The Tignon Law: How Black Women Formed Decor Out of Oppression
Black women's crowns vary in how we choose to wear our hair; but are crowns nonetheless. Our hair has been policed and appropriated for centuries, dating back to Louisiana's Tignon Laws of 1786.
New Orleans was unique in its high population of gens de couleur libres (free people of color). The city's free Black community made strides in education, business, civil rights, art, medicine and contributed heavily to the Black Creole culture that New Orleans is renown for. Many, but not all, free people of color had mixed ancestry of African, European, and Native American descent. This third class came with dehumanizing labels such as 'mulatto,' 'quadroon,' or 'octoroon' that depended on the individual's fraction of "Negro" blood. Physically, they possessed a range of complexions, hair textures, and features. Those light-complected with loose-textured hair were considered by many to be passé blanc–that's New Orleans for "pass for white."
Free people of color possessed privileges that their enslaved peers did not. Although technically free from slavery, those who were free but had mixed ancestry or light skin were afforded certain privileges, while also exempt from certain social freedoms as whites. In fact, racial ambiguity posed a threat to the city's white population.
It became impossible or difficult to distinguish who was actually white or who was Black and just passé blanc. A majority of the city's white men strangely fetishized these women, reportedly even going as far as to participate in the plaçage system and highly-debated quadroon balls. Plaçage derives from placer, the French word for "to place with" and wealthy European men would enter civil unions with mixed-race Black women. While they had entire families of their own, this practice contractually ensured that the Black women and her children would be taken care of through financial support, simultaneously feeding the white men's infatuation with these young women. This infatuation spanned across centuries and infuriated the white women in the city. Their husbands' attention on Black women's bodies, hair, and style was believed to have posed a threat to their social status.
In 1786, Louisiana territory was under the Spanish rule of Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró. God forbid if a woman of African descent was accidentally treated with the same decency as a white woman, so Miró enforced a law that forced Black women to outwardly identify themselves as the "slave class," even though a large percentage of them were free. That outward identifier was the tignon, a piece of material knotted to make a headscarf. Black women were to completely cover their hair to refrain from displaying "excessive attention to dress."
It is noted that Miró hoped the laws would control women “who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.” I guess this was supposed to spare the feelings of the city's white women, but it didn't work. This law was literally put in place to label ourselves as less than, but Black women did what has always been our nature; flipping oppression into something iconic.
These Black women followed the law by covering their hair, but decorated their tignons with bright, beautiful colors, jewelry, and feathers. What was meant to suppress them ended up making them even more beautiful in appearance. So beautiful, that the European women of the colony couldn't let us have nothin', not even the very things meant to oppress us, and began to copy and wear tignons as well.
The tignon law was no longer after the United States acquired Louisiana in the Louisiana Purchase, but Black women continue to wear elaborate tignons today. And to this very day, Black women's hair is still policed. Black girls have been sent home from school because of braids, Black women have been fired due to their natural hair and have lost job offers for not cutting their locks. Whether we choose to wrap it up like our ancestors once did or if we wanna let it flow free and defy gravity, every bit of our hair is political. However a Black woman chooses to wear her hair is an act of resistance in this white-dominated society. So whichever style that is being culturally-appropriated today, understand that this imitation is not new. In fact, it is centuries old.
Culture and traditions built out of necessity can never be replicated, and no matter how hard this society tries, the beauty and innovation of Black women can never be diminished.
The painting believed to be of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau is the historic face of the tignon. Although she was born just before the tignon laws were voided, she is a physical example of how that tradition carried over as a fashion statement rather than its original intention of suppression.