Background of Nappy Hair Controversy

If you’re black, or if you have close friends who are black, you are familiar with the term “nappy hair”. Many blacks have nappy hair, and they describe it that way! Even some white folks have nappy hair. This book, “Nappy Hair”, is by a critically acclaimed black author. The book celebrates the differences and unique attributes of black people. Yet, when white teacher Ruth Sherman read this book to her third-graders she was pilloried by black and Hispanic community members who had not read the book.
April 4, 2007:
Don Imus
became the latest victim of racial over-sensitivity.
See the Imus story at the bottom of this post.
Who: Ms. Ruth Ann Sherman. Age 27, white, 3rd grade teacher.
Where: Brooklyn’s P.S. 75 in the Bushwick neighborhood, mostly black and Hispanic. Part of school district 32.
What: Taught her kids about accepting racial differences, as well as accepting their own unique racial traits. Used critically acclaimed children’s book in her lesson plan.
When: In September 1998 Ms. Sherman commenced her well-planned lesson in racial tolerance and acceptance. Her 3rd graders loved it. By late November 1998 misinformed members of the community demanded her ouster by the school board.
The Book: “Nappy Hair” – about a little girl with the “nappiest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted up” hair. Critically acclaimed as an excellent childrens’ book both for (a) black children for teaching about self-acceptance; and (b) all children (and adults!) for teaching acceptance of racial differences.
The Author: Carolivia Herron, age 52, black. Associate professor of English at Chico State University in California. Holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Herron thinks Ms. Sherman’s use of the book was perfectly appropriate and consistent with her own goals for the book.
In the Beginning: Ms. Ruth Sherman wanted to teach her 3rd graders about self-acceptance and acceptance of racial differences. She used the widely acclaimed book “Nappy Hair”, narrating it and acting it out in front of her class, to the delight of her young charges.

The entire exercise was intended to prepare the 3rd graders for a new group method of learning to read. Said Sherman “In order to do that successfully, the kids have to like each other and respect each other. That was the whole point of the lesson, for them to realize and appreciate the differences in each of us”. (Bergen Record)

One of the children’s parents happened upon several photocopied pages from “Nappy Hair” in her child’s folder, and – without bothering to read the book itself – duplicated the pages, including a not-too-complimentary note about the “white teacher” who had been teaching presumably demeaning, racist stereotypes to their black and Hispanic kids. The parent distributed this package of misinformation throughout the neighborhood to many families who did not even have children in Ms. Shaman’s’ class.

According to the Washington Post, Sherman said “The first I knew of the problem was when this parent came into my room and said she was surprised she didn’t see a white [Ku Klux Klan] hood on my desk”.

A racial imbroglio ensued. Neighborhood residents – mostly NOT parents of Ms. Sherman’s students – inundated the school with demands for her resignation for allegedly teaching derogatory racial stereotypes to the 3rd graders.

The school board convened a public meeting on Monday, November 23, 1998 at which residents of the Bushwick neighborhood, mostly black and Hispanic, hurled racial epithets and profanities at Ms. Sherman as well as verbally and physically threatening her.

One of the more printable terms they called her was “cracker”.

Ruth Sherman was not even allowed to speak by the angry mob. The principal was not allowed to speak. When the school librarian tried to show the crowd favorable reviews for the book she was shouted down. One woman shouted at Sherman “You better watch out!” Sherman asked if she was threatening her. The woman replied that it was no threat, it was a promise.

Ruth Sherman had to be spirited out a back way from the meeting by school officials who were afraid for her safety.

The outraged parents had two things in common: (1) They had not read “Nappy Hair”, and (2) They were not parents of Ms. Sherman’s students. But they had read the flyer and the note about “the white teacher” that had been distributed throughout the neighborhood.

School board officials mounted an investigation and within 24 hours determined that Ms. Sherman was completely innocent of any wrongdoing. They asked Ms. Sherman to stay with her 3rd grade class at P.S. 75, with additional security. She declined, extremely troubled by the image of going to and from school under guard, and teaching under guard.

As a good teacher, the idealistic 27 year old teacher feels badly for her former students. Sherman said: “The poor children must be so confused right now. Everything I tried to teach them about getting along and togetherness has been thrown right out the window.”

Some of her former students wept; both the students and their parents implored Ms. Sherman to stay. She could not: “I don’t want to teach in an area where people in the community think they can come out and threaten a teacher”, she said, referring to the outraged community members who did not have children in her class.

Ms. Sherman has transferred to another school in Queens, where the parents welcomed her with open arms.

Pertinent Quotes:

Carolivia Herron: Author of ‘Nappy Hair’. “The idea that this is a racist book is ridiculous! This book is a wonderful celebration of nappy, African-American hair.” Dr. Herron says that her inspiration for the book was the teasing story her uncle used to tell her about herself and her hair, beginning when she was 5 yrs. old. The uncle told her she had the “kinkiest, most screwed-up, squeezed-up, knotted-up, tangled-up hair”. Herron intended the book as an affirmation of unique black characteristics.
April 4, 2007:
Don Imus
became the latest victim of racial over-sensitivity.
See the Imus story at the bottom of this post.
Isoke T. Nia: The book “Nappy Hair” was recommended to hundreds of teachers by Ms. Isoke T. Nia, the black director of research and development at the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Ms. Nia is quoted as saying “There are things that blacks say in their homes about their hair, and this [book] is bringing it to the public. I’m surprised, astonished, and appalled. A line from the book says a lock of the child’s hair is the only perfect circle. What’s so bad about that?”

