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I Am Not a Cannibal, But I Teach "Yo Mama" Jokes on Occasion

Every now and then, I have students who are uncomfortable around me, like they are scared. During a teacher-student conference I have to ask them to pull their chair up to my desk a little closer.

"I don't bite," I tell them. "I'm not a cannibal, though I've been accused of being one."

Wait, wait, and let me explain: I imagine that African American women's infamous dislike of our kinky, tightly coiled hair goes back to the days of the African slave trade. Most black women at some period in our lives have either chemically processed our hair, added extensions to it, or burned our ears while applying massive amounts of heat to straightened it—anything to make our hair easier to manage and to stop looking "nappy." Chris Rock tried to capture some of our hair issues in the documentary Good Hair.

About 15 years ago, I stopped the madness and embraced my jet black, natural hair. I wore it in an afro, twists, braids, and locks (by the way, there's nothing to dread, so I do not call mine dreadlocks). And for wearing my hair "nappy" I was called a lot of things by otherwise friendly black women.

One elderly woman in my former church tried to coax me into getting a perm by telling me that my hair made me look too primitive, like a cannibal. I was shocked that black woman in her 80s was still buying into the lie that African hair was ugly and unsophisticated.

"I am not a cannibal," I told her. "I just love the hair that the Good Lord gave me!"

These issues of self-esteem—loving and embracing our God-given attributes—are not unique to the African Americans. Around the world it seems that the lighter the skin—the closer resemblance to being white—the more positive, successful, and happy a person is perceived to be.

My Latin-American colleagues echoed the same sentiments during a professional development series on racism and personal identity that was held at my school last school year. The African slave trade in South America, especially in Brazil, made a racial caste system based largely on skin color was perhaps even more prevalent there than in the United States.

While the stance on natural hair in the black community has improved in the last 15 years—especially in the hair-crazed city of Chicago—the images of beauty in the media hasn't changed that much. Young black and Hispanic girls still feel external pressures to look less ethnic in their quest for glitz and glam.

Two years ago, Sesame Street tried to address this issue when the show's head writer Joey Mazzarino realized that his adopted daughter from Ethiopia, who was only about four, despised her kinky tresses. One of the darker girl puppets sang "I Really Love My Hair" and it became an overnight Internet sensation. (If you've never seen it, click the link—it's adorable!)

Which brings me to a somewhat related question: Was saying that my hair made me look like a cannibal an example of hyperbole?

One day I was working in my classroom after school and Mina (not her real name), one of my seventh grade writing students, knocked on the door.

"Ms. Rhames, I need help," she said, "I just don't get that figurative language--especially hyperbole."

I explained that hyperbole is when a writer exaggerates in such a big way that no one will believe her but he's doing it to emphasize a point. I went through the typical examples: I am so hungry I could eat everything in this grocery store ... The man was so tired he slept for 30 years, then woke up for five minutes, and then went back to sleep for 10 more years ... The chili she ate was so hot we had to call the fire department to hose down her mouth.

"I still don't get it," Mina said hopelessly.

So I had to do a little code switching. I asked her if she has ever played the dozens, you know, the "yo mama" jokes? She laughed and said yes. Then you already know hyperbole, I said.

"Yo mama is so stupid that she sits on the T.V. to watch the couch."

Mina giggled.

"Yo mama is so fat she sells shade in the summer time."

Mina laughed a little louder.

"Yo mama is so lazy she stuck her nose out the window so the wind could blow it."

"Oh, now I get it," Mina said with a huge grin on her face.

Some would say that telling obnoxious "Yo mama" jokes is not a best teaching practice. The jokes are rude and offensive. I would agree. But I had to meet Mina where she was. Besides, she knows that the jokes weren't personal and that I greatly respect her mother. The private lesson paid off because she got hyperbole question correct on yesterday's writing assessment.

Looking at Mina, a beautiful black girl who also wears her hair natural in locks, made me think of that cannibal comment. I suppose that elderly woman, who is now deceased, might think Mina's locks look too primitive—like a cannibal.

But it's not an example of hyperbole. That's just a flat out lie.

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