When Black Women Were Required By Law to Cover Their Hair

In the 1700s, the Tignon Laws forced Black women in Louisiana to wear head wraps because their beautiful, elaborate hairstyles were considered a threat to the status quo.

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Apr 10 2018, 7:39pm

By Zoa Photo via Stocksy.

Growing up, I always wanted to tame my mane. It was tempestuous, wild, big, thick, and rough—the complete opposite of what my young, impressionable mind was told “attractive” looked like. Simply by growing up in America, I had been led to believe that my hair was “stressed out” and needed to “relax.” So that’s what I did—I relaxed my hair. And, indeed, people looked at me differently once my hair became silky. I went from being a cute young girl to an alluring young lady.

Which is incredibly unfortunate. Because it seemed to confirm that my hair should be disguised and tamed; that if I didn’t chemically change it, it should be tucked away.

I wish I had known then that women who looked like me proudly wore their hair natural and kinky in America centuries before. Some of those women were even seen as being so beautiful that laws were put in place in an effort to diminish their beauty. Yes, their hair was so damn beautiful that it was illegal.

In the late 18th century, new economic opportunities and growth led to an increase in the free African and African-American populations of New Orleans. This was because some people of African descent were newly able to make money, buy their freedom, and subsequently increase the free Black population. And with that came an increase in interracial relationships, to the dismay of colonial authorities. As Ze Winters notes in The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic, “Charles III of Spain demanded that the colonial governor of Louisiana ‘establish public order and proper standards of morality,’ with specific reference to a ‘large class of ‘mulattos’ and particularly “mulatto’ women.”

During this time, women of African descent were known to wear their hair in elaborate styles (yes, we’ve been fly for centuries). By incorporating feathers and jewels into their hairstyles, they showcased the full magic and glory of their gravity-defying strands, and appeared wealthier than they actually were. As a result, these enticing styles attracted the attention of men—including white men.

To address this “problem,” in 1786, Spanish colonial Governor Don Esteban Miró enacted the Edict of Good Government, also referred to as the Tignon Laws, which “prohibited Creole women of color from displaying ‘excessive attention to dress’ in the streets of New Orleans.” Instead, they were forced to wear a tignon (scarf or handkerchief) over their hair to show that they belonged to the slave class, whether they were enslaved or not. In The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South, historian Virginia M. Gould notes that Miró hoped the laws would control women “who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.”

"A West Indian Flower Girl and Two other Free Women of Color" by Augostino Brunias (1769) via Wikimedia Commons.

In response to the laws, Creole women did cover their hair, but they did so with intricate fabrics and jewels (think Angela Bassett in American Horror Story as real-life New Orleans sorceress, Marie Laveau). As Baton Rouge curator Kathe Hambrick put it in a recent interview with The Advocate, “they owned it and made it a part of their fashion.” Instead of a cover-up, the wraps became a symbol style. And, of course, the women continued to attract men with their extravagant hairdos.

Once the United States took ownership of Louisiana through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the Tignon Laws were no longer enforced. Still, some enslaved and free women of African descent continued to wear headwraps as a symbol of resistance to white colonialism.

By the end of the 19th century, however, many Black women began straightening their hair in order to blend into a society that had established a Eurocentric ideal of beauty. This started with the use of hot combs (invented by a French hairdresser in 1872) and grew after the influence of Madam C.J. Walker, who became the first Black female millionaire after she improved the hot comb and produced various products for straightening the hair of Black women. Then when the Black pride movements of the 60s and 70s took place decades later, the afro became the hairstyle of choice. It was seen as a form of resistance against the white status quo.

So where are we now? In the centuries since, we’ve seen the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the first Black president of the United States. But have things changed for Black women’s hair? In a sense, yes. My hair is no longer criminal (despite the fact that my skin appears to be, considering the fates of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and many others), but it still causes some people discomfort.

Still today, the act of not manipulating my hair is perceived as radical to a certain extent. It’s 2018, and natural hair still catches many people off guard. It fascinates people. So much so, that I, like many Black women, am forced to bob and weave as I politely sing Solange’s black girl anthem, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” when curious hands come my way.

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Nonetheless, times have changed. Here we are, taking off our metaphoric tignons and embracing our kinks and curls publicly. From the world bearing witness to women like Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis of Black Panther as they grace screens and stages worldwide, to our former First Lady rocking her natural hair. According to research firm Mintel, 71% of Black adults wore their hair natural at least once in 2016 and “Black spending on relaxers dropped 30.8% between 2011 and 2016.” More and more Black women, like myself, are becoming comfortable with our hair standing out and standing up. We’re slowly, but surely, changing society’s definition of beauty.

So, to every kinky-haired girl looking in the mirror frustrated with what they see, cringing as the comb gets stuck in their coily strands, tempted by the allure of the “creamy crack :” remember that history proves the actual reason your hair is considered unruly is that it’s so beautiful, it has the potential to upend white supremacy.