Friday, August 7, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: The trouble with reclaiming a socially-charged word

When I talk about my nappy hair, I know what I mean, but do you?
After viewing the trailer for Chris Rock's "Good Hair" comedy documentary--the black actresses talking about the pressure to straighten, wig and weave and how that effects everyday things like their sex lives; Rock's attempts to sell kinky hair to an aghast beauty supply store owner; an experiment showing the corrosive effect of the sodium hydroxide that most black women regularly put on their hair; a trip to India to see where the hair many black women covet comes from; Rock's sharing of his daughter's heartbreaking question, "Why don't I have 'good hair?'"--I felt kinda good about this film getting the social politics of black hair right. But I am a black woman who has embraced my natural hair and is well aware of the implications of nappiness. What Tami Said commenters, Sandy and Sassy J, raised some important concerns about Rock's movie: Even if the film "gets it," will the mainstream audience that will be drawn to the film by Rock's star power? Will they understand how sad it is that the mainstream and black communities demand that women with African ancestry erase an ethnic feature, risking health, esteem and intimacy just to fit within accepted European beauty standards? Or, will this comedy provide another opportunity to guffaw at black culture, titter at the social legacy of racism and exoticize black hair care?
The "Good Hair" trailer quotes Vanity Fair as dubbing the film "Hilarious!" Sassy J says, "Right."
What exactly does Vanity Fair find funny about "Good Hair?"
Yes, yes...I know Chris Rock is a comedian. I'm likely going to laugh a lot at this film when I see it. But will the mainstream audience and I be laughing at the same things? Will they be laughing with the film's African American protagonists or at them? This is always the problem when comedy dives into issues of race for a mainstream audience (Paging Dave Chappelle!).
This reminds me of two recent nap-related incidents. As you may have noticed, I embrace the word "nappy." My Merriam-Webster defines the word as meaning "closely twisted or curled." What's so wrong with that? The description is only derogatory if you believe that all beautiful hair is straight and silky. I do not and I reject the societal value that says this is so. Compared to other words that marginalized groups have worked to "take back," I think "nappy" is easy. Unlike embracing, say, "the n-word," which involves reinventing its definition, reclaiming "nappy" means only understanding that the word's definition never has been inherently negative.
So, I proudly wear my closely twisted curls--my nappiness. I even have a cute "I love nappy hair" tee that I wear on the weekends. Twice in recent weeks, a young, white woman has enthusiastically complimented me on my t-shirt. "I LOVE your shirt!" And a couple weeks ago, one added, "It's so FUNNY!"
Now, it is possible that these women in my 95+ percent white suburb have close relationships with black folks and understand the social message behind my shirt, that I'm not being ironic, but making a statement about self love. But I'm afraid that's not the case. I mean, what exactly is "funny" about saying that I love my curly, kinky tresses just the way they are? Would an "I love bouncing, blonde hair" shirt be as amusing? I could have asked--started a discussion about it. But it was awkward and in both cases I was in a store checkout line, so...I just mumbled a "thank you." 
I've stopped wearing my "nappy" shirt out and about, because I'm concerned that while I know what statement I'm making, too many folks on the receiving end won't. I hope Chris Rock's "Good Hair" doesn't suffer the same fate.

Chris Rock tackles "Good Hair"

I admit, when I first heard Chris Rock was doing this, I gave the project the side-eye (for reasons regular readers of the blog well know), but it looks like Rock may get it right:


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