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The Black Woman’s Forgotten Fight against the Laws that Banned her Hair

BY FRANCKY KNAPP


A young Creole woman in a tignon of her own creation. Painting from the Historic New Orleans Collection.

There are many reasons why it’s not “just hair” for Black women. Before the “Black is Beautiful” and natural hair movement emerged during the 1960s, anti-Black hair sentiment in Western society existed for centuries, most contentiously in colonial Louisiana when a series of laws actually banned Creole women from displaying their hair in public. Introduced in 1789, the “Tignon Laws” required female “gens de couleur” to cover their hair with a tignon (scarf or handkerchief) in an attempt to stifle their increasing social mobility. In the 18th century, free and fair skinned Creole women held an unusual place in New Orleans society, donning hairstyles that proudly displayed their kinks and coils with an air of regality. They even attended balls where they would often be taken as mistresses by wealthy white men, posing an apparent threat to white women. Enforcing Creole women to wear the Tignon publicly signified that they were members of the slave class, regardless of whether they were free or enslaved. But clothes can be amazing codifiers for both repression and rebellion…

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray (story behind this portrait)

The term “Creole” refers to the ethnic groups that emerged in the colonial era from unions of West African, Native American, South Asian and European peoples, and it has a particularly strong presence in New Orleans, Louisiana where racial classifications were used to refer to people of mixed white and black ancestry. There were free mulattos (who had one Black parent), quadroons (one Black grandparent) and octoroons (one Black great-grandparent).

Under the administration of Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró, the Tignon laws served to prevent any mixed race women from “passing” as white. As historian Virginia M. Gould explains, the laws were specifically targeted at those women “who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who, in reality, competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.”

 Portraits des Deurbroucq, 1753.

The rise and fall of those laws marks one of the most pivotal moments of America’s long history policing and appropriating the style of brown and Black communities. Ever resilient, the Creole women went on to style the tignons with equal flair, decorating their tignons with their jewels and ribbons. Becoming a form of sartorial protest and empowerment, “instead of being considered a badge of dishonor,” notes historian Carolyn Long, “the tignon…became a fashion statement”. It’s thought that Black women adjusting to those Tignon Laws also paved the way for the colourful and elaborate hats worn by African American women to church today.

A West Indian Flower Girl and Two other Free Women of Color, Agostino Brunias, circa 1769.

Actually, an 1891 document from the Louisiana Works Progress Administration also states that tignon “fashion is said to have come from Martinique and San Domingo, from portraits representing ancestors wearing Madras handkerchiefs.” That’s the thing about tignons and head wraps in general; they’re part of a rich and complex conversation on Black and brown identities and community building. Tignon laws were clear, racist policing tools, but hair wraps of the African diaspora aren’t inherently oppressive tools – to the contrary. In West Africa and Southern Africa, for example, head ties have long existed in fantastic variations for both casual and formal occasions; Nigeria has the gele, and Malawi and Ghana have the duku; South Africa and Namibia innovated the doek, while Bostwana boasts the tukwi.

“In 1960, geles were tied to mimic the architecture of Nigeria’s first skyscraper,” reported NPR’s Amma Ogan in 2016, “When the National Theatre was built with a peaked roof to mimic a general’s cap, Nigerian fashionistas folded and twisted their geles to echo the design.”

Nigerian women at a party in the 1970s

Ogan goes on to discuss the importance of geles in family, and community. “Go to a Nigerian wedding in one of the world’s megacities on any given Saturday and you will find friends of the bride styled [in them],” writes Ogan, “an ankle-length dress topped with a gele, all in identical fabrics. Family, friends and old schoolmates signify their relationship to the celebrant by wearing aso-ebi — a Yoruba word that means family cloth. They all buy the same fabric and make an outfit, in the style of their choice. Even men will sometimes make a cap in the fabric.” Nigerian photographer Oye Diran, for example, created a beautiful photo series, “A Ti De” (We Have Arrived) to celebrate such vintage Yoruba head coverings:

oye_diran / Instagram

“The headwrap has been a part of my personal style for over ten years,” says multidisciplinary, Texas-based artist Chesley Antoinette, whose 2018 exhibit Tignon” revisited the wrap’s evolving legacy. Antoinette created dozens of tignons (or “turbans,” as she calls them) for both display and as features of her stylised photo series.

Chesley Antoinette ©Cantoinette Studios

“My work revolves around the 18th century Louisiana territory relationship to tignons under Spanish colonization,” she told Messy Nessy Chic, “So, for me, when I think of the free women of color population who thwarted the 1786 law through their creativity transforming the Tignon from a symbol of oppression to rebellion, it is encouraging and inspirational when it comes to seeking beauty rather than the ugly.”

Chesley Antoinette ©Cantoinette Studios
Chesley Antoinette ©Cantoinette Studios

Once the US took ownership of Louisiana in 1803, the Tignon laws were no longer enforced. Yet, for so many Creole women, the choice to continue to wear them afterwards – on their own terms – was a powerful gesture of reclamation that lives on in Antoinette’s work and personal style. “As a naturally creative person,” she says, “I continue to embrace my love and inner creativity with the headwrap while also encouraging others, too.”

Chesley Antoinette ©Cantoinette Studios

Visit Chesley Antoinette’s website to see & shop for more of her art and turbans

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