Black Women and the Other "N" Word

by aretha marbley - May 15, 2007

Triggered by Don Imus calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" and the seemingly endless dialogue that ensued thereafter, the author shares her reflections of decades of her and other Black women being called the other "N" word: nappy-headed. She believes that, like skin color, this was yet another way of creating stratification among Black women, subjecting them to a socially constructed and White society's notions of beauty while deflecting from the real issues of health, welfare, education, and prison reform plaguing African American women.

Don Imus calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" triggered painful childhood memories for me of growing up in the backwoods of Southern Arkansas from the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, especially the self-esteem issues surrounding having my hair referred to as “nappy” by Black and White folks alike. Growing up back then, I had to endure my peers and even adults describing my beautiful coarse, thick hair as little bb balls and cucklebugs (cockleburs).


With shame, I reflect back on my obsession with wanting a head full of “good” hair that was soft, wavy-hair like the bright (light) skinned Black folks had or long, soft bouncy straight hair like White women--instead of the naturally beautiful hair that I was born with.  Even more shamefully, I remember strutting through the neighborhood with pride and feeling beautiful when my hair got pressed, believing this simple transformation into straight hair made me and others think that I was, now, beautiful—and it worked. Some of the emotions I felt are captured in the lyrics to India Arie’s song, “I Am Not My Hair”:

Little girl with the press and curl/ Age eight I got a Jheri curl/ Thirteen I got a relaxer/ I was a source of so much laughter/ At fifteen when it all broke off/ Eighteen and went all natural/ February two thousand and two/ I went and did/ What I had to do/ Because it was time to change my life/ To become/ the women that I am inside/ Ninety-seven dreadlocks all gone /I looked in the mirror / For the first time and saw that HEY..../I am not this skin.

Thankfully, when I was 10 years old, this mentality about my hair changed when my sister at age 23 (13 years my elder) came home in 1968 (straight from Cook County Hospital Mental Ward) with a new paradigm about Negro hair.  I vividly remember, her, a cosmetologist (newly trained at a Black-owned and operated Beauty school on the West side of Chicago) assuring me that my hair was not nappy; rather I had tight curls, and she didn’t want to ever hear me again refer to my hair as bad or nappy and insisting that I educate others on what beautiful hair really looked like.  The chorus of India Arie’s song goes: “I am not my hair/ I am not this skin/ I am not your expectations no no/ I am not my hair.”

This was the late 1960s and early 1970s during the peak of the Black movement in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination and a time when Black artists like James Brown used words like “Say it loud, I am Black and I am proud;” Black Muslims spread the news of Islam, and Black scholars (Hare, 1976; Staple, 1976; Stone, 1979) tried to change the negative image of being Black to let us know that we were beautiful--our thick lips and hips, dark skin, and hair texture and all.


Ironically, my sister and I had this conversation nine months following her mental breakdown; she endured massive shock treatments and received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Yet, here we are now, fast forwarded 23 years past my sister’s death, 40 years past the riots of the 60s, the assassinations of Dr. King, Malcolm X, and John and Robert Kennedy, and the pain of integration and desegregation.


What I know to be true, having lived with nappy hair half a century, is that the words “nappy-headed hos” didn’t emanate from, nor are they confined to, Don Imus, but rather a pervasive insidious mindset of “nappy hairness” that positions African American women as inferior to White women and further subjects us to White society’s notion of beauty.  As the lyrics of the song say, “Making me look like a slave.”

To illustrate, a few months ago, I sat watching an episode of one of the reality makeover TV shows, where a little girl (with African ancestry and dark skin) whose White mom contacted the show because her little girl had bad, unruly, hair and as a result kids at school made cruel remarks about her hair. According to her mother, the little girl’s self-esteem had suffered, and she felt ugly.  The mom had tried everything to get her hair straight so that she would be “beautiful.”

The show spotlighted the child and her hair in all the adversely negative situations that she had endured.  The hair and its unruliness and ugliness were the focus of the entire show.  The end result was they hired a hair designer who was able to chemically straighten her hair and make it look beautiful.  The show ended with a debut of her transformation into a beautiful little girl with beautiful new straight hair. Miraculously, her new beautiful straight hair stopped the kids from teasing her and gave her a lot of new friends:  Great show! Ratings through the roof!!

What a frightening message to African American girls whose hair is much like the little girl’s on the show.  What an Imus-like nappy-head-calling message from the subconscious of the American society to me as an African American woman; a message praised and tolerated on national television.  More insultingly, we are bombarded daily with similar messages from all the media and through daily conversations.  It happens in school cafeterias, in hallways, on school playgrounds and on college campuses, yet no one has called for public schools and college campuses to be closed and teachers, administrators, and college presidents to be fired.

In this regard, as a Black woman, you silence my voice and insult my intelligence by making me think that you are fighting for my honor or changing my status in society with the simple act of firing Don Imus for using the other “N” word (perhaps with Ho) or insisting that Rap and Hip Hop artists remove the words like Bitch, Ho, and the two “N” words from their songs.  Especially, when you insult us every day by, for example, relegating African American women to the bottom rung of the economic ladder, letting our young sons die on the streets or get carted off to prisons and jails, or sitting by idly and watching us become the fastest growing group of victims of HIV/AIDS, and we know that no one gets fired or called on the carpet for these gross injustices. Yet, the real solution to saving our honor put forth from groups such as politicians, educators, clergy, and scholars alike is to fire Imus for saying the other “N” word.


Hmm, what delicious irony, perhaps, poetic justice (or hypocrisy), of what it means to be a Black female in America. This brings me to where I am now in 2007. I am 50 rather than 10, a mental health therapist, a counselor educator, and a scholar who has written about Black women and feminism. Not only that, but I have a beautiful head full of naturally coiled, dangling hair twists that I know is beautiful, and at the same time, I am not my hair. Yet, courtesy of all the publicity regarding Don Imus’ "nappy-headed hos," I have daily reminders of being called the other “N” word.

My charge, put forth over 40 years ago from a person with paranoid schizophrenia, is to educate people about the other “N” word. Unequivocally, as India Arie sings, I am not my hair. Now here is the educational part, maybe radical: you insult my natural beauty, my scholarly intellect, and my damn sensibilities as an African American woman when you expect me to thank you and pat you on the back for firing Don Imus.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 15, 2007 ID Number: 14484, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:44:10 PM

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