E. R. Shipp: Black editorial writer for the New York Daily News, Ms. E. R. Shipp, said about the pseudo-controversy: “Bah, humbug! Nappy hair has adorned my proud head for decades. Pride, of course, was not always associated with tightly curled, non-permed or processed hair. Neither dark skin nor nappy hair was cherished when I was an eighth-grader who wanted desperately to have my classmates say I was at least lighter-complexioned than Mary Alice Baker. She wanted the same at my expense. … But most black adults I know got over this silliness or grew up immune to it in the years that followed the Black Power Movement and its James Brown anthem “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud).”

The News Stories:

NYC removes teacher over ‘Nappy Hair’ book (AP, via Boston Globe 11/25/98 – dead)
“A white teacher who gave an acclaimed children’s book called ”Nappy Hair” to mostly black and Hispanic third-graders was removed from teaching yesterday, after parents complained and threatened her.

“The teacher, Ruth Sherman, 27, was transferred after a school meeting Monday night.

“The book is about a girl with the ”nappiest, fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted up” hair. It generally received rave reviews.

” ”The idea that it is a racist book is ridiculous,’ said the author, Carolivia Herron, who believes the book should be used to teach racial diversity. ‘This book is a wonderful celebration of nappy, African-American hair.’

[Teacher’s union spokesman Ron] Davis said parents at the meeting threatened Sherman, shouting things like, ‘Watch out!’ and ‘We’re going to get you!’ He said he believed the parents had not read the entire book, but had seen only a few pages or heard the title. Davis said the book ‘was meant to encourage appreciation of our cultural diversity and ethnic uniqueness.’ ” (Associated Press, via Boston Globe, 11/25/98)
[former link *]

Teacher in book flap weighs return to class (Bergen Record 11/27/98)
“A Brooklyn teacher is trying to decide whether she wants to continue working at a school where she says dozens of residents screamed racial epithets at her for using a book called ‘Nappy Hair’.” Teacher Ruth Sherman understandably feels vilified and victimized for attempting to help both white and black students understand and accept unique attributes of black people. The book in question, “Nappy Hair”, is a critically acclaimed children’s book by a black author.

” ‘I don’t want to teach in an area where people in the community think they can come out and threaten a teacher,’ Ruth Sherman said Wednesday, after school officials said she could return to work at P.S. 75 despite the controversy. The 27-year-old teacher, who is white, said she will make her decision before a Monday morning meeting at District 32 offices in Brooklyn. Under the union contract, teachers can request a transfer if they have been threatened.

“Sherman said school officials had to sneak her out of the school after one woman lunged at her and threatened: ‘You’d just better watch it.’

“The critically acclaimed children’s book at the center of the flap was written by black author Carolivia Herron, an associate English professor at California State University, Chico. The author, reached in California, said the teacher used the book exactly as she had intended: to celebrate racial diversity and teach children to be proud of who they are.” (Associated Press, via the Bergen Record, 11/27/98)
[link ]

Teacher threatened over Nappy Hair book requests transfer (FoxNews, AP 11/30/98 – dead link)
“A white teacher accused of racial insensitivity for reading a book titled ‘Nappy Hair’ to her black and Hispanic pupils requested a transfer out of her Brooklyn school district, saying she fears for her life. ‘I can’t take the fear and wondering every day what might happen’, Ruth Sherman said. (Associated Press 11/30/98, via FoxNews, by Judie Glave)
[former link **]

Story Hour Didn’t Have a Happy Ending (dead link; Washington Post 12/03/98)
“[3rd grade teacher Ruth] Sherman’s troubles began right away last September [1998] with ‘Nappy Hair’, a book written by an author born in the District [of Columbia]. Sherman chose the story because she thought it would change her students’ lives. She regaled her class with the story of a little black girl with ‘the nappiest, fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted hair’. She said they loved it so much ‘they clamored for copies to carry with them’. An eager new teacher, she made some.

“Two months later, just before Thanksgiving break, a parent found a pack of pages from ‘Nappy Hair’ in her daughter’s folder. The title did not make her happy, according to Board of Education spokesman J.D. LaRock, who explained that she and some other parents at the predominantly black and Hispanic school interpreted ‘Nappy Hair’ as a racial slur.” (Washington Post 12/03/98, page A03, by Liz Leyden)
[former link **]

A sad, predictable story (The Bergen Record 12/06/98)
“It was such a sad story. It spoke volumes about the state of race relations in America. It happened in Brooklyn, in a public school in a black and Hispanic neighborhood, Brunswick. A third-grade class has a new teacher. Her name was Ruth Sherman. She was white, 27 years old, 6 feet tall, and brimming with enthusiasm.

