, especially Black women, the word “nappy”, like so many others that were used to demean and mentally enslave, has a heavy history and is not to be taken lightly.