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Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as Flap Over 'Nappy Hair' Book Leads to Teacher's Transfer

Flap Over 'Nappy Hair' Book Leads to Teacher's Transfer

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Carolivia Herron hoped the book she wrote about her hair--"the kinkiest, the nappiest, the fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted up, tangled up, twisted up, nappiest" hair you ever saw--would promote self-esteem and pride among black children.

That's exactly what Ruth Sherman, a first-year teacher in New York City had intended when she used the picture book, Nappy Hair, in her predominantly African-American and Hispanic 3rd grade class this year. She has said she watched her students delight in the vivid illustrations and the poetic rhythms of the text.

But Ms. Sherman, who is white, abruptly left her job at Public School 75 in Brooklyn after parents cursed and threatened her over her use of the book. Despite expressions of support from school officials, and a letter from city Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew imploring her to stay, her request to be transferred to another school was granted last week.

Meanwhile, Ms. Herron, who is African-American, held a meeting with parents and community members last week to explain the book's origins and themes.

In hindsight, the author said in an interview, she should have anticipated that her book would spark heated discourse. But she has watched other teachers use it successfully in the classroom as a starting point for lessons on diversity, culture, history, poetry, and music.

Ms. Sherman "has my complete support," Ms. Herron said last week. "She was using [the book] in the right way. If used well, the children will beg to keep reading it. They begged her for copies."

Indeed, Ms. Sherman's students wanted their own copies of the book. She obliged them with photocopies, a move that eventually provoked an angry and emotional response from some parents.

Out of Context?

The illustrations of the black girl featured in the book--a fictional character based on Ms. Herron as a child--and her extended family appeared darker when photocopied, making only her eyes and teeth distinguishable, according to one observer who likened the photocopied images to an Al Jolson depiction of blacks.

At least one parent who saw copies of only a few of the 30 pages in the book, including ones that briefly discussed slavery, was offended. The parent, whom school officials would not identify, circulated the pages and rallied other parents against Ms. Sherman. At a meeting between parents and school officials last month on an unrelated matter, Ms. Sherman was confronted.

"The situation got out of hand," said J.D. LaRock, a spokesman for Mr. Crew. "Some parents insulted her and threatened her. ... They said, 'I'm going to get you,' and 'You better watch out.' "

Ms. Sherman did not return phone calls last week. But a spokesman for the 120,000-member United Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the teacher did not feel safe returning to the school.

Parents "accused her of being racially insensitive. Some even lunged at her," said the UFT's Ron Davis. "Even though she said she would miss the kids," he said, "she did not want to have to go back there."

Felix Vazquez, the community district superintendent who was called in midway through the incident, brought parents and community members together the day after the contentious Nov. 23 meeting. Most of the parents at the second session, many of whom had children in Ms. Sherman's class, were supportive of the teacher.

'Derogatory Connotations'

At last week's gathering with the author, held at a local church, some 300 people listened to Ms. Herron's explanation of the book. Some said they still had concerns.

"The preponderance of the book is negative," the Rev. Herbert D. Daughtry, the pastor of the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn, who organized the meeting, said in an interview. "I also have questions about the use of 'nappy' in the sense that ... it has always come to us with derogatory connotations."

Mr. Daughtry also complained that the book is not written in proper English, that the religious references are simplistic, and that the lines dealing with slavery are brief and vague.

But the book, which is aimed at the early elementary grades, is written in a "call and response" fashion that celebrates the style of storytelling created by American-African slaves in the 1800s, according to the book's jacket description. Ms. Herron said she adapted it from the playful teasing she endured as a child in Washington from family members.

Ms. Herron, 51, a professor of English at California State University at Chico, has written some 29 books and stories, including 15 for K-12 classrooms, that highlight diversity. About 34,000 copies of Nappy Hair, published in 1997, have been printed by Dragonfly Books in New York City, a subsidiary of Random House.

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Page 5

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