The African American Woman’s Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols
By: Helen Bradley Griebel
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN headwrap holds a distinctive position in the history of American dress both for its longevity and for its potent signification’s. It endured the travail of slavery and never passed out of fashion. The headwrap represents far more than a piece of fabric wound around the head.
This distinct cloth head covering has been called variously “head rag,” “head-
tie,” “head handkerchief,” “turban,” or “headwrap.” I use the latter term here. The headwrap usually completely covers the hair, being held in place by tying the ends into knots close to the skull. As a form of apparel in the United States, the headwrap has been exclusive to women of African descent.
The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and serves similar functions for both African and African American women. In style, the African American woman’s headwrap exhibits the features of sub-Saharan aesthetics and worldview. In the United States, however, the headwrap acquired a paradox of meaning not customary on the ancestral continent. During slavery, white overlords imposed its wear as a badge of enslavement! Later it evolved into the stereotype that whites held of the “Black Mammy” servant. The enslaved and their descendants, however, have regarded the headwrap as a helmet of courage that evoked an image of true homeland-be that ancient Africa or the newer homeland, America. The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity; but at its most elaborate, the African American woman’s headwrap has functioned as a “uniform of rebellion” signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.’
This study examines the multi-layered meanings acquired by the headwrap over several centuries. The intent is to show that the headwrap is African in style; but, as worn by African American women, the traditions regarding its use could only have been forged in the crucible of American slavery and its aftermath.
The impetus for this research comes from the comments made by approximately two thousand formerly’ enslaved African Americans who recounted their experiences and contributed their oral histories to the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936 to 1938. The result was an abbreviated compendium entitled Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves (B.A. Botkin, Chief Editor, Washington, 1941). Subsequently, George P, Rawick assembled the entire body of material for publication as a forty-volume compilation, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (1972, 1977, and 1979). Hereafter, I cite the Rawick volumes as Narratives.
Tying a piece of cloth around the head is not specific to any one cultural group. Men and women have worn and continue to wear some type of fabric head covering in many societies. What does appear to be culturally specific, however, is the way the fabric is worn; in other words, the style in which the fabric is worn is the ultimate cultural marker. Here, .style” is not used to mean a particular fashion. Rather, I use the term to mean a studied way of presenting the self-an idea of how one ought to appear before others. In order to explore this concept, careful note must be taken of the significant difference between the style of cloth head coverings as worn by white women and the headwrap as styled by black women.
To wrap her head, a European or white American woman simply folds a square piece of fabric into a triangular shape and covers her hair by tying the fabric under her chin; or, less often, by tying it at the nape of the neck. In either case, the untied points of fabric are left to fall down over the back of the head. The Euro American style results in a head covering which flattens against the head and encloses the face, and thus visually seems to pull the head down. The terms “scarf” or “kerchief” usually denote this type of head covering. Scarves are not particularly popular items of white American women’s fashion today, but when they are worn, they consistently are arranged in the manner just described.2
By contrast, a woman of African ancestry folds the fabric into a rectilinear shape rather than into a triangle. The most significant difference between the Euro- American and Afro-centric manner of styling the cloth is that rather than tying the knot under her chin, the African American woman usually ties the knots somewhere on the crown of her head, either at the top or on the sides, often tucking the ends into the wrap.
Although the African American woman sometimes ties the fabric at the nape of the neck, her form of styling always leaves her forehead and neck exposed; and, by leaving her face open, the headwrap visually enhances the facial features. The African American headwrap thus works as a regal coronet, drawing the onlooker’s gaze up, rather than down. In effect, African and African American women wear the headwrap as a queen might wear a crown. In this way the headwrap corresponds to African and African American women’s manner of hair styling, wherein the hair is pulled so as to expose the forehead and is often drawn to a heightened mass on top of the head. In striking comparison, the scarf worn by white women emulates the way in which the hair of people of European ancestry naturally grows: falling downward and often arranged to cover the forehead.
