Origins of the Word 'Nappy'

Don Imus' reference to the Rutgers Women's Basketball team as "nappy-headed hoes" has led to outrage and Imus' firing. But what does the word "nappy" actually refer to?

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

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I'm Alex Chadwick.

CBS fired Don Imus yesterday for his racial slur last week. But part of his legacy may now be adding a new N-word to the list of phrases that are off limits in public discourse. But as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates though found someone with a completely different point of view about the word nappy.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: There are tons of beauty salons in Los Angeles but only one that answers the phone like this.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. ROSARIO SCHOOLER-UKPABI (Owner, Oh! My Nappy Hair Salon): Oh! My Nappy Hair.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's right. Rosario Schooler-Ukpabi's salon, devoted to the care and styling of natural hair, is called Oh! My Nappy Hair. As this week's news has shown, nappy is a loaded word. But Schooler-Ukpabi says nappy in and of itself is not a problem.

Ms. SCHOOLER-UKPABI: Nappy is the N-word that everybody can use. Nappy is a positive word. It's just a word that represents curly hair. It's not a word that we have to hide behind. The problem comes when you use it as an adjective to a negative.

GRIGSBY BATES: A negative that suggests one charges by the hour for physical intimacy. For decades, calling a black woman's hair nappy was a deep insult. Schooler-Ukpabi says that aversion to phenotypically sub-Saharan African hair was part of black Americans' embarrassment over our enslaved past, a time when black was often equated with semi-human.

Ms. SCHOOLER-UKPABI: Apparently somewhere we figured that the tighter the curl, the more we wanted to hide, because we were looking to be a part of the European world. We wanted - it was acceptable to have straight hair.

GRIGSBY BATES: So there were hot combs and curlers, potent straightening pastes and blow dryers. Schooler-Ukpabi was one of those women who straightened until, in her former life as a photographer, she did a group portrait of six black women for Essence magazine; all of them wore dreadlocks. It inspired her to go natural and help other women to do it too.

Ms. SCHOOLER-UKPABI: When I decided to do a hair salon, I wanted to take some of our culture and I wanted to highlight it and be positive about who we were.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. SCHOOLER-UKPABI: Oh! My Nappy Hair.

GRIGSBY BATES: Voila. Over the years, Schooler-Ukpabi built up a devoted clientele of happily nappy clients. And sometimes, she says, new clients just walk in off the street, pulled in by the use of the formerly taboo word in her salon's title.

Ms. SCHOOLER-UKPABI: They'll come in and they'll come to me and they'll go I don't know why I'm here, but I saw your salon and it's just like kind of magnetic. I want to - and I said I know exactly what you want. You want to breakaway from the tradition of straightening your hair.

GRIGSBY BATES: In fact, some people with straight hair come to get nappy.

Ms. SCHOOLER-UKPABI: We have a lot of Japanese and Chinese and Hispanics who come wanting dreadlocks.

GRIGSBY BATES: Nappy for them, says Schooler-Ukpabi, isn't a turnoff but a turn-on. Schooler-Ukpabi says the preoccupation with straight hair goes well beyond the black community. Women with kinky, frizzy hair who were Jewish, Italian and Greek shared their stories with her.

Ms. SCHOOLER-UKPABI: We had a conversation yesterday. And the ladies were telling me that they're more accepted in the white world with straight hair.

GRIGSBY BATES: The tradition of the northern European aesthetic is tough to shake, but Schooler-Ukpabi is doing her best to do just that. The icon for Oh! My Nappy Hair is a little black girl with an untamable shock of nappy hair and wide, wide eyes, a little girl that the stylist says reminds her a little of herself, a controversial image she was all for embracing.

Ms. SCHOOLER-UKPABI: When I picked the picaninny for the little girl to be representative, I felt that it would be apropos to be utilized with the word nappy. So to take these things and put them together, I felt that it was a positive.

GRIGSBY BATES: Her clients must agree, because the phone's been ringing steadily ever since and Rosario Schooler-Ukpabi is living nappily ever after.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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