Book review: “Happy to be Nappy” by bell hooks

by Tami Winfrey Harris

“Girlpie hair smells clean and sweet.”

I wish I could have read that opening line from bell hooks’ “Happy to be Nappy” (Hyperion Children’s Books, Ages 4 to 8 ) back in the summer of 1977, when my long, thick hair was cut into a short natural.

Back then, as too often is the case now, properly caring for black girl hair meant “taming” and straightening it, hiding its natural spirals, kinks and curls. My thick, long hair refused to be tamed, so, exasperated, my mother took me to get a perm relaxer. Like fellow guest contributor Deesha Philyaw and jillions of other young black girls, I had learned to covet silky, long locks. Now I had them. And I loved it.

Then it happened. The chemicals from the relaxer began to eat away at the back of my hair until my tresses were so uneven that I had no choice but to cut them all off and start over again. My mother tried to make the haircut less traumatizing. She took me to a fancy salon on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and I got my ears pierced, too. In the late 70s, the afro was still a popular style, but the women in my life who were considered beautiful, including my mother and my grandmother, had long, straight hair. My favorite baby doll had a shiny, blond crop. As you can see from the photo above, my hair could not have been more different. And I hated it.

“Happy to be Nappy,” written by author and activist bell hooks and illustrated brilliantly by Chris Raschka, celebrates the beauty of natural black hair. This sweet story should be on the shelf of every little girl, be she nappy or not. It teaches acceptance and self-acceptance. hooks uses delicious phrases to describe “girlpie” hair and the myriad hairdos worn by little, black girls. Reading “soft like cotton,/ flower petal billowy soft, full of frizz and fuzz,” you cannot help but feel the author’s adoration for kinky tresses; she so deftly uses positive adjectives that little girls like 7-year-old me, with my thick, kinky afro and my beloved, blond doll, don’t hear nearly enough.

It is the naked love for nappy hair that makes “Happy to be Nappy” superior to the better-known and controversial “Nappy Hair” by Carolivia Herron. While “Nappy Hair” is far from evil, but in encouraging acceptance of textured tresses, it repeats too much of the slander often directed at black hair. By contrast, “Happy to be Nappy” is unabashedly positive. It is joyous and uplifting.

Raschka’s whimsical illustrations are as important to this book’s charm as hooks’ words. Publisher’s Weekly gushes, “master of minimalism, [Raschka] works here in nuanced, impressionistic watercolors and suggests his subjects with a quick stroke of the brush here, a graceful sweep of line there. Bolstering the theme of individuality, he provides softly shaded washes of varying hue that set off the dazzling array of hairstyles like anaura and create a rhythmic flow of color across the pages. Broad swoops conjure curls and braids, quick stripes of colors make barrettes, and tiny dots create beads.”

Three decades on, I look at that picture of me with my close-cropped kinks—my “girlpie” hair—and smile. I was pretty cute, if I do say so myself. But back then, I couldn’t wait to straighten my hair again, and I did, as soon as it grew long enough to catch with a hot comb. And I kept straightening until nearly two years ago. Today, I wear my hair natural by choice. It took me 30 years to love my God-given spirals and curls. I had to become a woman to appreciate my “girlpie” hair. But I hold out hope, with the aid of books like bell hooks’ “Happy to be Nappy,” that little girls of the next generation won’t take so long to love themselves.

This is the first of what will hopefully be regular reviews of resources that facilitate anti-racist parenting. If you have a book, music, film, etc. that you would like Anti-Racist Parent to review, please e-mail us at team@loveisntenough.com.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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