Another outstanding difference between the two ways of wearing the head- wrap is that, in contrast to the singular manner by which white women wrap their hair in fabric, African American women exhibit a seemingly endless repertoire of elaborations on the basic mode. One of the earliest extant group photographs of southern African Americans provides striking evidence for this very improvisation on the squared swatch of cloth. In the photo, taken in the early 1860s, the headwraps crafted by both black women and men are far more ornamental than the simple Euro American scarf. Most important, the photo shows twelve newly “freed” African Americans wearing headwraps in twelve different ways; none, however, tied below the head.
HEAD COVERINGS IN THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH
The thirty years before the Civil War is generally considered the antebellum period in American history. Throughout these decades, women’s headcoverings served various purposes, just as they have over other historical periods and in other places. In addition to being simple fashion statements, women’s head coverings have denoted age and religious beliefs as well as marital, gender and class status. Before focusing on the functions of the antebellum headwrap, it is necessary to look at the backdrop of hat styles favored by European and American white women previous to 1865.
African American dress, including head coverings, had elements common to that found in contemporary white America. The assimilation of European-American fashion reflects the universal human regard we all have for outward signs of stability; more to the point, it reflects an ability on the part of the displaced Africans to improvise and to creatively adopt new materials. Concerning head coverings, black women apparently took their cues from white women, just as white American women through the last century emulated their European counterparts by covering their hair for most public functions, as well as in the home. Enslaved women wore types of head coverings-from simple straw hats to the contemporary fashionable bonnets-that were similar to those worn by white women. At certain events, however, neither white nor black women were expected to cover their heads. At dances, for example, pictorial evidence shows both groups of women with only flowers adorning their hair. Lewis Miller’s watercolor, Lynchburg-negro dance, 1853, is an African American example.
African American women might also uncover their hair for other occasions. For example, Elsie Clews Parsons, writing earlier in this century, said that South Carolina Sea Islands’ “Women, old and young, quite commonly wear kerchiefs around the head and tied at the back” and the hair was wrapped in strings under the headwrap. Parsons significantly added the point that “often it will not be combed out until a person is ‘going somewhere'” (1923:204). Similarly, Sylvia Boone’s 1986 description of modem Mende women in Sierra Leone shows the headwrap may also serve to protect an African woman’s well-groomed hair until it is time to expose it. Boone writes:
… a woman always goes to a man’s room with her hair neat; and if she wants to make a special impression, she will sport a new and elegant style well done. Since the woman would have left her quarters with her head under wraps so that will not see her hair, the man will have the flattering feeling that she went through so much time and trouble to fashion herself for his eyes alone. Even in the mawe compound, when a wife has to walk only a few yards to her husband, she will follow the rituals of “going to a man’s room” and arrive in a headtie covering her coiffure (189).
Thus, when nineteenth-century enslaved African American women wore hats or bonnets or left their hair uncovered, they not only conformed to normative customs in fashion prevalent for all Western women of the period, but also to an African aesthetic. What distinguished the black woman, of course, was that at certain times she, alone, donned a headwrap.
Because the headwrap is such an outstanding feature of the enslaved women’s dress, it is important to note how they acquired them. During the period of enslavement, African American women came by the fabric for their headwraps in various ways. The anonymous Mississippi planter who wrote “Management of Negroes Upon Southern Estates” (1851) noted: “I give to my negroes four full suits of clothes with two pairs of shoes, every year, and to my women and girls a calico dress and two handkerchiefs extra” (624). The supposition that the women wore their “two handkerchiefs extra” as head- wraps is supported by J. C. Fumas who reports that among “(t)he annual issue for 200 slaves on the Coffin plantation on St. Helena island, South Carolina … 100 turban hand- kerchiefs” were distributed (1956:94).
Besides the head handkerchiefs given to them by plantation “masters”. black women supplemented headwraps by other means. Elizabeth Botume gives an example. In 1863, Botume arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina, among the earliest of the Northern teachers who volunteered to teach black refugees during the “Port Royal Experiment.” Botume wrote of her experiences with the newly “freed” blacks, and her observations offer invaluable, first-hand reports of a people who were on the cusp between one way
of life and a different one. Botume’s description of the people who greeted her boat as it docked at Beaufort contains an itemization of the women’s clothes: “Some of the women had on old, cast-off soldier’s coats, with ‘crocus bags,’ fastened together with their own ravellings, for skirts, and bits of sailcloth for head handkerchiefs” (1893) 1968: 32).
