The Politics of Hair

by Belle Waring on March 9, 2016

I recently learned something that I had been totally ignorant about: black and Creole women pre-Emancipation were required by law in many places to wear a headwrap in public. Obviously I’m familiar with the image of Aunt Jemima in her checkered kerchief. And my family has some etchings in S.C. of women hawking food on the street in Savannah, calling “swimpee, swimpee, nice and fresh” and the like. (The Gullah word starts with the voiceless alveolar /s/ and then has the rest said like we all say shrimp—according to the dictionary, but the mangled spelling of the etchings is actually a good approximation of how it sounds.) All the women depicted are wearing headscarves—and the women who sell sweetgrass baskets on the street in Charleston, wear them today. (People actually did hawk food on the street when my dad was a kid, which is kind of funny to think about.) Women in Louisiana were subject to the “tignon” law, which mandated a headwrap, starting in 1785. You will not be surprised to learn that the one-drop rule applied to the tignon law, so the many beautiful only-one-black-great-grandparent-having ladies in New Orleans also had to have them on. However, as this great, lavishly illustrated writeup details, it didn’t work out quite as planned,

In an effort to maintain class distinctions in his Spanish colony at the beginning of his term, Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró (1785 – 1791) decreed that women of color, slave or free, should cover their heads with a knotted headdress and refrain from “excessive attention to dress.” In 1786, while Louisiana was a Spanish colony, the governor forbade: “females of color … to wear plumes or jewelry”; this law specifically required “their hair bound in a kerchief.” But the women, who were targets of this decree, were inventive & imaginative with years of practice. They decorated their mandated tignons, made of the finest textiles, with jewels, ribbons, & feathers to once again outshine their white counterparts.

Nice try, dicks. Free blacks were almost 20% of the New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, but both enslaved and free black women had to wear the tignon. And, thinking about it, lots of women in the Caribbean wore/wear this style. You should definitely go read this post which is very detailed and has some superlative turban/hat combos to admire.



Ormond 03.09.16 at 3:12 am

Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; Or, the Horrors of Santo Domingo(1808) posits that the same laws in pre-revolutionary Haiti were the legislated result of a sexual competition between French and French Creole wives with their husbands’ black and mixed-race mistresses.


RNB 03.09.16 at 5:43 am

I remember how four years ago my now eleven-year-old Afro-Indian daughter was made to feel self-conscious about her hair at school. She cried. Like her mother’s, it was not straightened or braided. And the few times it was she heard about how beautiful her hair looked. That pained me. A couple of years later, she was in a classical music school, and I was expecting the worst from snooty white and even straight-haired Asian students. I thought that there would be competition among the kids, and I feared that her difference would be used against her. But it must be something about playing in ensembles every day that led to mutual tolerance and appreciation. Children who learn to and love to play together come to appreciate each other. She no longer has any interest in wearing her hair any differently than her mom does.


Meredith 03.09.16 at 6:36 am

Thank you, Belle. Women and hair/heads. (I guess men have their own hair/head worlds, barber shops and such, baldness preoccupations, yarmukles, but, not so interesting as women’s, unless we’re talking Horace…). Headwear is so very interesting in every society (Pandora and the lid on that jar). I never thought much about black women’s headwraps until we visited our daughter when she was teaching in Guadeloupe, on which trip we learned many things (including why we won the Revolution — thank you, France). There, each detail of a headwrap revealed worlds about the wearer. Part of one museum dedicated to these details. I had the impression, self-chosen details — in a world of compulsion, but still, not the same as the State ordaining what you wear.

My mother’s best friend at my mother’s weird college year in Richmond (which produced, nonetheless and wonderfully, my “half” sister and brother), the NC friend she talked to on the phone a lot in the days when long distance phone calls really cost something, “knew Gullah” — I grew up in NJ with that as some great mark of honor, speaking Gullah! (My mother’s friend probably knew only a little, but that’s okay.)

Anyway, good night, Belle. I have just become a grandmother of a little girl, born with a remarkable head of hair! From her father’s side, and she will have to deal with it!


JPL 03.09.16 at 8:04 am

Interesting post with an American angle on a bit of culture I’d always taken for granted. The head tie is part of traditional dress for women in African cultures, particularly of significance in West Africa. The article mentions that the tignon “resembles a West African gele”; that should probably be “is a West African gele.” ‘gele’ is a Yoruba word for the head tie; other West African languages have words specifically for the head tie that are native to those languages and not loan words from European languages, which indicates that the cultural practice predates the European contact. In Mende, for example, which was the first language for many in the community which became known as the Gullah (as discovered by the great African American linguist Lorenzo Turner), the word for head tie is ‘kpaye’. (Have you ever heard a word sounding similar to that used in South Carolina to refer to a head tie?) The Yoruba have the reputation for probably the most elaborate head ties, a locus for showing off if one wants to that you can see of course in Nigeria even today.

So if there was a law mandating tignons for women of colour in Louisiana, it would probably have had the effect of forcing women to do something that they would have wanted to do anyway. (The joke is still on the “dicks”.) I would also guess that if the white women were joining the Africans in a head tie fashion craze, this was yet another example of African to American cultural influence.


