The Nappy Hair controversy in Brooklyn has faded from the papers, understandably displaced by news of impeachment and Gulf War fighting. Looking back, though, I wonder whether the episode doesn't say something about America's troubles that is at least as important as the president's lack of character, or highlight a threat to our future that is as menacing as Iraq.
Nappy Hair is the title of a children's book by Carolivia Herron, a professor at Chico State University in California. Its subject is the wild, kinky hair of a little black girl. Its message is that black children, far from being embarrassed, should love their hair and take pride in their African features. The text adopts a "black" rhythm and syntax:
Them some willful intentional naps you got all over your head
Your hair intended to be nappy.
Indeed it did.
At Public School 75 in Brooklyn, a third-grade teacher used the book for extracurricular reading with her mostly black and Hispanic class. Ruth Sherman chose Nappy Hair in the belief that it would strengthen her students' self-esteem. But a few black parents objected to the book and descended on P.S. 75 in protest. Apparently they were affronted by the word "nappy," which in some circles is a pejorative. Without reading the book, they jumped to the conclusion that it was offensive to minorities — and that the teacher who assigned it must be a racist.
The teacher, needless to say, is white.
"An angry mob confronted Sherman at the school," the New York Post reported, "hurling racial slurs and demanding, 'What the [expletive] do you know about nappy hair?' There were shouts of 'You better watch it!' and 'We're gonna get you!' " Sherman was pulled from her class and suspended from teaching for several days. Eventually New York City school officials figured out that she was the victim in the affair, and invited her back to P.S. 75. Fearing for her safety — and observing that no action had been taken against the parents who threatened her — Sherman asked to be transferred. Now she is teaching second grade at P.S. 131 in Queens.
One of the lessons of this sorry tale is the old warning that no good deed goes unpunished. Sherman's reward for concerning herself with the welfare of her students was to be branded a racist and chased from her classroom. This must have been particularly painful; Sherman used to volunteer as a reading tutor at P.S. 75 even before becoming a teacher. Among the students she tutored was a daughter of one of the women who threatened her.
It is bad enough to be falsely accused of racism; it is even worse when your alleged offense was the opposite of racist. Sherman is only the latest in a depressingly long line of people slandered as bigots at the very hour when they were demonstrating that their tolerance and respect knows no color.
Editors of the student paper at the University of Rhode Island know how Sherman feels. They were condemned as racists this month for running a cartoon that offended minority activists on campus. In fact, the cartoon was meant to mock those who oppose affirmative action in higher education. But like the Brooklyn parents, the activists in Providence were so eager to take offense that they didn't bother to notice that they were attacking their own allies--and becoming thugs in the process. "Too many people have been hurt," barked one student who wanted to cut off the paper's funding. "Are we going to hide behind this freedom-of-speech crap?"
Yet, at the end of the day, the worst sinner in the Nappy Hair business, it seems to me, is Ruth Sherman herself. Granted, her motives were pure. And granted, the foul-mouthed parents who threatened her are jerks. But what kind of teacher encourages her students to dwell on their hair? What kind of teacher tries to promote self-esteem with feelgood cheerleading for meaningless racial characteristics? What kind of teacher imagines that what is needed at P.S. 75 — where 70 percent of the children read below grade level — is a patronizing affirmation that black is beautiful?
The tragedy is that Sherman is no exception. Countless teachers and principals, awash in PC theories of "diversity" and "multiculturalism," spend the school year filling their students' heads with racial boosterism and ethnic consciousness. What matters most in life, the students learn, is not what they know or how they behave — it is which minority group they belong to. The kids of P.S. 75 may never master reading and writing. But they will master the technique of wearing their racial and ethnic identities like suits of armor — a defense against all criticism, a shield against high expectations.
The two most dangerous trends in American society are the failure of public schools to educate the young and the splintering of our population into race-obsessed subgroups. Both trends are accelerated by schools like P.S. 75, where reading takes a back seat to the praising of nappy hair. If Sherman believed she was helping her young students, she was deluding herself. What third-graders need to hear is that true self-esteem comes only through hard work and real achievement. Telling them to celebrate their hair is tantamount to telling them they are too stupid to strive for any higher accomplishment. Perhaps it's just as well that Sherman was chased from her classroom.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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