Since most cloth was produced domestically, and quite often by black women, remnants for headwraps could be procured directly from weavers. Charlie Hudson, who was born in 1858, and enslaved in Georgia, remembered: “What yo’ wore on yo’ haid was a cap made out of scraps of cloth dey wove in de loom right dar on our plantation to make pants for de grown folks” (Narratives, Vol. 12.2:224).
Frederick Law Olmstead, a northern white who traveled in the South before the American Civil War, tells of yet another way in which blacks acquired headwraps: “(The negroes) also purchase clothing for themselves, and, I note especially, are well sup- plied with handkerchiefs, which the men frequently, and the women nearly always, wear on their heads” (82).
Although the headwrap became a form of head covering specific to African American women, no clear-cut, single reason accounts for this long-standing item in their dress. In some instances, whites devised reasons for black women to wear the headwrap. In other instances, the purposes for donning the headwrap developed from within the black communities. No matter where these functions originated, the headwrap worked at several overlapping and sometimes conflicting levels ranging from the symbolic to the utilitarian.
One symbolic function of the headwrap was to maintain Southern white power in a society based economically and socially on racial slavery. Noteworthy in this respect are the ordinances which regulated African American dress throughout the South during the eighteenth century (Wares, 1981:131-136). In effect, whites used these dress codes to outwardly distinguish those without power from those who held it. The earliest, South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1735, “specifically set a standard of dress for the enslaved and free African Americans” (ibid. 132). In 1740 amendments, South Carolina’s slave code further elaborated the dress regulations (Genovese, 1974:359). In 1786, while Louisiana was a Spanish colony, the governor enacted a dress code which forbade: “females of color … to wear plumes or jewelry”; this law specifically required “their hair bound in a kerchief” (Crete, 1981: 80-81; also Gayarre, 1885: 178-179 and Wares, 1981:135).
In the antebellum period, the Southern whites’ concern regarding the symbol- ism inherent in the dress of African Americans continued. Citing one instance, Richard C. Wade writes that a Savannah editor bemoaned the “extravagant” dress of city blacks. Wade says that the journalist, ” observing that a turban or handkerchief for the head was good enough for peasants,…noted that ‘with our city colored population the old fashioned turban seems fast disappearing’ ” (Savannah Republican 6 June 1849, quoted in Wade, 1981:128-129).
The preceding codes and comments show that whites expected the headwrap to mark the black women’s social status as different from that of women in the white community. In addition, headwraps functioned as status symbols within the African American communities Louis Hughes, born 1843, enslaved in Mississippi and Virginia, noted: “The cotton clothes worn by both men and women (house servants), and the turbans of the latter, were snowy white” (1897) 1969:43). After the family moved to the city, Hughes recalled, “Each of the women servants wore a new gay colored turban, which was tied differently from that of the ordinary servant, in some fancy knot” (42).
The type of labor expected of enslaved women offers several purely utilitarian functions for wearing the headwrap which was more easily acquired and of simpler material than were more ornate millinery items. Ebenezer Brown, enslaved in Mississippi, said: “(My mammy) wrap her hair, and tie it up in a cloth. My mammy cud tote a bucket of water on her head and never spill a drop. I seed her bring that milk in great big buckets from de pen on her head an’ never lose one drop” (Narratives, Vol. S1.6.1:249). Brown’s description offers one reason why the headwrap was a necessity; for, a thick headwrap offered protection when carrying loads on the head.
