In the wake of my conversation with J.'s teacher, I found myself wondering if she might have meant that his hair was .... well, you know, that n-word: nappy. I'm going to talk about this word throughout this post, because it seems unavoidable--I have to call a spade a spade. However, I know the word can have negative connotations, especially when used by a white person, and I apologize if I cause offense.
Once this thought--that J.'s hair might be "nappy"--I realized that I had only a very hazy notion of what that word meant, and that I had no idea what the difference was--if there even was a difference--between curly hair and nappy hair.
So a good friend and I embarked on some research. And the more I read, the more, erm, humbled, I felt.
Here are some of the definitions I came across:
- word used to describe tight kinky Black hair
- hair that is short and tightly coiled
- having many coils, curls, spirals, and bends
- tightly coiled / curled unaltered hair. coiled hair in its natural state
And here is how I described J.'s hair in my prior post:
- tiny little corkscrews that coil like tight springs
Ahem. You'll note the similarities between their language and mine. It turns out that J.'s hair is the definition of nappy.
I had no idea.
See, on the playgrounds I grew up on, nappy was not a good thing. I didn't have a good sense of what it meant, but I knew that it had something to do with being messy and unkempt and maybe even a bit dirty. And it turns out that I'm not alone in having negative associations. My Webster's defines nappy as "kinky: said esp. of the hair of blacks and used derogatorily or contemptuously." Urban dictionary includes this definition: "one of African desent who has tightly coiled unkept hair; one with locks of hair that is tightly curled that is unwashed and uncombed" and this definition: "a black persons hair that is not kept up with, or dirty," as well as a host of other "definitions" that are truly ugly (please do yourself a favor and trust me on this--it's a site you should skip). Because J.'s hair is lovely, and clean, and neither messy or unkempt, I thought that his hair couldn't possibly be nappy. How I learn.
So, is there any difference between nappy and curly? I asked my friend. We researched some more. My friend concluded "It seems like, if a black person has curly or kinky hair, it is nappy by definition." That jived with what I saw, too: that the choice of one word over the other seems to have everything to do with the color of the person who owns the hair in question. On at least one black haircare site, curly is clearly distinguished from nappy with questions like "how do I make my nappy hair curly?"
But at the same time, I see plenty of evidence on the web that the word nappy is being reclaimed. And I'm so glad. I'm glad, too, that natural hair seems to be making a return, and I'm so struck by how powerfully validating the decision to go natural seems to be for so many black women.
What difference does it make to me to know J.'s hair is nappy rather than curly? Not much. Except that I feel (a little) less like Clueless White Mom. I love his hair. Call it curly, I'll love it. Call it nappy, I'll love it. Can a rose by any other name smell as sweet? You betcha.