The Tignon Law: How Black Women Formed Decor Out of Oppression
Straight and silky, curly and kinky, weave or natural, long, short, or even bald -- Black women's crowns vary in how we choose to wear our hair; but are crowns nonetheless. These crowns have 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; referred to as Creoles 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, many mixed-race free people of color (f.p.c.) had light complexions, loose-textured curly hair, and were passé blanc -- that's New Orleans for "could pass for white."
F.p.c. possessed privileges that their enslaved peers did not. Although technically "free" from slavery, that mixed ancestry did not grant them the same social freedoms as whites. In fact, their racial ambiguity posed a threat to the city's white population.
With a large portion of New Orleans' population being free people of color, it was sometimes impossible 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 Creole free women of color, even going as far as to participate in the plaçage system and quadroon balls. Plaçage derives from placer, the French word for "to place with." Wealthy European men would enter civil unions with mixed-race Black women. These unions were introduced through social events called quadroon balls, where these young women would be prettied up, put on display, and marketed (what that sound like?) to participating white men. 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 weird infatuation with Black women as their "mistresses." This infatuation infuriated the white women in the city, with their husbands' attention on Black women's bodies, auras, hair, and style threatening their social status. European men were admiring these women just as much, if not more than, their own spouses and girlfriends.
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 majority 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 crowns, 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, or headscarves, to this very day. 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 dreadlocks. Whether we choose to wrap it up in a tignon like our ancestors once did, or if we wanna let the curls and kinks flow free and defy gravity -- every bit of this crown 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 whatever Kardashian decided to appropriate this week, understand that their 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.
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 oppression.