In the agrarian South, the headwrap also functioned to absorb perspiration in the same way that a bandana tied around the neck serves this purpose for farmers or ranchers working in the sun. In addition, headwraps protected woman’s hair from grime. Testimony documents the paucity of bathing facilities available to the enslaved African Americans, as well as the lack of time necessary to keep themselves groomed and clean. The headwrap also served to keep the frequent infestations of lice under cover.3
The headwrap served in another purely expedient capacity as an article of clothing which could be used to cover the hair quickly when there was not adequate time to make it “presentable.” Gloria Goode advances this argument in her recent dissertation on nineteenth-century African American women ministers wherein she includes a section on the costumes adopted by these women, all of whom were “free.” Commenting on the biographical portrait of Hannah Tranks Carson (1864), Goode notes that Carson is shown “in a stereotypical manner in homely dress.” Goode continues: “Obviously … if she (Carson) had possessed the strength, she would have discarded the head kerchief for a bonnet.” Goode then presents her rationale for this argument: “The kerchief is an adoption of the black woman’s manner of dealing with her ‘unpresentable’ hair. It is tied in a traditional style covering the forehead” (1990: 388). The novelist Buchi Emecheta demonstrates a recent Nigerian example of the Afro-centric taboo against leaving unkempt hair uncovered: “(T)hey saw a young woman of twenty-five, with long hair not too tidily plaited and with no head-tie to cover it … her hair (was) too untidy to be left uncovered…” (1988:8).
Well into the twentieth century, the headwrap continued to be used as a conveniently serviceable item used to cover “unpresentable hair.” This is illustrated in the Narratives where a number of the interviews begin with the interviewer’s own narrative
“pictures” of the interviewees. The following depictions aid in assessing the iconography which American whites applied to African American women. The descriptions are of equal importance because they show that seventy years after emancipation, older, southern black women continued to wear some form of hair covering similar to that worn by women during the period of enslavement-and that the headwrap remained the most common form.
From Georgia: “Aunt Fannie Hughes” was seated on the narrow front porch with two small piccaninnies playing at her feet when we made our visit. Her tall, gaunt figure was clothed in a neat plaid cotton dress … On her head was a cloth sugar sack (Narratives, Suppl. Series 1. Vol. 3.1:329).
From Georgia: Martha Everettes … was seated on the front porch of her son’s home … Her grizzled hair was covered by a white towel (S1.3.1:236(GA))
From Indiana, the interviewer paraphrased Callie Bracey’s description of her
mother Louise Turrell who had been enslaved in Mississippi: “Louise … never had a hat, always wore a rag tied over her head” (Narratives, Vol. 6.2:26).
From Georgia: Seemingly the only real wide awake person on the place was Aunt Jemirna, the housekeeper … brown of complexion, with her kinky hair entirely hidden by a bright bandana, she was truly a picture (Narratives, Suppl. Series 1, Vol. 3.1:339).
From Ohio: Hanna Fambro, a checked gingham turban wound about her head … presents the delightful picture of a real southern mammy (Narratives, Suppl. Series 1, Vol. 5.2:332).
From Georgia: A white cloth, tied turban fashion about her (Georgia Baker, 87 years) head … completed her costume (Narratives, Vol. 12.1:38).
From Alabama: “Aunt Nicey” had on a blue dress, with a white head rag… (Narratives, Suppl. Series 1, Vol. 1:297).
From Mississippi: Her (Chaney Moore Williams, b. ca. 1852, d. 1937) hair was
gray and worn in small twists, her head was tied in a large “head rag” (Narratives, Suppl. Series 1, Vol. 10.5:2304).
From Georgia: Her (Callie Elder, 78 years) crudely fashioned blue dress was
of a coarse cotton fabric and her dingy head rag had long lost its original color (Narratives, Vol 12.1:306).
From Georgia: Camilla Jackson wears a white rag around her head and is always spotlessly clean (Narratives, Vol. 12.2:295).
From Mississippi: Harriet Walker, (b. ca. 1852) … is about eighty-five years of
age, and is a typical “black mammy” type … She wears a large cloth tied neatly and snugly around her head, which is called a “head rag” by the negroes (Narratives, Suppl. Series 1, Vol. 10.5: 2157).
From Georgia: A large checkered apron almost covered her (Lulu Battle) dress and a clean white headcloth concealed her hair (Narratives, Vol. 12.1:61).
From Georgia: Her (Julia Bunch, 85 years) head closely wrapped in a dark bandana, from which the gray hair peeped at intervals forming a frame for her face (Narratives, Vol. 12.1:155).
