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Visiting Scholar Carolivia Herron: Epic poetry and nappy hair

September 22, 2011

When Carolivia Herron wrote a children’s book about nappy hair, she didn’t intend it to be just a book about locks.

“It’s about the African-American tradition of call and response,” Herron said from her home in Washington, D.C. “That’s why I wrote the book – many people think I wrote the book because I was concerned about hair.”

To fully enjoy “Nappy Hair,” it should be read by aloud by two people – one to read the call and one to read the response. The book begins with the telling of a story by Uncle Mordecai at a backyard picnic:

Brenda, you sure do got some nappy hair on your head, don’t you?


It’s your hair, Brenda, take the cake,


It continues:

But she sure, Lord, got some nappy hair on her head.


And I’m gonna tell y’all how she came up with all this nappy hair.


Her hair was an act of God.


An act of God that came straight through Africa.


Herron, who will be a Project Humanities Visiting Scholar at ASU during the 2011-2012 academic year, will make her first appearance in Tempe, Oct. 18-23.

Project Humanities is a universitywide initiative with the goal of showing the interactions among humanities and other areas of scholarship and human endeavor. The project will sponsor humanities-centered activities, programs and events at ASU’s four campuses, and highlight community events that focus on humanities research and humanist practice. The range of Herron’s expertise and literary accomplishment and her commitment as a public scholar to humanities work make her ideal for this new ASU affiliation.

A specialist in epic literature, Herron wrote “Nappy Hair” when she was a professor at Harvard University to illustrate how the African tradition of call and response “can be compared to the great oral traditions of ancient Greeks and other cultures.”

She was prompted, she said, by her Uncle Richard’s storytelling, and particularly his tales about hair. One summer, she returned home just to capture her uncle’s stories. It was at a birthday picnic in July that the book took root.

“People were sitting around at the birthday picnic and he said to me, ‘Carol you sure do got that nappy hair, don’t you?’

“The people at the picnic were answering back as he talked,” Herron said. “That’s the way we do. People would come back with five or six responses.”

The call and response is “a form of the polyrhythm of Africa,” Herron explained. “It comes from very early slavery.”

Though she intended the book to be more about African rhythms than hair, the book, which was published in 1997, has gained notoriety for its emphasis on the “exuberance” of having very, very wiry and curly hair. In 1998, some African-American parents in Brooklyn verbally accosted a teacher who read the book with her African American and Hispanic pupils, and it has become well known around the United States and even abroad. (It soon will be published in Brazil in Portuguese.)

Herron and dean of Humanities Neal A. Lester, a scholar with extensive research on the race and gender politics of hair, in the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, are now collaborating on a “Nappy Hair” handbook as a resource for teachers to “give history and context for the social and artistic qualities of African-American oral poetry and the importance of African-American hair.”

Herron was born in Washington, D.C. and received a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Baptist College (now Eastern University) in Pennsylvania, a master’s degree in English literature from Villanova University and, from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in creative writing and a doctorate in comparative literature and literary theory.

She spent a postdoctoral research year at Brandeis University investigating the subject of African-American Jews, and, looking to her own Jewish ancestry through her paternal grandmother, converted to Judaism in adulthood. She also is a founding member of a group called Jews of African Descent.

Herron, who has nappy – unstraightened – hair herself, said she is not dogmatic about whether nappy hair should be altered or left as it is. “Many people have come to me and said they don’t want their children’s hair straightened,” she said. “But it’s what’s in your head, not what's on it, that matters. If someone’s ego is being clipped, and she thinks nappy hair is unacceptable, she should go ahead and straighten it.”

When she was in college in the 1960s, “if you didn’t have your hair in an Afro you were stupid,” she said. “Hair doesn’t ruin your life. By the time a child is 10, 15, 20, they’ll understand what the culture has done and make their choices more freely.

“Once I was in Kansas City giving a talk in an auditorium. A girl got up and walked up beside me in the middle of my talk – she had beautiful nappy hair. She just came up and hugged me silently and went back to her seat.”

Herron’s other writing focuses on the intersection of Judaic and African cultures, such as the multimedia novel she is working on, titled “Assenath and Our Song of Songs,” and her latest children’s book, “Always an Olivia,” which recounts the coming of her Jewish ancestors from Tripoli, Libya, to the Georgia Sea Islands.

Her most recently published work is an opera titled "Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson," which was commissioned by the Washington National Opera and the Washington Performing Arts Society. Herron wrote the libretto and New York City composer Bruce Adolphe wrote the music. It was performed in Washington, D.C. in 2009 and 2011.

Herron’s literary sense was awakened at a very young age when she received a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” and she wrote her first poem when she was 3, in response to her infant brother’s death more than 50 years ago.

“I wanted to write so much I prayed every night to God to be a writer for about eight years. If I couldn’t be a writer I wanted to die. Anyone who prays that hard is already a writer,” Herron said with a chuckle.

“I accidently stumbled on ‘Paradise Lost’ at age 11. When I read that I knew I could be a writer. That’s when I became a budding epic scholar. My field is epic poetry.”

Herron lost her husband to liver disease, and she never had children. So it’s not surprising that, once a week, she teaches children who are being home-schooled in her neighborhood.

And she has a passion to help refugees who want to live a better life. “I’m in contact with some refugees from Darfur, who are living in Israel and are frustrated because they can’t qualify for higher education because they can’t speak either Hebrew or English well enough,” she said.

“Why can’t we create an English literacy course online? All we need is 20 volunteers who could talk to the students in Israel via computer. The volunteers could get a ‘letter of accomplishment’ at the end, and the refugees could improve their English enough so they could go to college.”

According to “Nappy Hair,” the response should be simple:


For more information on Project Humanities, and a complete calendar of events, go to: