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A few years ago, the library at Williams College in New England acquired several dozen pieces of sheet music that was from the mid-19th century to World War II.

Many of them showed images of African-Americans on the covers.

The special collections librarian whose task it was to organize the sheet music said the images were highly uncomplimentary and stereotypical. She grappled with how to describe them.

One sheet she sent me that was dated 1904 had a drawing of a matronly, dark-skinned woman dressed in Aunt Jemima garb. On the upper right side was a drawing of a little girl peeking over a fence with her hair sticking up all over her head.

Once I managed to get through the blatantly racist title on the cover I addressed the librarian’s request about the little girl’s hair.

She asked me to suggest an appropriate description for the child’s “hairstyle.”

I appreciate the librarian for being sensitive enough to ask. But her first mistake was to think that what that little girl on the sheet music cover was wearing on her head was a hairstyle. What that child was wearing on her head was a mess.

I told the librarian that the appropriate description of the child’s hair was “disheveled” or “unkempt.” What I wanted the librarian to avoid was to resort to calling the child’s hair nappy. It would be an inaccurate and unfair description of the casualty that was on top of that child’s head.

When black girls and black women with natural hair have a bad hair day, nappy is often the word reached for by the unenlightened.

My readers have heard this from me many times, but it bears repeating.

Nappy describes a hair texture, not a bad appearance or a grooming deficiency. It should not be used in a negative context. There is nothing negative about having a strong, resilient and versatile texture of hair.

The sole intent of the artist who drew those caricatures on that piece of sheet music was to show unflattering images of black women and little black girls. Unfortunately, the artist was successful.

The librarian got my point and took my advice. She would not be using the nappy word in describing the little girl’s hair.

“ 'Disheveled' it is,” she responded appreciatively.

I hope that there will be more people like the librarian who will take the extra step to avoid making bad matters worse. I also hope that the music that comes from that sheet won’t sound as offensive as the images on the cover look.


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0 Comments
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I hope more people will take the time to understand the distinction.

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