Margaret Davis Cate, observing African Americans on the Georgia Sea Islands in the 1930s, wrote:
Fashions come and go, but Sibby (Kelly) never changed from the old-fashioned method of tying up her head. A piece of white cloth folded smoothly above the forehead and tied in the back with the ends hanging down on the back of the neck was the proper method and she stuck to it (Cate, 1955: 195, photograph on facing page).
The preceding glosses by white observers offer a clear picture of the headwrap as an outstanding item of dress for Southern black women, but these comments also reflect that the headwrap provided an important material symbol by which whites have long stereotyped black women.
In addition to white-enforced dress codes, and the headwrap’s more practical uses, under specific conditions, headwraps also functioned as significant additions to southern African American religious ceremonies during the last century. A New Orleans journalist reported on a “voodoo rite” that he witnessed in 1828. “Some sixty people were assembled, each wearing a white bandana carefully knotted around the head…” (Crete, 1981:172). At a given moment in the ceremony, one of the women “tore the white hand- kerchief from her forehead. This was a signal, for the whole assembly sprang forward and entered the dance” (173).
Headwraps were included as one of the several special head coverings worn for more ordinary Christian religious events. The interviewer paraphrased Edward Lycurgas (enslaved in Florida): “Lycurgas recalls … the river baptisms! These climaxed the meetings … All candidates were dressed in white gowns, stockings and towels would be about their heads bandana fashion” (Narratives, Vol. 17.1:209). John Dixon Long, a white observer, remarked on a prayer-meeting held by enslaved people in Maryland in 1857.
At a given signal of the leader, the men will take off their jackets, hang up their hats, and tie up their heads in handkerchiefs; the women will tighten their turbans, and the company will then form a circle around the singer, and jump and bawl to their heart’s content … (Long, Pictures of Slave7y in Church and State…,383, quoted to Epstein, 1963:387).
Women might wear headwraps for Sunday worship. Louis Hughes, born 1832, enslaved in Mississippi and Virginia, remembered “once when Boss went to Memphis and brought back a bolt of gingham for turbans for the female slaves. It was a red and yellow check, and the turbans made from it were only to be worn on Sundays” (1897) 1969:42). Fanny Kemble’s description of the “grotesque” Sunday costume of the .poor” enslaved people on her husband’s Georgia plantation included: “head handkerchiefs, that put one’s very eyes out from a mile off…” (1863:93).4
In certain areas, customs related to head coverings for the religious camp meetings denoted the age of the women. For example, Gus Pearson, enslaved in South Carolina, remembered:
(De gals) took dey hair down out’n de string fer de (camp) meeting. In dern days all de darky wimmens wore dey hair in string ‘cep’ when dey ‘tended church or a wedding. At de camp meetings de wimmens pulled off de head rags, ‘cept de mammies. On dis occasion de mammies wore linen head rages fresh laundered (Narratives, Vol. 2.2:62).
The last function to be examined returns us to the symbolic-this time, to the
symbolic functions given the headwrap by African American women. In this case, some African American women played with the white “code” and, by flaunting the headwrap, converted it from something which might be construed as shameful into an -anti-style uniquely their own.
This particular function may be analyzed by examining a portrait painted by Adolph Rinck in 1844. Some scholars believe the subject was Marie Laveau, the famous voudon priestess of New Orleans. The portrait dates from the time when the New Orleans dress code legally required African American women (whether enslaved or “free”) to wear some form of headwrap; but the painting’s sitter took advantage of this supposed badge of degradation and transformed it into an emblem of self-determination and empowerment. The portrait shows a woman who most certainly was quite aware of how to style her “tignon” away from her face and high up on her head.5
If other black women wore the headwrap with less self-conscious concern for daring fashion than did Laveau, and with more concern for its utilitarian functions, nevertheless, they continued to wear it in particularly innovative ways, and always to wear it tied up and away from the face. In this manner, African American women demonstrated their recognition that they alone possessed this particular style of head ornamentation and thereby, donning the headwrap meant they were acknowledging their membership in an unique American social group. Whites misunderstood the self-empowering and defiant intent and saw the headwrap only as the stereotypic “Aunt Jemima” image of the black woman as domestic servant. This represents a paradox in so far as the headwrap acquired significance for the enslaved women as a form of self and communal identity and as a badge of resistance against the servitude imposed by whites.
