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The Evergreen Legacy Of The Tignon: How The Policing Of Black Hair Has Continued Centuries Later

The story of what once happened when the colonizing white gaze landed on black hair.

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Every few weeks, it isn’t uncommon for pop culture news cycles to report on the latest black-adjacent white woman who is found guilty of misappropriating black hairstyles.  This is almost always identified as some form of braids, cornrows or exaggerated emphasis on baby hair.  Couple that with high fashion magazines who report on traditionally-accepted black styles through the polarizing white perspective, and it’s no surprise that the emotions felt by many people of color range anywhere from awkwardness to growing irritation to blistering anger. 

As Genisa Babb, a Director at THE FADER shared, “I do care when [white women] take credit or misdirect credit for their [hair] inspiration. I believe everyone should educate themselves on all bold creative expressions so that they can speak intelligently about it.” She continued, “When Kim Kardashian gave credit for her first set of braids earlier this year to a white woman I was appalled. She is married to a black man and raising black children AND she’s a celebrity.”

We acknowledge it’s offensive because these styles are native to black women and other groups of people of color, but still others have been quick to ask, “Can black people really own the right to wear braids? Is that a fair judgement to make?” And here is where one is met with conflicting emotions and varied outlooks. As Keri Lee, a NY-based singer/songwriter opined, “I don’t care about white women wearing the styles … I get it, it’s cute. My issue is when they say things like ‘boxer braids’ or ‘coco swoop.’ I wish they would respect and credit where these styles came from.” She continued, “It was ‘ghetto’ at first, but now they find it chic and urban.”

Despite being tone deaf, it’s not necessarily an unfair question and one that I have asked myself on a few occasions. This continued until one day when I was confronted by the reality of 1786’s provocative Tignon (pronounced “tiyon”) Laws in Louisiana.

During the 1700s, while most blacks in America were enslaved, there was a significant population of free blacks who were able to take advantage of the disorganized, slow-developing Louisiana territory. Essentially, many of those early French settlers couldn’t afford the basic upkeep that slaves require, so would opt to rent them out to the Spanish or allow the slave themselves to earn their own part-time income. The slaves were industrious and learned to work the system in their favor — when the opportunity presented itself, purchasing their own freedom was paramount.

This casual societal hierarchy paved the way for free African, Creole and mulatto women to move at leisure throughout their local communities.  These women could easily be identified due to the wealth and prestige they exuded, which often began with their crowns of hair.  Always styled in elaborate, heavily decorated bouffants adorned with feathers and jewelry (the higher the hair, the closer to God), they were a sight to be seen. And seen they were; they rose up the ranks to become prominent influencers and socialites! They often became open mistresses to influential white men, and it wasn’t long before white women felt increasing pressure to protect their legacy of white privilege.

Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miro passed the Tignon Laws in 1786, mandating all women of color must wear their hair covered in a knotted headdress in public settings. Because this law applied to enslaved and free women of color alike, it was intended to act as an equalizer to distinguish all as being members of the lower slave class. As historian Virginia Gould notes in The Devil's Lane, Miro hoped to control 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.”

Free women of color reinterpreted the law to their own liking, choosing beautiful fabrics that they eloquently wrapped using complex folds and methods. They effectively managed to circumvent their societal trappings and secured their places in the social hierarchy. Despite Miro’s efforts to quell the mounting fear and pressure of white women, his law was in vain — white men and free women of color continued their illicit trysts. By 1803, the United States took ownership of the Louisiana territory and the law was consequently thrown out.

“[These laws were] put in place to try to silence our creativity and make black women feel inferior versus inventive and not celebrate black women for our imagination,” shares Erin Isbell, a beauty and fitness professional.  She continued, “I would love our black haircare legacy to be more about the imagination, celebration and inventions of black women as it relates to haircare, versus the legacy being about texture and weaves.”

Today, the policing of black hair has continued to rear its head in the centuries since, most recently with the US Army’s ban on dreadlocks and braided hair styles (that was lifted in 2017), and 2016’s court ruling that it’s legal for employers to discriminate against applicants with dreadlocks.

“The idea that dreads or braids on black people having no religious or personal beliefs like a hijab or pulled back bun is so narrow-minded,” says Babb. “Natural survival dictates our ancestors created these styles to help manage their hair with artistic and class defining expression — you even see it in Grecian and Persian looks. But in America, black centric African history is ‘savagery.’ This is what we are up against, the idea that our history is not relevant or accepted.”

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