I learned to wrap my hair with a scarf with age-cousins to protect my braids and beads as a little girl. Today, each evening, on a night when I have to go to work/school the next day, I twist my hair and still tie my hair with a silk scarf. Now spring is ending, summer vacation is here, work is over, and the incentive for my time-consuming semi-daily twist-outs and intense moisturizing are long gone (check out HIMAY10NENCE for the most exquisite description of how time-consuming and difficult this process is!) Couple all that with the fact that now is the best time to purchase scarves and what you have is a new fashion/hair moment: the head scarf as fashion, not just sleepwear. At this time of year, I can find $10 silk scarves and $3 faux silk scarves all because capitalist clothing machinery imagines women’s scarves as fall and winter apparel for white women’s necks rather than the superfly and protective cover for black women’s heads.
I have gone to youtube for headscarf tutorials as much as for natural hair care regiments. It is not a coincidence that at precisely the moment when black women are exploiting social media to educate and communicate with one another about natural hair that headscarf fashions are also taking full bloom. Yes, the headscarf is connected to natural haircare and protection, but there is also a whole other public discourse happening here, one that is re-tooling and re-vocabularizing black women’s beauty and heads away from a white media cartel that has quite purposefully desexualized, criminalized, and uglified black women in headwraps.
I think a lot about what possessed white media monopolies to craft historical images of blackwomen in headscarves as the epitome of unattraction, care of white children/families, desexualization, enslaved domesticity, self-hatred, and backwardness. Here, of course, I am talking about Pancake-Making Aunt Jemima, the most obvious visual marker and stereotype (cartoons were also subsumed with such images). I won’t go into the history of Aunt Jemima and its ideological purpose in creating white nationhood (that will happen later this summer), but suffice it to say that derogatory and racist images of Aunt Jemima always depicted her in a headscarf, pretty much up until 1989 when she got a perm and pearls (of course, it was not JUST the headscarf that was mocked but the FULL body and skin). The question for me is: why did white women and white men need so desperately to take the cultural image of the black woman’s headwrap and negate it so fiercely?
The images in the slideshow below are taken from black women’s online sites (click here for a sample website). I think the slideshow makes it clear that it took an INORDINATE amount of calculation, time, and visual sorcery/dishonesty for media monopolies to make such women and their adornments ugly. Was the distinctiveness of this beauty and style politics THAT threatening to the maintenance of white male dominance and white femininity?
We know from the oral histories of former slaves collected by the Federal Writers Project that black women during slavery used headwraps for utilitarian, symbolic, and ornamental reasons. Even those interviewers, considered young “progressive” whites for their time, talked about their black female interviewees in headwraps as typical, old “mammies” in head rags so you have to read the descriptive details about the ways the scarves were wrapped very closely. In the objective descriptions of intricate scarf wrappings and patterns, you can hear that these were not women who considered themselves ugly or their headwraps as marking an informal, mammy time.
Black women’s headwraps protected their hair and scalp from heat and sun as well as kept their hair clean. But these wraps were also symbols and adornment. There are records of slaveowners, particularly white female slave mistresses, who commented in disgust at how bright black women’s headwraps were, seen a mile away. When I try to imagine what that scene must have looked like in reality, I envision something quite splendid! While other whites would have understood these white women’s responses as a commentary on black women’s subhuman status, I see it as proof that black women in slavery used headscarves as ornaments that marked their beauty and themselves in community with other black women. We also know from the historical record that black women wore different kinds of headscarves for formal events (funerals and the like) and also tied them differently for different occasions. In photos before AND after emancipation, you can see groups of black women in headscarves where no two headscarves look the same: the patterns and the wrappings are endlessly varied, working as a kind of improvisational performance reminiscent of a Jazz Quartet…. an elaborate individuality alongside community rhythm at the same time.
Other aesthetic philosophies are also operating here. European-descended women, of course, wore headscarves too, usually called kerchiefs, but they were styled in a different way. Headwraps tied at the front of the crown rather than at the nape of the neck is an aesthetic invention of West African women solely. For the West/subsaharan African-inspired headwrap, facial features are intentionally highlighted with a scarf that wraps upward to draw your eyes up rather than allowing you to look down on a woman. Since black women under slavery were the ones who did ALL of the sewing and weaving, black women obviously had access to a range of fabric remnants to create headwraps (they even used sailcloths when necessary); they also carried memories of African patterns and design (you can clearly see this in slave women’s quilts), cloth dying techniques, and alternative philosophies of women’s ornamentation. So these headwraps carried heavy meanings that black women both understood and actively manipulated. While whites used headwraps to mark black women as different from and inferior to white women (there are records of laws in Louisiana, for instance, that made women of African descent wear their headwraps in specific ways to better recognize them, especially significant for those who could pass for white as mulattoes), black women had their own meanings. Headwraps were particular to black women and represented radical ideas about hair, face, and beauty: defiant, self-empowered, communal, individual, resistant. Was the distinctiveness of this beauty and style politics THAT threatening to the maintenance of white male dominance and white femininity? Yes, indeed. Nothing else adequately explains how something so seemingly benign as a headscarf had to be so demonized and mocked.
I hope it makes sense how and why I use youtube to “archive,” if you will, black women’s headwrapping today. Given the history I have discussed, it seems safe to say that the endless renditions of black women’s headwrapping and design materials that you can find on youtube tutorials (which include women from the Americas and Europe) represent deep, ancestral ties.
These are not just the scarves that all black women have come to know— those wraps either we ourselves or women around us wear to bed at night. No, these wraps by young women on youtube are used as the centerpiece of outfits or as THE accessory which sets off the rest, just like what their predecessors did. My time in classrooms is also a good litmus test: I have seen more and more young black female college students wearing fabulous, intricate headwraps in the past five years than EVER before.
I hear a lot of people say that today’s black women are taking back the headwrap from the negative, racist stereotype of white media’s invention of Aunt Jemima. But I don’t see us as taking anything back... I think we are holding on to what we have always had.