Maria 03.09.16 at 10:00 am

I read Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women recently. It’s about slavery in Jamaica under the British, with the odd Irish overseer thrown in. Not a comfortable read. The women mostly seem to wear their hair out, but one white character gets the hump about a particular woman’s hair, and makes her wear a scarf over it. Later on, it turns out everyone thinks this was really cowardly and pathetic and justice is sort of served. Hair. Deeply political.


ZM 03.09.16 at 10:22 am

The linked post has some beautiful pictures Belle. I always thought Erykah Badu’s headwrap wearing was beautiful, but she described how she stopped wanting to wear them anymore:

“ten-or-so years ago, she visited Cuba to get a Santeria reading, clad in “this white head wrap and this white long dress and all of my jewelry, because it was part of me. It was who I was.” She waited alongside a man with dirty nails, smoking a cigarette and swigging beer.

Badu continued:

“I finally went in for my reading and there was this beautiful older woman who had on a yellow long dress and short haircut. She was very pretty. She started walking around me and speaking to me in Spanish. I assumed she was the priest who was going to give me my reading.

When the guy with the beard and dirty nails came in, I told the interpreter, “I kind of wanted it to be private.” She goes, “Oh no, he’s the Priest.”

I never wore the head wrap again. I realized it wasn’t necessary anymore, because after all that man was from a long line of healers and he didn’t have to look like one. He was born with it. No matter what he did or what he said, no one could take that away from him. That’s when I was freed and began to evolve. I began to focus on being more in here than out there.””

I guess that is the sort of thing that mandating head wrap wearing prohibited; if women stop wanting to wear them they can’t (I still think they look beautiful though).


engels 03.09.16 at 11:30 am

When I saw the title I thought this was going to be about Trump


Ronan(rf) 03.09.16 at 1:51 pm

Congrats Meredith. Coming from a family with two relatively recent arrivals, it seems to me the grandparents get the best of the new child (all the affection and fun). So enjoy ! (The uncles, on the other hand, seem to (probably deservedly) get given out to a good bit…..for turning off Dora the explora, incorrectly constructing toys, so on and so forth)


Belle Waring 03.09.16 at 2:01 pm

Congrats Meredith!


Maria 03.09.16 at 2:21 pm

Oh, congrats, Meredith! (don’t know how I missed that) There is nothing cuter than a new baby with a full head of hair. xx


Eimear Ní Mhéalóíd 03.09.16 at 2:45 pm

Barbara Hambly has tons in her excellent Benjamin January series about the lives of black people both slaves and gens de couleur libres. Including that only Marie Leveau (the second?) wore a tignon with seven points.


Val 03.09.16 at 4:38 pm

Thanks for that and the linked post Belle. So interesting and beautiful. Also shows how women and people of colour could be simultaneously controlled and oppressed yet create richer and more interesting lives within those boundaries, than those who oppressed them.


Val 03.09.16 at 4:40 pm

Also congratulations Meredith! Grandparenting is great! (Spell check first rendered that as ‘grandpa renting’)


Bill Benzon 03.09.16 at 6:13 pm

A somewhat different look at the politics of hair, from 1995:


RNB 03.09.16 at 7:02 pm

Interesting @18. I really don’t hear people overpoliticitizing hair, but I do hear a lot about how expensive a good stylist is. I know that Noliwe Rooks has written about the politics of hair. The photos in the book are amazing. Would be interested in a comparison of the politics of hair in the US and France. I was surprised by the array of wigs, weaves on offer in the 18th (?) Arrondissement in Paris. It seemed more extensive than anything I could find in Oakland, California. By the way, didn’t the servant class in France, England have to cover their hair as a way of distinguishing themselves from the wig-wearing aristocracy?


Meredith 03.10.16 at 5:35 am

Thank you to Belle and Maria. Warms me.


Meredith 03.10.16 at 5:56 am

Val, too! Hadn’t read far enough.
Why does human head hair (add beard hair for men) grow so much? How did our forebears thousands of years ago (before Ur and such) deal with it? This would be before metals were in use: did people use flint to cut excessive and troublesome hair? Maybe the problems of handling an evolutionary inconvenience account for much in our human condition? (I’m not kidding.) Maybe they braided hair, as they would have baskets? Hence language? (Not kidding. I wish evolutionary biologists, so-called, asked questions like this.) Meanwhile, as we coped with all this excessive and troublesome hair, we must have relied on one another, like primates picking out nits…. That’s my guess. Curious that the excess of hair, on head or face, is the occasion of so much human sociability even today.


RNB 03.10.16 at 6:03 am

Evolutionary biologists or at at least biological anthropologists do ask questions like that! Jonathan Marks: “Another example of the co-evolution of the organic and non-organic involves our hair. Human head hair, unlike that of chimpanzees, usually keeps growing. Without the means to cut and tend it, then, our hair will overgrow our sensory organs—an unusual and presumably highly maladaptive situation. To understand it, we need to realize that our hair is not merely a biological feature, but a bio-cultural feature. It universally conveys symbolic and social information about us. Indeed, the earliest depictions of the human form that we have—the “Venus” carvings from about 25,000 years ago—show the hair carefully tended, even back in the Stone Age. Presumably hair served more-or-less the same social functions back then that it does universally in our species now. Once again, that plainly implies that hair growth must have evolved in concert with the technological ability to maintain it.

