Over the centuries, black hair remains a topic of conversation and fascination all over the world. While many praise black hair as exceptionally beautiful by every standard. The texture of black hair is suitable for forming unique styles from the afro to, others look down upon it with disdain, and mostly envy.

Today, black women are often praised and revered for their hair, even in today’s pop culture, styles invented and catered to women with Afrocentric hair are often imitated. However, black women’s hair, as is evident in various places across the globe today, have been policed and appropriated for centuries, dating back to a series of laws passed in 1786, in the United States. These laws are today known as the Tignon Laws.

Tignon Law: What are They?

Resembling today’s West African Gele, a tignon (also tiyon) is a type of head-covering. It is a large piece of material wrapped or tied around the head to form a kind of turban concealing the hair.

Tignons were worn by free and slave Creole women of African descent in Louisiana from 1786.  Historically, their prevalence was as a result of sumptuary laws passed in 1786 under Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró.  

These prescribed and enforced appropriate public dress styles for women of color in a white-dominated society. Hence, they were made as a way of regulating the appearance of black women in the U.S.

During the period, when black enslavement in America was at its peak, and places like New Orleans was unique in its high population of gens de couleur libres (free people of color), black women’s beauty and features often attracted white men who approached them as suitors.

This enraged white women who perceived them as competitors. Evidently, African women competed openly with white women through elegant dressing, including adorning their textured hair with gems, beads, and other accents that made them stand out from white women and possessing great beauty.

To take care of this perceived menace, series of sumptuary laws birthing the Tignon Law were put in place in order to stop white men from pursuing and engaging in affairs with women of colour, “while also being a class signifier,” says Samantha Callender.

Historian Virginia M. Gould notes in ‘A Chaos of Iniquity and Discord: Slave and Free Women of Color in the Spanish Ports of New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola’, that Miró hoped the law would 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.”

Despite this aim for which it was created, the Tignon Law would, ironically, have a somewhat different effect. According to Carolyn Long in ‘A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau’, “instead of being considered a badge of dishonor, the tignon…became a fashion statement.

The bright reds, blues, and yellows of the scarves, and the imaginative wrapping techniques employed by their wearers, are said to have enhanced the beauty of the women of color.” Hence, women of color turned what was meant to suppress them into a fashion statement.

Cierra Chenier notes that so beautiful were the tignons “that the European women of the colony couldn’t let us have nothing’, not even the very things meant to oppress us, and began to copy and wear tignons as well”.

The Tignon Law eventually became abolished in the 1800s. However, black women worldwide today, continue to use various head-wraps using unique materials, patterns, and flair, and in doing so, pay homage to their culture.

Though long gone, the telling of the story of the law is so to remind black people in America, and in the world, of a distant past in which black people were prejudiced, a practice which continues till this day, in a world where black women’s hair is still policed today.

As often reported, Black women have been fired because of their natural hair and have lost job offers for not cutting their dreadlocks. Again, black girls have been sent home from school for maintaining braids.

(By, Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)


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CITATION

Gould, V. M. (1997). A Chaos of Iniquity and Discord: Slave and Free Women of Color in the Spanish Ports of New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola. In C. Clinton, & M. Gillespie (Eds.), The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South (p. 237). New York: Oxford University Press.

Long, C. M. (2006). A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau. University Press of Florida.

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