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'Nappy Hair' author Carolivia Herron speaks at Roanoke College


Sheila  Ellis, roanoke.com, March 22, 2011

Carolivia Herron, author of the 1998 children's book "Nappy Hair," was the featured speaker Monday in a series of lectures and events at Roanoke College to celebrate Women's History Month.

When critically acclaimed New York Times best-selling English professor Carolivia Herron wrote the book "Nappy Hair," she didn't have a clue it would cause massive controversy.

She wrote the book as a way to teach students the rhythmic African call-and-response storytelling technique, she told a group of about 25 students Monday evening at Roanoke College.

Instead, it created national controversy in 1998 when a white teacher in a mostly black and Latino elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y., read it to her third-grade class. Parents called her racist and literally ran the teacher out of the school.

Herron joked that the incident not only put her on the New York Times best-seller list, but it also allowed her to retire from her job as a professor at California State University, Chico.

As part of a series of lectures and events to celebrate Women's History Month at the college, Herron was the featured speaker Monday evening. She shared her heritage and books in the lecture "Virginia Threads: The Jewish Africana Vision of Carolivia Herron." The event was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Hillel Jewish Student Group and Black Student Alliance.

The former Harvard University professor shared stories of her slave roots in Virginia, starting with a fair-skinned ancestor who in 1855 attended what is now Hollins University.

During an unexpected trip home to the outskirts of Richmond, the relative learned that she was black and she and her mother were slaves.

"Virginia is the state that enslaved my family," Herron said. "I still have a sense of contention and anger. But it is transforming slowly."

Herron discussed three threads of her life: listening, seeking and returning.

The themes have been illustrated through her books, including her debut novel, "Thereafter Johnnie," a semiautobiographical portrayal of black life; her critically acclaimed picture book "Nappy Hair;" and her latest children's book, "Always an Olivia," the story of Herron's Jewish ancestors from Tripoli, Libya, to the Georgia Sea Islands in the Americas.

She explained how she listened to stories from family members, sought more information and finally returned to her roots. She detailed her conversion from Baptist Christian to Jew.

In her book "Nappy Hair," the setting is a backyard picnic where the uncle of a little black girl named Brenda is talking about her hair.

"It's the nappiest, the curliest, the twistiest hair in the whole family," Herron read aloud to her audience Monday night, demonstrating the call-and-response technique.

"Brenda, you sure do got some nappy hair on your head don't you?

"Well.

"It's your hair, Brenda, take the cake.

"Yep.

"And come back and get the plate.

"Don't cha know."

While it seems that the family is making fun of Brenda's hair, in fact they are admiring it by uncovering its meaning, its strength and its African-ness, and affirming black beauty.

Herron said the character of Brenda is actually her.

Out of all her brothers and sisters, Herron ended up having the "nappiest" hair. Now her hairstyle is a short, gray Afro.

Since her book debuted in 1998, it has sold more than 150,000 copies internationally.

In subsequent years, the word "nappy" came into the national media spotlight once again as radio personality Don Imus referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team, which consisted of eight black and two white players, as "nappy-headed hos," in 2007.

On the other hand, there are now natural hair care shops that specialize in returning women's hair from chemically relaxed and straightened to its natural state. Videos can be found YouTube in which black women teach other women how to go from chemically straightened hair to naturally curly hair.

In 2010, a little brown Muppet girl became the latest YouTube rage as she danced about celebrating her Afro and singing "I Love My Hair."

Herron said her book sales picked up after the 1998 media blitz, and that the natural hair movement could be credited to the same coverage.

Although her book caused much controversy, Herron told the crowd she is no sociologist, and that she wrote the book for people to appreciate it for its artistic offerings.
(Tags: Books, African Culture)