Hairwraps, kerchiefs, head rags, whatever you want to call them, have a significant history in America. We now wear head wraps and scarves as accessories. They are cute, we like finding different fabrics for them, and they give our hair a little pizazz.
But there was another time in America when wearing a head rag/scarf/whatever was a very different thing. The time I’m referring to is of course slavery.
Yes, I’ve hopped back on the slavery train again. Why? Because so many of the ideas we have (and when I say “we” I mean African Americans in general) about our hair stem from the horrors imposed during the course of slavery.
In Africa, the headwrap was a part of the outfit. Just like some of you are dying for a new pair of Uggs, the same might have been true for the average West African lady hoping for a new headwrap (I’m kidding, but you get my point).Of course during slavery, fashion is kind of put on the back burner.
So, anyhoo, the head rag did serve practical purposes.They were either supplied by their masters per rations or procured by the slaves themselves from a weaver or recycled pieces of clothing. It protected the hair from grime and sun while working out in the fields. It offered protection when carrying heavy loads on one’s head and minor protection from lice and ringworm. It absorbed sweat and prevented it from stinging the eyes of the wearer. But the headrag was so much more than this during the period of slavery.
For whites, it was a way to further implement control over their slaves. From The African American Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols:
The earliest, South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1735, “specifically set a standard of dress for the enslaved and free African Americans” (ibid. 132). In 1740 amendments, South Carolina’s slave code further elaborated the dress regulations (Genovese, 1974:359). In 1786, while Louisiana was a Spanish colony, the governor enacted a dress code which forbade: “females of color … to wear plumes or jewelry”; this law specifically required “their hair bound in a kerchief” (Crete, 1981: 80-81; also Gayarre, 1885: 178-179 and Wares, 1981:135).
In the antebellum period, the Southern whites’ concern regarding the symbol- ism inherent in the dress of African Americans continued. Citing one instance, Richard C. Wade writes that a Savannah editor bemoaned the “extravagant” dress of city blacks. Wade says that the journalist, ” observing that a turban or handkerchief for the head was good enough for peasants,…noted that ‘with our city colored population the old fashioned turban seems fast disappearing’ ” (Savannah Republican 6 June 1849, quoted in Wade, 1981:128-129).
From the same article, it seemed that blacks also used the headwrap system to mark status:
In addition, headwraps functioned as status symbols within the African American communities Louis Hughes, born 1843, enslaved in Mississippi and Virginia, noted: “The cotton clothes worn by both men and women (house servants), and the turbans of the latter, were snowy white” (1897) 1969:43). After the family moved to the city, Hughes recalled, “Each of the women servants wore a new gay colored turban, which was tied differently from that of the ordinary servant, in some fancy knot” (42).
Headwraps were also worn in the black community, even post slavery, for religious ceremonies and to denote age and marital status. It’s so interesting that what’s your on head has such an impact on everyday life.
I have two more write ups concerning headwraps coming up, stay tuned
Hair story: untangling the roots of Black hair in America By Ayana D. Byrd, Lori L. Tharps
The African American Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols By: Helen Bradley Griebel
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