During my time at Howard University, I have both seen and worn my fair share of headwraps. If you’re new to the headwrap scene, they are essentially long strips of cloth that can be worn around your head in various styles. They can be used as not only a unique fashion statement, but also as a great option for protective styling, or to simply hide bad hair days.
Cee Cee’s Closet NYC, https://www.ceeceesclosetnyc.com/products/nzinga-silk-lined-headwrap-head-wraps
However, I’m willing to bet that many of us simply throw on headwraps out of convenience, without necessarily stopping to understand the historical and cultural importance they hold (myself included). In many ways, the headwrap links Black women of the West with the traditions and customs of other Black women around the world.
Headwraps commonly worn today are descendants of cloths that adorned the heads of women in ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. In these cultures, head coverings have been worn as traditional attire for centuries, and are still a consistent feature in the daily lives of African women today. They hold an ancient cultural and spiritual significance that has been passed down from generation to generation. In many African cultures, the way headwraps are styled can represent respect, wealth, ethnicity, and more. For example, the way a ‘gele’ is tied can indicate whether a woman is married or unmarried in Yoruba culture. In Zulu culture, it is customary for a woman visiting her in-laws to cover her head in order to show respect.
On the other hand, the history of the headwrap in the U.S is a rather sobering one. The headwrap was born into slavery and was comparable to an offensive slur during that time period. Many slave masters throughout the Caribbean, the U.S, and South America required enslaved Black women to wear head coverings. While they did serve functional purposes, such as protecting from sweat and grime, they acted mainly as symbolic markers. During these times, head coverings acted as a physical representation of the ‘inferiority’ of Black women in the social hierarchy. By requiring slaves to wear headwraps, slave masters ultimately sought to undermine the humanity of Black people.
Although it was formerly a symbol of oppression, the headwrap has since been reclaimed by slaves and their descendants for future generations. In parts of Central America, Black women creatively used the folds in their headscarves to communicate with one another in ways that slave masters couldn’t understand. In the 18th century, Afro-Creole women decorated their ‘tignons’ (a turban-like headscarf) with jewels, ribbons, and feathers as a way of resisting laws that required them to cover their hair. In the 1970s, the headwrap became a central accessory of the Black Power movement in the U.S. Fast forward to present times, the headwrap is now a worldwide symbol of Black beauty and resistance. It is worn by Black women and men alike as not only a fashion statement, but also as an expression of their identity. Singers Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, India Arie, and Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o are some of the many notable celebrities who wear their head wraps proudly.
Erykah Badu wearing her famous headwrap. Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/210613720052646580/?lp=true
The next time you throw on a headwrap to hide your bad hair day, remember all they represent! They are more than just a fashion statement- they are a link to the power, resistance, and beauty of your ancestors.