top of page
IMG_2672_edited.jpg
image.JPG

HISTORY

  • Cierra Chenier

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, and medicine, contributed heavily to the Black Creole culture that New Orleans is renowned for, and created a legacy of Black institutions and history. This "third class" possessed privileges that their enslaved peers did not, and although technically free from slavery, they were exempt from certain social freedoms as whites.


Free people of color possessed privileges that their enslaved peers did not, such as being free from the institution of slavery, receiving an education, and owning property. However, the law did not recognize them as being in the same social class as whites. Their status was considered a threat to the city's white population–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." Wealthy white men would enter civil unions with free women of color while having entire families of their own. This practice contractually ensured that 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. White women of the colony believed their husbands' attention to Black women's bodies, hair, and style 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 mistakenly 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 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 did not work. The law was put in place to label free women of color as less than others, and they did what had been in the nature of Black women for centuries–forming beauty and innovation out of oppression.



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 made them even more stunning in appearance. It was so stunning that the white women of the colony couldn't let us have anything, 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 want to let it flow free and defy gravity, every bit of our hair is political. However, a Black woman chooses to wear her hair as an act of resistance in this white-dominated society. So, whichever style is being culturally appropriated today, understand that this imitation is not new. 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. 


Note:

The painting is believed to be of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, 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 oppression.

Comments


bottom of page