AN AFRICAN WOMAN’S VOICE, 1992
Cassandra Stancil was born in 1954, and grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia.6 The most visible feature of Cassandra’s dress is her headwrap which, as she says, she wears “more days out of the week than not”. Cassandra uses two terms for the headwrap: if she purchases a finished scarf to wrap her head, she calls it a “scarf”; if she wraps it with an unfinished cloth, she calls this a “rag.” She notes “Usually when people are talking to me about it, they call it a ‘wrap.'” Cassandra calls the different ways she styles the headwrap “variations.” The shape of the cloth is one determining factor for how she wears it; that is, the style of wrap depends on whether the fabric is “oblong or square.” Fabric size is the other factor.
It varies-you could just use a big bandana to get a look, you know, if you just want something like a headband around your head. Or, if you really want to wrap and have fun with it, at least a couple of yards. If it is a short oblong piece, say about a yard long, that is more limiting.
Three cultural influences converge in Cassandra’s choice of head covering. First, Cassandra consciously adopted the headwrap to mark her place as a modern African American and in recognition of black women who wore it in the past; here, the influence is African American. Second, as Cassandra explained her rationale for not wearing the headwrap in certain situations, the influence is “American” and, again, conscious. The third influence is Cassandra’s subconscious heritage from Africa and concerns the particular way she styles her headwraps. In the following, Cassandra voices these conscious and subconscious values.
First, the African American cultural values. The headwrap represents the most overt and visible material manifestation of Cassandra’s decision to identify herself as an African American. Confrontations with other black women have occurred concerning her headwrap, but Cassandra maintains her own personal sense of self as she wears the head- wrap no matter what negative connotations others may see in it.
I remember my mother wrapping her head every night and when I’d come to her in the morning she had it wrapped. And when she’s out in the yard, her hair is wrapped. But once she leaves the confines of that yard, the wrap’s off.
My mother is of a different generation and to her way of thinking to wear a headwrap is a kind of signal. She’ll wear it in her house, not in public. It’s not proper, more of a household thing. For her, it’s not so formal, it would just be a rag tied around the head. Not respectable, not proper to go in the public eyes.
I’ve never cared about what people thought. And there are still fights today with my mother and I-about how I dress-not just about how I wrap my head-how I dress.
For some women today, it seems-let’s begin with where I come from-hats on the bead are the thing if you want to consider yourself dressed. And I’ve seen some older women wearing fancy headwraps on occasions where they generally in the past might have worn a hat-to church, to social functions.
This is getting personal here-but one of the reasons-early on, and this is going way back in my history, say in the (early) 70s when I was wearing (head- wraps), like college and high school- and I remember friends commenting to me, ‘You look like Aunt jemima’-and I guess that is what my mother might have had in mind, that was what she thought other people were seeing, and she took that as a critique that she really did not want aimed at her, so that she did not wear them in public. Again, I never cared, number one, about how other people perceived it and number two, I never thought it was necessary to distance myself from Aunt Jemima. I never considered her to be a negative person, it’s just a stereotype that she represents is negative, so I don’t have that problem.
It’s more of a reclaiming of my southern heritage, it’s not necessary going back to Africa. It’s more valorizing the southern women that I know and still know who did this. It’s like putting myself in the same boat with them which I don’t have a problem with.
Cassandra wore a headwrap “on and off” from the early 1970s until 1989,
when she entered the University of Pennsylvania as a graduate student and decided to wear it anywhere and anytime and on any occasion. Earlier, she wore it depending on her place of work and mentioned that when she had a government job, a different sort of attire was expected. Here Cassandra acknowledges the second set of cultural standards which informed her decisions as to the appropriateness of wearing or not wearing the headwrap. These standards are “American”, and perhaps ultimately derive from a different and Euro-centric system for coding dress.
It’s according to the kind of interactions. (Entering Penn) was the time I felt most free. Not confined by my work situation or the people that I would be encountering in the work situation.
Where I’ve worked-I’ve been in rural parts of middle America-while on the one hand I could have chosen to play up the exoticism, I’ve never wanted to do that.