The problem, though, is that we don’t—and can’t—know much more than that. The reason is that we are now talking about the symbolic, the social, and the physiological features of our species, none of which is retrievable in the ancient human fossil record, which is limited to the world of osteology and lithics, or more euphoniously, of bones and stones.”

Or again: “Our hair, for example, is distinctly different from
that of the apes in several ways. Unlike the apes, the hair on our heads would be a
sensory nuisance, covering our faces unless carefully tended. That tending, however,
is not simply utilitarian, for in human societies generally, one’s hair and other
manners of self-decoration symbolically announce aspects of one’s status. And
indeed, the very first images of the human form that we have—the 25,000-year-old
‘Venus figurines’—show the hair carefully tended (Figure 2). That is, with Upper
Palaeolithic technologies they groomed a biological feature of negative survival
value, imbuing it with symbolic social meanings; and the same might well be true of
the sexually dimorphic human facial hair. Its social and symbolic value must have outweighed
what a pain it was to develop in the first place (for apes have neither long facial
hair nor long head hair), and must have been there from the very beginning (Thierry,
2005). The biological feature had to co-evolve with the cultural ability to take care of it,
and to ascribe meaning to it. Culture is thus an ultimate evolutionary cause (Mayr,
1961) of the human condition.”


Dr. Hilarius 03.10.16 at 7:49 am

Eimear @ 11 beat me to the Barbara Hambly reference.


Meredith 03.14.16 at 4:23 am

RNB, thanks so much! Fascinating, and I am happy to be corrected about the serious attention already given to these questions by smart and learned and disciplined people (and to be reassured that I am not crazy for having asked these questions, if belatedly and naively). I am truly curious about the braiding of Venus’ hair in relation to basket-weaving (and, say, thatch-like techniques of providing shelter) and the development of human language.

About this from your link: “To try and represent humans as non-cultural beings is a fool’s errand, the residuum of a pre-modern scientific approach to understanding the human condition.” I agree with all but the “pre-modern scientific approach” part. My sense is that trying to represent humans as non-cultural beings is the fool’s errand of certain not very good modern scientists (including some who call themselves evolutionary biologists, though I do not want to be unfair to all who so call themselves), not of many pre-modern others and certainly not of, say, the “authors” of a Gilgamesh or Genesis or Works and Days.


RNB 03.14.16 at 4:45 am

Here’s what Marks is getting at by his reference to a pre-modern scientific understanding–the assumption that we can imagine a human nature before the acquisition of human culture; and he does see that assumption at work in Gilgamesh!
But I have to read Jon Marks more carefully again to understand why he calls this a pre-Darwinian assumption.
He writes:

‘The earliest philosophers and mythologists that we know of appreciated that they lived
in a different state than do wild animals, and sought to understand, explain or at least
explore that fact. The most famous is the story of Adam and Eve (literally, ‘Earth’ and
‘Life’), who exist in a baby-like state of nakedness and amorality until the snake and
the fruit, and subsequently must lead ‘real’ adult human lives of labour, childbirth
and, of course, the knowledge of good and evil. The next most famous is the
Babylonian story of Enkidu, whose transformation from animal into man (and
friend of Gilgamesh) is mediated by a sexual seduction.
The point is that the state of being human is the result of a transformation out of an
earlier state, when we were like the animals. The transformation took place in the dim
historical past, or in a mythical time and place, but it invariably answers the question:
What were we like before we were ‘civilised’, or before we were fully human? What was
the basic nature of humans like before the acquisition of humanity—brought about in
one case by the knowledge of good and evil, or morality; and in another by the love of a
good harlot?
What these stories share is the fundamental assumption that there is an imaginable
state of humans without humanity, or human nature before the acquisition of human
culture. Perhaps, then, all we need to do to reconstruct that primordial nature is to
imagine what that ‘man in a state of pure nature’ might be like. The phrase was
popular among the 18th-century French philosophes. Nevertheless, it had been used
by Thomas Aquinas (‘Sed quia possibile fuit Deo ut hominem facere in puris naturalibus
…’), and the imagined creature had even been introduced into political polemics
by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651). The mind that imagines a person with the
beastly nature, but lacking the humanising culture, of modern people is a pre-Darwinian
mind. Such a thought experiment is independent of Darwinism (contra Konner,
2002; and Pinker, 2003), and is inconsistent with modern knowledge of human
That is the myth I wish to discuss in this paper: The idea that you can analytically
separate human biology from culture and meaningfully study only human biological
evolution, or that there is a ‘natural history’ of being human that is not a ‘natural/cultural’


Val 03.15.16 at 10:39 pm


Val 03.15.16 at 10:40 pm

Ah rats pics didn’t work this time – anyway they’re in the full story

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