TAKOMA PARK — Washington, D.C. resident Carolivia Herron, clad all in purple, carefully leans into the microphone at Takoma Radio. One moment the 71-year-old Howard University professor praises the 17th-century writer John Milton; at another, she laments the loss two years earlier to gun violence of young local rapper Douglas Brooks, known by his stage name “Swipey.”
Unfortunately, this year is a dubious one for Herron, as it marks the 20th anniversary of her children’s book “Nappy Hair” being banned by New York City Public Schools.
The ban occurred in 1998, after a white teacher taught the book to her third-grade class. Although the students enjoyed the book, protests broke out, as some considered the book racially insensitive. According to Herron, the majority of parents who complained about the book did not have children in the class.
“They felt a white teacher had no business teaching about black hair,” said Herron. “Because the word nappy had been used as an insult in their families, but it was never used that way in mine.”
The book itself is an uplifting story, telling African American girls to take pride in their natural hair. Nappy Hair is written entirely in call and response form, giving the book a unique rhythm, and paying tribute to African American traditions.
“It’s an important issue for black girls and women that many other people don’t understand. People who say ‘everyone wants to change their hair’ … have no idea what black woman go through when it comes to their hair,” said Herron. “It’s hours of time, lots of money, and, for many people, self-esteem troubles. They don’t believe they can get a job if their hair is in a natural state.”
Illustrator Joe Cepeda said that much of the discussion around the book’s visuals have been based on presumptions. According to Herron, printing presses in the United States have been unable to print dark faces in detail, leading to the characters’ taking on a flat, ugly look. When the book became a subject of controversy, Cepeda said he never received any interview requests, even though he designed and created all the visuals himself without much input from Herron.
“I think people make judgments without knowing or reading what the story is about,” said Cepeda. “Carolivia wrote a great manuscript about being proud of who you are. It was so funny and well-written that as a creator, I wanted to illustrate it.”
Now a major project of Herron’s is her radio show, “Epic City,” on WOWD-LP Takoma Park. “Epic City” airs on Tuesdays from 4-5 p.m., and features conversations with local artists and writers.
“[Takoma Park] takes a forward-looking stance toward integration, racism, acceptance of Latinos in particular,” said Herron. “I moved here as a teenager in 1961; I thought it was its own free state of acceptance in a very racist world.”
A big theme of her show is the intersection between epic literature and different kinds of art. During the 1980s when she worked as a professor at Harvard University, Herron fell in love with hip-hop. The new genre reminded her of ancient oral poetry, like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” which she had studied.
“I was saying to myself as a graduate student in the early ‘80s, if only I could be there when a new form of communication is coming,” said Herron. “Then the computer, internet, and hip-hop all occurred around the same time. I could see it coming. I told everybody that this was going to be a big thing, and no one believed me.”
As a professor, Herron taught a class on hip-hop. The course proved to be a nurturing environment for people who would later become tastemakers and trend-setters in hiphop culture.
“The first issue of ‘The Source,’ the number one hip-hop magazine, was handed to me as a three-page paper in my class,” said Herron.
Herron hosted several concerts and lectures bridging the gap between the classics and hip-hop. At one such event, Queen Latifah and a graduate student shared a stage, with Latifah rapping, while the graduate student recited Greek poetry. Herron would critique artists as well. When she invited legendary rap group Public Enemy to Harvard, Herron confronted rapper Chuck D, about anti-Semitic lyrics in his songs.
“Some of [Chuck D’s] songs had some lines that were anti-Semitic, and I’m Jewish,” said Herron. “So one of the things I did when he came was I asked him ‘What have Jews done to you?’ and “Won’t you get a better response if you talk about a specific problem instead of blaming a whole people for something?’”
“It was a wonderful conversation, and he said, ‘I agree with you.’ And if you follow his career, it (anti-Semitism) dropped out after that,” Herron said.
Herron is still deeply involved in the rap scene, according to Cardo Lotto Henderson, who co-hosted Epic City for a year. According to Henderson, Herron continued her work in connecting Ancient Greek Epic Poetry and modern hip-hop, reaching out to artists in the D.C. area. She planned to create a version of the epic play “The Fall of Phaeton” with the late D.C. rapper Swipey as the star. Swipey had worked with Herron’s project EpicCentering the National Mall before he was shot and killed in 2016 at the age of 18.
“It was more than just music; it was every type of art together. We brought poetry, we brought rap, we brought illustrations, we brought epics, we brought everything to a cesspool-level event. It was great to see and know it could be done,” said Henderson about Epic Centering the National Mall.
Henderson’s work with Herron proved to be a formative experience. Henderson, who currently works for a non-profit called 100 Fathers, which helps mentor and train fathers to be more present in their children’s lives, said his work with Herron marked the first time he had the ability to express himself in the work environment.
“I just feel like there’s so much division between people with age … we would always talk about a lot of different things – getting older people hip to the younger people stuff and younger people hip to the older people stuff,” said Henderson. “Everything I ever did with Carolivia got me opportunity; engineering for Carolivia got me my own show DMV underground.”
Despite her age and her many projects, Herron is still fighting for the children’s book she wrote 21 years ago.
“(‘Nappy Hair’) is still banned in New York City,” said Herron. “This is the 20th year of it being banned. Someone needs to write about it; this should be a big deal. Someone needs to take on New York City Public Schools.”
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