“She assigned a book for her class to read. The title was ‘Nappy Hair’. It told the story of a little black girl with curly hair, African-American hair.” A student’s mother who briefly looked over a few copied pages from the book that her daughter had been given to read became incensed. She made leaflets of the pages, and included an uncomplimentary note about the ‘white teacher’ who was teaching negative racial stereotypes. She distributed these flyers to the Bushwick community, many of whom were not parents of students in Ms. Sherman’s 3rd grade class. (Bergen Record 12/06/98, by James Ahearn)
[link ]

A Bitter Lesson in Bushwick (NY Post Editorial – dead)
“Brooklyn teacher Ruth Sherman has just learned an old lesson the hard way: When bad people are intent on provoking racial conflict, what matters to them is not the content of your character, but the color of your skin.

“Sherman is the now-suspended PS 75 teacher who shared a book called ‘Nappy Hair’ with her students in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Sherman’s intent was to use the book to stimulate an interest in reading among her class of mostly black and Latino third-graders by using a book whose avowed purpose is to get kids to celebrate ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’. For her pains she got death threats, was thrown out of her classroom, suspended from her job, and branded a racist.” (New York Post editorial)
[former link *]

Intimidated Teacher Welcomed at Queens School (NY Daily News 12/8/98)
“Dogged by two weeks of controversy over her use of the book ‘Nappy Hair’ in a Brooklyn school, teacher Ruth Sherman yesterday smiled as she described her first day at a Queens school. ‘It was beautiful, it was marvelous’, Sherman said of her morning at Public School 131 in Jamaica Estates.

“Sherman, who requested a transfer from PS 75 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, after several parents threatened her for using the book, spent yesterday buying supplies and meeting her new class of second-graders. ‘She was nice to us, she likes the children’, said Muhammad Rahman, 7, a student in Sherman’s spelling class. ‘Maybe she could go with us to a trip tomorrow because she is really good’.

“Parents with children at the multi-ethnic school welcomed the new teacher and said the ‘Nappy Hair’ controversy that drove her out of Bushwick was unnecessary.” (New York Daily News 12/08/98, by Martin Mbugua)
[link ]

Nappy Protesters are the Racists (New York Daily News 12/21/98)
“The controversy reveals more about the protesters than the book. They are racists who say that, even if the book isn’t so bad, how dare a white teacher read it to black children!”

“That they [the Bushwick residents] were way out of line and even farther off-base should be evident to anyone this side of a coma. But that so many people could react so hysterically on the basis of so little information is alarming.

“How many people actually read ‘Nappy Hair’ before yelling that this delightful children’s book was racially derogatory? Or before insisting that for any white teacher to read it to a black child is the equivalent of singing the turn-of-the-century song ‘Pickaninny Paradise?’ ” (Opinion by nationally known black author Ms. E.R. Shipp; NY Daily News 12/21/98)
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END of the Original ‘Nappy Hair’ Controversy.

The Don Imus Non-Controversy

Shock jock? Don Imus? That 67 year old middle-of-the-road talk show guy? That gives real shock jocks like Howard Stern a bad name!

The first time I ever heard old man Imus referred to as a “shock jock” was after the whole, silly nappy headed ho’ non-controversy.
On his show on Wed., April 4, 2007 Imus was discussing the athletic prowess of the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team, many of whom happen to be black. (You don’t say!)

Nappy Hair
Nappy Hair Background
If you happened to hear the exchange live, you might have thought the whole thing was rather benign, almost like Imus was trying to compliment the Rutgers women’s basketball team for their toughness while at the same time doing a very bad imitation of the language of hip-hop and gansta rap.

Here’s the exchange between Imus and producer Bernard McGuirk:

IMUS: “That’s some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos…”

MCGUIRK (interrupting): “Some hardcore ho’s…”

IMUS (picking up the ‘ho’ theme): “That’s some nappy-headed ho’s there, I’m going to tell you that.”

Of course, hip-hop “artists” use much more vile, offensive, and violent “lyrics” in referring to black women.

And the two leading racial charlatans who led the hue and cry to get Imus fired are none other than Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Al Sharpton has a lot of nerve criticizing Imus when Sharpton himself has never apologized for inventing the fictitious rape of Tawana Brawley, thus impugning the reputations of lots of innocent people. Sharpton may also be the only black man in the U.S. in 2007 who has his own naps straightened.

Jesse “Just Me” Jackson who insulted New York’s substantial Jewish population by referring to the city as “Hymie Town”. Jesse “Its All About Me” Jackson who has been investigated by the IRS more times than the Mob for his, um, questionable use of the funds he extorts from corporate America.

Do you detect a BIG credibility gap here?

As for the women of the Rutgers basketball team, who are no doubt fine young women, I find it difficult to believe that none of them have ever referred to each other as either having nappy hair, or as a “ho”, or perhaps even as both.

Those of you in the “white” world who actually have close relationships with any black folks already know all about the word “nappy”. It refers to the tightly curled, kinky hair that many blacks have. Big deal.

And those of you who have the bad taste to listen to hip-hop and gangsta rap have undoubtedly heard not only “ho” used to describe black women, but a lot worse.

— Tim Fay, Editor