When asked why she always wears the headwrap tied up and on her head, and
not just tied under the chin, Cassandra clearly displayed a knowledge about the effect it produces in the way she styles it. just as clearly, however, Cassandra’s answers demonstrate that she is completely unaware of the fact that her particular style in applying the headwrap is decidedly African, the third cultural marker.
It never occurred to me-but it wouldn’t feel comfortable and I don’t know- we don’t wear-I’m thinking maybe-I mean, when you’re a child you wear a hat tied under your chin to keep it on your head. Maybe that’s a part of it. Ummm. But it looks dressy to me, when, you know, it’s all on my head. To me, it’s the same effect as if I had elaborate braids on my head, if I had the head wrap tied above my head and knotted above my head or had the ends worked into the actual wrap.
Numerous scholars recognize improvisation as a hallmark of Africa and African American performance style. In fact, improvisation is fundamental to the African and African American concept of successful communication in all its forms-from speech, to song, to instrumental music, to dance, to dress.
Cassandra Stancil: No, I never asked another woman how she tied it. I always figured I could do it. I could try and experiment and if not get that, get some- thing that I liked.
It’s more an aesthetic thing, I’ve never looked it up. As I’m wrapping, I’m looking in the mirror to see what it looks like. And sometimes I’ll go for something symmetrical, sometimes asymmetrical. Sometimes I’ll let the ends be out, sometimes I’ll tuck them up, sometimes I’ll braid them so that they have some kind of a design and then I’ll tuck them under, sometimes I’ll want to hide how I’ve made them so I make sure everything’s tucked under, and then sometimes I don’t care, I want them out, and like, when I have a really short piece that will really just barely go around my head, I’ll just go with the Aunt Jemima look and just let the knot be there-If it’s up in front it’s the Aunt Jemima look.
Thus, the seemingly limitless ways of attaching a piece of cloth to the head may be read as yet another expression of African aesthetic style, that of improvisation.
Another primary characteristic of African and African American performative style is call-and-response wherein no clear lines are drawn between the roles of “per- former” and “audience” as is often the expectation in Euro-centric performance (see; e.g. Allen, 1991: 85ff and Davis, 1987: 16fo. From an Afro-centric perspective, a successful performance demands audience response. The expectation is for both performer and audience to play roles, and this includes such an event as the wearing of a particular item of clothing.
Cassandra Stancil: I do get positive responses-and I don’t know if I could categorize them. Yah-and it’s generally in cultural settings, I guess, or at Penn I get a lot of responses, or when I go to other events where other people are dressed accordingly. But you know, if I’m in an environment where there’s a greater “division” in points of view, then I don’t get the responses at all. Having worn them so often, other women asked me how to wear them.
As African American communities in the South broke asunder with Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Great Migration, the headwrap became, however consciously or unconsciously, one material link by which those women who came after could acknowledge a bond with those who preceded them.
Cassandra Stancil: It’s kinda like the way we have, in the 60s, reappropriated the term “black” which was once pejorative, and once we reclaimed it and wore it as our banner, it became okay for us to call ourselves “black.” Similarly, I see the same thing happening with headwraps and it may happen with braids, we’ve sort of taken back those, those, like-to have a “napped head” is how we use to call having dread-locks now, and it was very negative. 8 To have braids, that was something that only a child wore, but now it’s something that older black women wear, and it’s something we realize that it’s something we have done in the past with our hair, whether or not it was the southern past or the African past, and it’s something that is conducive to the way our hair is. So that now we wear it with those things in mind, sort of reappropriated it and used it to signify something different. And I guess that’s how I would categorize how I see most people wearing them now. We have reappropriated it from the stereotypic views of it-we’ve reappropriated it from those who would say ‘it’s primitive’ and so forth-and we valorized it, I think.
