Today, Black women’s head wraps vary in form and style. We have silk bonnets at night and African fabrics in the day. Privately, they have been a tool for protection: keeping our hair undamaged, lowering maintenance costs associated with looking professional, and allowing us to genuinely rest our weary heads. Publicly, they have become an aesthetic symbol of Black identity and a rebellious spirit. The reclaiming of the headwrap as something that Black women consciously choose and voluntarily adopt, however, is a recent phenomenon.
In many African and African descendant cultures, headwraps have been around for countless generations, but they were not simply a mark of Black women’s fashion. The head scarf has been the core of black female identity, cultural recognition, and social status, all originating from our rich ancestry on the continent of Africa.
At its core, the head wrap has been used in hot climates to protect women’s hair and scalp from heat and sun exposure. While in the Americas today, the pervasive image of a farmer is a man, in Sub-Saharan Africa (and many other places around the world) that image is wholly inaccurate. Presently, up to 70% of Africa’s food is grown by women. We can imagine a time when that number was even higher. As sustainers of the home, African women were and are expected to feed their families through subsistence farming at least, and industrial farming at best. Headwraps are tools of that trade.
Spiritually, African women and Black women have adopted head coverings as a religious aesthetic. From hijabs in the Islamic tradition to White lace coverings in the Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Black women have known that covering one’s head is an act of faith. In traditional African religions, a new initiate (Iyawó) is easily identified by wearing White from head to toe, including a headscarf that must be worn at all times. This is true in Ifá, Santería, Candomblé, Lucumí, and many other derivative and contemporary faiths. Sangomas, South African healers, cover their heads with wigs and scarves, often with ornate beads and threads. And, even the plumes of modern-day Baptist church hats harken back to the same shared ancestor - the head scarf.
Culturally, headwraps have a deep lineage as tools that have helped Black people navigate subjugation. Enslaved African women in the United States used them to navigate sumptuary laws that restricted the extravagance of how Black women could dress and express themselves. In the sordid pathology of victim blaming, these laws restricted the agency of Black women to present themselves as desirable. Enslaved, and later free, Black women would cover their hair - signaling poverty or piousness - as a means to appeasing White women and their beauty standards.
But, the cleverness of Black women is such that we have always remembered re-packaged instruments of oppression in association with their original, African values, and we always find a way to bring that agency into contemporary use. For example, the Black people of Suriname have a long tradition of using the tying styles of women’s head wraps as messages between community members. This goes back to the days of colonization, when Black people were enslaved in White spaces, not allowed to speak with one another in native languages, and trying desperately to use their limited agency to shepherd others out of harms’ way. Indeed, these headwraps helped many reach maroon communities that still thrive throughout the country today.
It is in that spirit of thriving that the tradition of headwraps have come back as a symbol of resistance. Using headwraps as protection is still a very valid act of self-care. It was preserved even during that many years post-slavery, when straightened and pressed hairstyles were adopted by Black women, who wanted an easier time navigating White spaces of economic opportunity. The 1960s and 1970s would bring us back to ourselves, as men and women began to unapologetically reclaim their heritage as a means of rebellion and pride.
Today, we are neither forced, nor legally restricted in how we express ourselves as Black women, but we continue to face subtle and pervasive aggressions of White supremacy that suggest that our features are neither respectable, nor desired in mainstream and predominantly White spaces. It was just in 2019 when the state of California ruled that it was illegal to discriminate in workplaces and schools on the basis of natural hair with the CROWN Act. Reclaiming pride in our traditions and claiming the undeniable beauty of our Blackness requires constant effort. Headscarves have been allies in our work - keeping us protected from harm, acting as a canary in the coal mine to communicate with our people, and as an unabashedly boisterous crown of pride - worn high and bright. It is a reminder of that which is already within us, our strength, our royalty, and the legacy of an unbreakable people. It is the head wrap that serves as a unique historical commonality among Black women across the diaspora, and our history of surviving within societies that enforce assimilation.
No matter where you travel throughout the African diaspora, whether it be throughout the United States, South America, or the Mother Continent of Africa, the head scarf has stood the test of time and remains an important part of Black culture - pre-colonial, colonial, and present day. As Maya Angelou said “Your crown has been bought and paid for. Put it on your head and wear it.”
Ashley N. Company
“Fly” Girl spreading #BlackGirlMagic across 100 countries and counting. Headwrap lover. Fierce Protector of Black Lives.