CORRECTION: The following sentence has been changed due to inaccuracy: “Thomas, an NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Literary Work, is the author of the novel Nappily Ever After, which was turned into a Netflix original movie in 2018.” Thomas was a finalist for the award, not a winner.
On Tuesday Nov. 5th Campus Diversity and Inclusion hosted author Trisha R. Thomas in an intimate conversation facilitated by deputy Title IX coordinator Erica Moorer. Thomas, an NAACP Image Award finalist for Outstanding Literary Work, is the author of the novel Nappily Ever After, which was turned into a Netflix original movie in 2018.
Interim Director of CDI, Monique Stennis brought the event to campus after watching the movie on Netflix and reading the book. Stennis realized that there was a lot of conversation that could be had with this particular subject.
“I think it is important because … the events that create dialogue [are] very important … we’re here to be educated on a college campus so anything that can create dialogue is important,” Stennis said. “I’m not necessarily sure if everyone from a mass perspective understood the relationship that many black women have with their hair.”
The description of the event said that Moorer and Thomas would be discussing Thomas’s “path as a writer and how her work focuses on the self-esteem of young women of color and the insurmountable expectations that begin at a young age.”
Nappily Ever After is the story of Venus Johnson, a successful black woman who seemingly has is all: the job, the home, and a live-in boyfriend. She also has a weekly appointment at the beauty parlor to keep her hair long, slick, and straight. However, when her relationship with her boyfriend takes a turn she decides to trade that long, slick, and straight hair for a dramatically shorter natural hair style.
According to the book description, “With wit, resilience, and a lot of determination, Venus finally learns what true happiness is…on her own terms.”
When asked what inspired her novel Thomas first stated that it was hair. However, Thomas went deeper to explain how while teaching middle school in Los Angeles she observed how cruel the students were to each other, specifically regarding one another’s hair. Calling each other out and criticizing each others appearance. Thomas recalled thinking about how she had already gone through this as a child and her disbelief that this was still an issue.
Thomas said that Nappily Ever After was not her first book, but the first book that she knew she had to write and finish.
Thomas was also asked about the timing of the book and movie. There was a 17 year gap between the time the book was published in 2001 and the movie premiered in 2018. Thomas said that it took 17 years because the book spoke to millions of all different cultures and ethnicities, saying that it is okay to be yourself and authentic. More people are beginning to realize that it is bigger than just hair, that every culture has their own “thing.”
In fact, it is much bigger than just “hair.” California is going to be the first state to legislate that an individual cannot be discriminated against for their natural hair.
In early 2019 a video went viral showing a New Jersey teenager being forced by a white referee to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit his wrestling match. This is just one instance which went viral and caused a backlash in 2019. However, hair has historically been a determinant of race and a basis of discrimination towards people of color.
Deputy Title IX coordinator Erica Moorer was chosen to facilitate the conversation partially due to her own connection to the story and subject.
“I have big curly hair and I am always talking about how I stand out on campus or how it’s apart of who I am, so I think it was just an organic fit that I would be totally interested in this event and wanting to pursue the conversation,” Moorer said.
Moorer commented that she had seen the movie on Netflix before she was offered to facilitate the event and that once she read the novel she felt even more connected to the story, making her a natural fit to be involved in the event.
“From a personal standpoint, college was hard for me when I moved in because of my hair, which sounds so hard to say outloud but I think for women of color, it is something that we talk about a lot because washing our hair, straightening our hair or twisting our hair or braiding our hair, whatever we’re gonna do is a time commitment,” Moorer said. “So when you’re in communal bathrooms and you have a roommate and you have to put a scarf on your bed before you go to sleep or your using a toothbrush to get the baby hairs in the front, all of these different things. Things that for 18 years in my life I never thought about explaining to somebody else.”
Moorer explained how once she started college she had to come to terms with how she was different but also learn tools to explain her differences. Moorer felt this event was a great way to open the door for people to talk about their experience and how it is more than “just hair”. For people of color it is something that makes them different and that has brought discrimination.
“For non people of color I just don’t think it resonates, it’s like “it’s just hair” but your whole life you have two, three aisles worth of products for you,” Moorer said. “My life there has been this one little shelf or one little area and then of that I am supposed to meet the same beauty standards that you set for three aisles worth of things. So I feel like the whole concept of it all was just a cool way of thinking about how we’re othering each other but also how we’re trying to understand each other.”
Moorer emphasized the importance of these stories being told, in Thomas’s case through the novel or movie, because often people of color do not have their stories told in any capacity.
In regards to what she wanted people to get out of the event Moorer said: “That it’s not just hair, I feel like sometimes people say things like that and I don’t know why it hurts me but I think it has to do with the amount of effort and the amount of othering, it definitely comes out even when you don’t think about it.” Moorer said. “It comes up with interviews; is my hair too big? Is it going to be too much? Should I just pull it back should I straighten it? Will it look more polished this way? Will I fit in more, I might feel better or more confident. And I think the other thing in connection to that is like, but it is just hair, and it’s also you so like being you is something that Trisha talked a lot about is, ‘be authentically you.’ Whatever that means, some of the voices in your head are louder than what’s around you.”
On a college campus people are coming from all different cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Students are expected to share time and space with people who they do not know and possibly do not understand. Moorer talked about the importance of events and conversations like this one on a college campus.
“I think how we see each other plays a part in how we treat each other,” Moorer said. “So I think anything that impacts those identities is always going to be an important experience on a college campus. How we learn from each other or how we learn about each other will always be important.”
Moorer explained that there were ways for non-people of color to be supportive without being invasive.
“I am only able to speak from my own experiences. I will be honest with you and say that often in my career I have been the darkest or the youngest person in a space and I think the things that I have found to be allyship worthy are people who correct people,” Moorer said. “When you see things or you notice that someone is uncomfortable, checking in with them in private. Like: ‘Hey I saw this interaction happen, is there anything I can do to be helpful?’ Sometimes that is the allyship.”
Monique Stennis also gave her insight: “I think that part of being an ally is understanding what you are being an ally for and about and I think in this context it is simply understanding there [are] nuances that not everyone walks through, and understanding that it may not be ‘my reality’ but it is somebody else’s reality.”
Stennis said that the best way for people to understand is to be open to learning.
“I think there are two things that need to happen, I think there needs to be a level of vulnerability for someone who is an ally and a level of vulnerability for the person who is looking to have an ally or friend,” Stennis said. “The vulnerability has everything to do with what I don’t know, I’m willing to learn and I am willing to learn because that is something I want to do and that depends on where you are in life.”
Moorer said that it was helpful to not always be the one who had to address the issue, and that you can be supportive by being that person that people can come to when you present yourself as someone who is willing to listen, but also able to listen.
Photograph by Emilia Rivera.