Today, the headwrap as emblematic of this bond seems to encompass not only the enslaved American ancestors, but those who remained in Africa as well. When I asked Cassandra if there were occasions, such as African American festivals, where any black women might wear a headwrap, she responded:
Definitely. Definitely. I mean those are the parts, I mean those are the ways that we have to re-incorporate the African dress into our everyday or fun-type dress…
During the period of enslavement, whites enacted codes that legally required black women to cover their heads with cloth wrappings, but these codes do not explain three other functions for the headwrap devised by the African Americans themselves. One pur- pose was purely practical: the cloth covered their hair when there was lack of time to prepare it for public view, the material absorbed perspiration and kept the hair free of grime during agricultural tasks, and the headwrap offered some protection against lice. Two additional functions-fashion and symbol-often overlapped. Within the African communities, the headwrap denoted sex, marital status, and the sexuality of the wearer.
These instances show that although the headwrap marked the social status of the wearer within the larger American society, the headwrap marked the wearer’s status within black communities as well. For example, enslaved African American women practiced customs wherein certain types of headwraps were worn for special social events and for religious worship services, baptisms, and funerals.
In these usages, African American women demonstrated their recognition that they alone possessed their particular style of head ornamentation and thereby, donning the headwrap, meant they were acknowledging their membership in a unique American social group. For the enslaved women, the headwrap acquired significance as a form of self and communal identity and as a badge of resistance against the servitude imposed by whites. This represents a paradox in so far as the whites misunderstood the self-empowering and defiant intent and saw the headwrap only in the context of the stereotypical “Aunt jemima” image of black women as domestic servant.
After emancipation, the headwrap became a private matter possessing closely held meanings which were evident but mostly subconscious. In the 1970s, the headwrap re-emerged as an item of clothing worn publicly by some black women. When the head- wrap reappears, a white audience senses the true contradiction in the original paradox; it evokes the white’s role in the system of slavery. While the headwrap still bears this metaphor for modem African Americans, it also represents a symbolic embrace of their enslaved American forebears; and, it now serves yet another function as an emblem of their West African ancestry. Thus, over time, the headwrap displays a dynamic quality in gathering new meanings and shedding older nuances.
i .Bernard S. Cohn, 1991, uses the phrase “uniform of rebellion” in his argument for the meaning of the turban to modem Indian Sikhs (304).
2. Although they are less often seen in the United States at present, European peasant women engaged in household and agricultural tasks continue to wear such a hair covering. And, in Greece, it is still customary for widowed, rural women to cover their hair in public with a dark-colored scarf. For whatever purposes, when white women wear head scarves today, they always tie them in the Euro-centric style.
3. So prevalent were lice that they gave their name to a type of handwoven cloth because it resembled the ever-present pests. Clara Walker, enslaved in Arkansas, said: “Den I weaves nits and lice. Wat’s dat-well you see it was kind corse cloth de used for clothes like overalls. It was sort of speckeldy all over-dat’s why dey called it nits and lice” (Narratives,Vol. 11.7:22).
4. Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble (1809-1893) was a British actress who made her American acting debut in New York City. Although an ardent abolitionist, Kemble married Pierce Butler, slave-holder and co-owner of a large plantation off the Georgia coast. Butler, an absentee landowner, resided in Philadelphia, but in 1838-1839, he brought his wife for a visit to the Georgia plantation. In 1863, Kemble’s impressions of this sojourn were published. Kemble is a complex character. She exhibits a strong compassion for the enslaved, particularly the women; interwoven with these assets, however, Kemble’s writings also show that she judged African Americans from a Euro- centric perception that they were in need of “civilizing.”
5. Tignon is a local, New Orleans word for the headwrap, a variation on the French word, chignon (Campbell, ed., 1991:x). Chignon means a smooth knot or twist or arrangement of hair that is worn at the nape of the neck.
6. Because I wanted to understand what the headwrap means to a contemporary African American woman, I requested an interview on the subject with Cassandra Stancil who graciously consented. The following quotations are excerpts from our taped conversation on 27 March 1992, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
7. When I asked Ella Williams Clarke, age 70, who was reared in North Carolina about wearing a headwrap she said, “We always wore hats and gloves to church when I was growing up. When you were a teenager you wore a hat-not everywhere, but always to church.” Conversation, 10 Sept. 1992.
8. In Ghana, Maya Angelou describes her similar reaction when a local woman gave her a Ghanaian hairstyle: “It was a fashion worn by the pickaninnies whose photographs I had seen and hated in old books. I was aghast” (1986:37).
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