William & Mary

"Nappy" author to give reading on campus

Who's the kid with the "nappiest, fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted up" hair? Answer: Brenda, the star of Dr. Carolivia Herron's three-time award-winning children's book, "Nappy Hair." Herron, the current Writer-in-Residence at the College, will be giving a reading of selected works.

Known for her animated readings, Herron incorporates audience participation and a style of storytelling that combines elements of African American, European and American traditions. 

A native of Washington, D.C., Herron received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the University of Pennsylvania. Herron has taught at universities such as Harvard, where she served as an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Comparative Literature, and California State University, Chico, where she taught as an Assistant Professor of English.

Herron's name made headlines in 1998 when a teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y. was threatened by angry parents after reading "Nappy Hair" to her class of African-American and Hispanic students. Described by the author as "a wonderful celebration of nappy, African-American hair," the book has been embraced by many as a way to educate children about racial tolerance.

The story of "Nappy Hair" stems from Herron's childhood, when her uncle would tell stories at family picnics about his niece's "nappy hair." The style of "Nappy Hair" reflects Herron's emulation of African-American and West-African call-and-response storytelling techniques. Herron will be reading from the book next Thursday.

The author began her writing career at an early age, writing her first poem before the age of four. The event that inspired the poem remains a vivid memory in the mind of the author. 

"When I was three years, two months old, my infant brother died," Herron said. "I remember my mother coming in and finding the baby dead in his cradle. My mother fainted, and my father took her in to the other room. I was left there alone."

After this first traumatic experience inspired Herron to write, the author heard her calling.

"I prayed every day from the age of three to 11 that I would become a writer," she said.

While growing up, Herron's favorite book was "Paradise Lost." The author's fascination with epic tales has had a profound influence on her work. Through traveling, Herron has explored her passion of learning about epic tales of various cultures.

"How do you handle it when something terrible happens to you?" Herron said. "Each epic [from a different culture] provides a different answer."

Herron notes that these "different answer[s]" are interwoven into her works. As a Post-Doctoral Fulbright Fellow to the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico and a Visiting Fulbright Professor at University Marien N'Guabi, Herron has found much inspiration for her works. Her current work-in-progress, entitled "Asenath and Our Song of Songs," serves as a kind of metaphor for Herron's experience as a writer.

"The story is about a woman in the modern day who can't finish her dissertation," the author said.

In the book, literary characters come back through time to inspire the frustrated doctoral student. In effect, Herron said, "the story is written by everyone else."

During her appointment as the Writer-in-Residence at the College this semester, Herron is currently teaching a course on children's fiction. Herron has found working with the students to be a pleasantly surprising experience.

"Before I came here, I didn't expect the sense of being colleagues with the students," she said.

Herron is also involved in working with students in D.C. public schools, where she helps form writing clubs for kids. One of her most recent projects, called Potomac Anacostia Ultimate Story Exchange (PAUSE), is a writing club that unites elementary school students with adult mentors from the Tifereth Israel Congregation.

In addition to the book "Nappy Hair," Herron has published numerous works for children and adults. Among her works for adults are "Thereafter Johnnie" and "Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké." Children's works include "Sandy," an exploration of the relationship between Native Americans and African Americans, "The Cliffdweller Vision," concerning children writers, and "Catalpa Tales," a collection of stories told in a style similar to "Nappy Hair."

Next Thursday, Herron plans to read excerpts from "Nappy Hair," her novel "Thereafter Johnnie" and from her work-in-progress, "Asenath and Our Song of Songs."

Herron will be speaking Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. in the McGlothlin-Street Hall Auditorium.

This article first appeared in The Flat Hat, Nov. 7, 2003.