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Aliona Gibson writes like Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale characters talk. Her essayistic Nappy: Growing Up Black and Female in America is all insider trading: gossipy and girlfriendish. But don’t dismiss Nappy because of its sassy, sometimes valley-girl tone. It’s a hilarious, insightful journey through the life and intellectual development of the twentysomething, post-civil rights African-American woman.
Like most memoirs written by young people, Nappy doesn’t place the author’s experiences within a broad historical context. While older readers can understand the 27-year-old Gibson’s experiences in terms of long-standing racial issues, young audiences won’t see beyond the book’s 1980s setting. Yet Gibson’s acerbic commentaries are undeniably attuned to her age group’s sense of humor. Gibson portrays her hair struggle, for instance, as her most significant battle—next to finding a “good man,” that is. The author jokes about unsuccessful attempts to flip her tresses; there was a time when everyone wanted to be the girl in the Breck shampoo commercial with the long, luxurious—but maybe not golden—locks. She has weekly fights with the hot comb and perming chemicals, and at last chooses a short-cropped style. Even that decision is hazardous, though: “I thought about all of the things I’d have to deal with: being mistaken for a lesbian; being, supposedly, an expert on black history and culture; fighting off white men and their damn “jungle fever’; and, oh, the “biggie,’ hanging up the idea of having a black boyfriend—just a few of the stigmas and nuances that come with wearing your hair short and natural as a black woman in America.”
As that quote suggests, relationships—especially those between blacks and whites—are on Gibson’s opinionated mind. “The ultimate dis for a black woman, or one of the top five anyway, is to be dumped by a black man for a white woman,” she believes. “Not that white girls are all that. It’s just that the idea of a black man being attracted to someone who prefers “them’ is a slap in the face, an insult. If you’re like me you think, only a fool would choose ground beef over filet mignon.” She goes on to berate a disloyal black boyfriend, who slept with one of her white girlfriends; unfortunately, she doesn’t show how her experience echoes that of black women who, growing up in the ’60s, felt betrayed by black men’s coziness with white women.
Not every reminiscence is so painful. Gibson humorously chronicles her pursuit of monogamous relationships, and admits that there have been only three, none lasting more than eight months. “This number eight applies to boyfriends only, flings and in-betweens not included,” she observes. “I need to go to a numerologist and try to find out what the number eight has to do with my love life and why it keeps coming up. With my luck, it probably means that I’ll be single until I’m eighty or I’ll get married eight times or that I’ll have eight kids.” Gibson fixates on getting a boyfriend, but not any more than other women her age. Despite the feminist movement’s insistence on complete independence, many black women still believe a man helps to round out their lives and add a layer of richness.
Nappy also educates readers about the other side of integration. During Gibson’s high school and college years, black students mimicked their white classmates’ dress and cultural tastes, then faced a dose of reality when they returned to their predominantly African-American neighborhoods. But while Gibson acknowledges this schizophrenic existence, she fails to offer any real self-evaluation from that period; her tone suggests that she feels stupid to have gone through this phase and happy that she came out of it African-American. She attributes her eventual interest in African-American history to the 1985 International Women’s Conference in Kenya, which she attended. Like most African-Americans of the ’70s and ’80s, Gibson saw Africa as a sort of spiritual mecca and was profoundly affected by her trip. “It was all an experience that undoubtedly changed my perception of the world and my place in it,” she writes confidently, proud to have gained a more mature outlook.
In Nappy, Gibson forces young African-American women to admit their foibles, to laugh at that them, and to grow. She unabashedly presents her before-and-after pictures—zits and all. And she creatively presents a decade and its challenges, although she skirts the historical significance of some issues. While the stories that Gibson tells aren’t unique, her panache makes Nappyworthwhile.