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Community Voices: Gabby Douglas and that other n-word: ‘nappy’

Rev. Irene Monroe

Olympic gold-winning gymnast Gabrielle Christina Victoria “Gabby” Douglas has made headlines for more than just gymnastics.  

She is the first African American woman to win gold medals in the individual all-around and team competitions. But when the blogosphere exploded with a torrent of congratulations, it was tempered by a deluge of condemnations about her  over-gelled and under-tamed ponytail. Many of the comments were made by African American women.   

According to USA Today, when the comments were brought to Douglas’ attention, she simply responded, “Are you kidding me..?”

If Douglas wasn’t privy to what the big deal was all about, she will quickly learn that those comments stem from the universal denigration of black beauty.

This issue of black women’s hair texture continues to dog black women throughout the world. When a tsunami of criticisms poured in about Gabby’s ponytail and her nappy edges, it dredged up and fosters the misperception that no put-together and accomplished black woman could be happy being nappy.

The word “nappy” is the other n-word in the African American community.

While the etymology of the word “nappy” derives from Britain, meaning a baby’s cotton napkin or diaper, in America the word became racialized to mean unkempt, wild and wooly hair associated with people of African descent. The term “nappy-headed” — used to demean and to degrade African Americans — is a loaded phrase.

“Gabby Douglas needs to tame the beady beads in the back of her hair,” snipped one Twitter user.

Another outraged Twitter user wrote “Jesus be a Hot Comb for Gabby Douglas Hair… Amen!”

While many sisters today might use a hot comb on their hair, hot combs, also called straightening combs, were around in the 1880s and were sold predominately to white female clientele.   

Madam C.J. Walker, the first African American millionaire for her inventions of black hair products, didn’t invent the hot comb; she popularized its use by remedying the perceived “curse” of nappy hair with her hair-straightening products.

Whether Douglas used any revised versions of Walker’s products is irrelevant. Her focus when she stepped out onto the Olympic world stage was on winning the gold, not on her hair.