Part 1: The African American Headwrap in History

israeli tichel

Womens headscarves are a symbol of courage

The African American Headwrap is quite well known. Most people are aware  of the different ways African-American women and White Americans historically wore their head wrap . White women generally wore it tied below the chin drawing the eyes attention downwards while African American women generally wore them tied around the head keeping the hair away from the face and drawing attention upwards. However, most people are unaware of the symbolisim in the headwrap as worn by the African American women.

In a fascinating article Helene Bradley Griebel takes us back to the painful period of slavery in American History.

Griebel documents how white overlords at first imposed this headcover on black women as a symbol of their enslavement. An example of this is found in 1786 while Louisiana was a Spanish colony. The law at the time required black women to wear their “hair bound in a kerchief” (more about that in a future post). In addition headwraps absorbed the perspiration of female laborers and protected the head from grime.

However, Griebel goes onto show that African American women soon came to realize that the way they wore their headwraps was unique to them and was theirs alone and they began to identify with them and use them as a uniform of “rebellion” and a “helmet of courage”.

This concept is illustrated by a portrait that Adolph Rinck painted in 1844 of a black women who most certainly was very much aware of how to style her  hair away from her face and high up on her head. “Nowadays” Griebel writes “the headwrap represents a symbolic embrace of their enslaved American forbears and it now serves another function as an emblem of their West African ansectry”. Thus, in the words of Griebel, the headwrap displays a dynamic quality in gathering new meanings while shedding older nuances.


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