Friday, January 31, 2020

Children's books and afro-textured hair controversies

When it comes to black hair discrimination, American culture gets easily tangled up.

Children's author Natasha Tarpley, on the occasion of the reissue of her children's book "I Love My Hair!" (Little, Brown) wrote an article that appeared the June 18, 2018 New York Times"Why Do Kids' Books About Black Hair Draw So Much Attention -- And Controversy?" In it, she discusses how we arrived at our present-day complexities:
... even depicting everyday black life, I learned, can be complicated —especially when it comes to black hair, which has been a virtual map of our history and experiences: from 15th-century West Africa, where as part of complex language systems hair was used to transmit information like social status and ethnic and clan affiliations; to the era of slavery, when along with our skin black hair became a primary target of a white society seeking to demoralize and dehumanize enslaved blacks; to the Afro, which became a symbol of rebellion and black power; to today’s natural styles, which embrace new perceptions of beauty. In 1998, there were concerns at my publishing house that “I Love My Hair!,” with masterly watercolor illustrations by E. B. Lewis that captured the beauty of an African-American girl and her warm family life, might be perceived as stereotypical because of her braids and cornrows.
Back in 1998 at the time "I Love My Hair!" was originally published, another children's book, “Nappy Hair” by Carolyn Herron sparked controversy and a national debate over the stereotypical implications of the word "nappy," which led in 1999 to the publication of bell hook's "Happy to be Nappy." Over twenty years later, the controversy over the word persists. Tarpley notes:
For some people, “nappy” still carries negative, racist connotations that stretch back to slavery ... But the current cultural trend seems to favor embracing and reclaiming the word as a positive description of black hair texture. 
I suppose it's not surprising that in the 21st century, discrimination against afro-textured hair has not abated all that much. Natural black hair styles can prompt job discrimination, and in 2014 "the Department of Defense issued a set of guidelines that banned all afros, dreadlocks, braids, and twists that were greater than ​1⁄4" in diameter." It can also be offensive when celebrities like Kim Kardashian wear such styles as Fulani Braids without acknowledging their cultural origins. (More on these and other black hair controversies found at Wikipedia.)

For children, the main thing is encouraging their empowerment and confidence in who they are, including in their hair. For a fun take on the subject, check out the 2008 Sesame Street song "I Love My Hair."

Also, in addition to Tarpley's "I Love My Hair!" here are some others she recommends:

  • 1979 classic “Cornrows,” by Camille Yarbrough, illustrated by Carole Byard
  • “An Enchanted Hair Tale,” (1987) by Alexis De Veaux, illustrated by Cheryl Hanna
  • “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” (2017) by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
  • “Princess Hair,” (2018) by author and illustrator Sharee Miller 
  • “My Hair Is a Garden” (2018) by Cozbi A. Cabrera
Special thanks to Natasha Tarpley and The New York Times for the great write-up and inspiration.