Last week, author Carolivia Herron was told she could not visit a school in Brooklyn. This week, she was told she was not wanted at a school in Queens.
The reason for the rebuffs? They have to do with "Nappy Hair," her book about a little black girl's unruly locks. Herron is touring schools and libraries here to explain the story that for the last few months has been the focus of a tough discussion among academics, authors and publishers about racism.
In "Nappy Hair," the 51-year-old Herron, who is black, tells how her uncle taught her to celebrate her hair--and her culture. The controversy caught her by surprise, since Herron does not regard the word "nappy," or frizzy, as negative.
But four months ago, a group of parents called teacher Ruth Sherman a racist for reading the book to her third-grade class at PS 75 in Brooklyn. She was physically threatened. She asked for a transfer. Now teaching at PS 131 in Queens, Sherman says she still feels bitter.
And neither school will allow Herron, at least for now, to come to explain.
"I am banned in New York City," Herron says.
Not so, counters Felicita Santiago, principal of PS 75. The school is too busy now deciding curriculum for next year, she explains, adding that Herron can visit later in the year. Santiago, who does not know whether the award-winning book will be part of her curriculum, says a visit by Herron now would be disruptive.
PS 131 in Queens has not responded to questions about why Herron cannot visit. Sherman says it is because the school district did not want any more controversy. (Its superintendent was fired recently for unrelated reasons.) "Any kind of attention is negative," she says.
Critics charge that keeping Herron away from these schools demonstrates an attitude toward multicultural books that perpetuates the controversy. "The decision lacks sense and moral courage," says Roni Natov, professor of English at Brooklyn College, who invited Herron to speak to her class. "They could have made a learning opportunity out of the situation."
And by treating what happened to Sherman as an isolated incident, the critics say, school authorities are avoiding the volatile issues that "Nappy Hair" has evoked. The controversy is about more than just the book, they add. It is about the kinds of books that are used in schools and the way they are used.
Myra Zarnowski, professor of elementary and early childhood education at Queens College, said teachers generally are reluctant to use controversial books. Research shows that teachers tend to reject views different from their own and reject books they think might frighten children, Zarnowski says. "The real issue is how much information are we willing to share with children, and how much time are we willing to take to show them how to critically read it."
Cheryl Willis Hudson, publisher of Just Us Books, an independent black-owned publishing house, says that a scarcity of multicultural books in curriculum causes this fear because the rare book taught becomes an anomaly. "If there are more books that portray African Americans and children of color in all kinds of situations, there would be less controversy about one particular book," she says. "Black people can have straight hair, nappy hair, kinky hair and curly hair and so can white people." If teachers present various images to children, Hudson says, they will be more likely to grow older without judging people by their skin color and physical features.
Herron tells a story. Once, she read "Nappy Hair" to a fifth-grade class that had only one black child. When she reached a point in the book about slavery, the child put his head down on his desk in shame. "If I had not been able to get that little boy to sit up straight, proud and tall, in his chair, I would have stopped the story," she says, "because it's not worth it to hurt the people for whom the book was written and out of whose culture it was written."