There is a big place in black America — partly generational, partly cultural — where nappy is the antithesis of how people wish to be perceived. Nappy is uncouth, unkempt, rough, dirty, uncivilized and ... well, African.
Traditionally, to call someone nappy-haired is an insult. The importance of not being nappy is evidenced by the plethora of black hair-care products on store shelves. Indeed, the first African-American millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker, made her fortune with the 1905 invention of a hair-straightening technique.
So when radio host Don Imus called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” on-air while watching a replay of their NCAA Women’s Championship game, he uttered fighting words.
Imus called them rough and unkempt — and sluts.
“The entire phrase, it’s like he went for the jugular on both accounts to call their morals into question,” Linda Jones, author of Nappyisms: Affirmations for Nappy-Headed People and Wannabes and founder of the Dallas-based Nappy Hair Affair Inc., told me in a phone interview. “Just the spin, the tone, the way that he used it was intended to be bad. The word hits a nerve because we’ve been conditioned to think that it’s unacceptable to be that way.”
The mostly African-American women of the Rutgers basketball team showed class throughout the ensuing maelstrom. In addition, there was little nappiness evident among them. Most of them seem to have hair that was relaxed or straightened in some manner.
“Obviously his powers of observation weren’t very good,” says Jill Nelson, journalist, activist and author of Straight No Chaser: How I Became a Grown Up Black Woman.
“He described black women for whom he has contempt. The truth had nothing to do with it. This is how he apparently sees African-American women. He doesn’t know them, he doesn’t try to know them, it had nothing to do with them.”
I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of the Imus in the Morning show simulcast on MSNBC because I found it boring. Why watch someone mumbling in front of a microphone? Never listened to him on CBS radio either. I gather that unless he had an important guest, most of the show was adolescent locker room stuff that involved belittling one group or another. The clip of Imus attacking the Rutgers women seemed like an episode of Mystery Science Theater in which viewers watch cartoon characters watching a lame movie and making lame comments about it.
The ensuing conflagration started as a slow burn, but, after a few days, protests and advertiser defections had fanned an inferno. Pundits and activists repeated the phrase over and over. These weren’t oblique “N-word” references. We had “nappy” and “ho” entering every orifice.
Imus, after insincerely bleating apologies and denying that he was a bad person, had his show suspended by MSNBC and CBS, then dropped by MSNBC and finally terminated by CBS. I believe those apologies were insincere because they were but part of a long string of apologies Imus has issued for repeated insults against African-Americans, Jews, Native Americans, Asians, gays and handicapped people.
“Who cares what’s in his heart? We can never know that,” says Steve Rendall, from the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). “But we can judge what he says on the air. That’s what his job is. ... He’s shown himself to be a sleazy bigot. He’s a liar.”
NBC News President Steve Capus insisted that Imus was dropped after discussions with network employees who pointed out that they were the “guardians of the good name of NBC News” and the “values set for that company.” He denied that he even knew that nearly 100 advertisers, such as General Motors, Staples, Sprint and Nextel, had decided to drop their sponsorships at the time the network decision was being made.
If that’s true, it was a great day for journalism when management actually listened to workers about the integrity of the news. Too many times over the past decade (and more), quality news operations have suffered because the parent corporation was more interested in profits than product. But I doubt Capus’ denials. At first I thought Imus would weather the storm because he was a big moneymaker. As soon as I heard that advertisers were defecting I knew he was toast.
But there was even more damning evidence against Imus. The April 12 Bob Herbert column in The New York Times quoted from a 1998 60 Minutes interview wherein Mike Wallace confronted Imus for having said that his associate, Bernard McGuirk, “is there to do nigger jokes.”
“The transcript was pure poison,” wrote Herbert. “A source very close to Imus told me last night, ‘They did not want to wait for your piece to come out.’”
MSNBC dropped Imus the night before the column was published. CBS radio dropped him the day it hit the streets. For a moment, much of America, left and right, came together to denounce Imus’ hatred.
What does it all mean? Will conservative pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter be muzzled? Will gangsta rappers stop referring to women as hos and advocating violence against them? Probably not.
For one thing, Imus committed the great sin of attacking a particularly innocent target. They weren’t politicians or activists or media personalities. They were college basketball players who had reached the pinnacle of their sport . Imus met with them after his firing to begin a discussion that must be sincere if he is ever to return to the air and reach the heights he once enjoyed. It’s probably the first time he has had to face the victims of his insults on neutral ground.
And we must continue discussing this once-taboo subject that’s become part of the national dialogue. It could lead us a step or two closer to locking up the sexist-racist demons that roam the land.
“It’s forced a discussion about sexism and racism and media and power, and I think that’s a good thing,” says Nelson.
The battle’s to be fought not just in the media, but in neighborhoods and communities everywhere. It’s less about ideology than changing peoples’ lives for the better. Jones, a former Detroiter, is one of those standing tall in the trenches every day. “Self-appreciation is the message I’m most interested in pushing,” she says. “It’s OK to be who you are. Embrace your own unique characteristics.”
For Jones that’s about being nappy. Her nappyhairaffair.com Web site is about the joy of community and self-esteem. Not that she lets a bigot like Imus off the hook.
“I’m using hair as a device to promote self-appreciation,” she says. “It’s not just about hair, not just about a hairstyle. The point is just to get us to appreciate ourselves. I like to say ‘Hairlelujah!’ That’s the joyful noise you make when you rebuke your perms and rededicate yourself to the kinks.”
Damn! I’m feeling good and nappy today.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org