More Than a Flower Crown

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In 1786, the governor of the Spanish colony of Louisiana passed the Tignon Law, forbidding black women from showing their hair:

“He prohibited them from wearing feathers or jewels in their hair. Instead, they were to cover their hair with headkerchiefs as was formerly the custom.”

When I saw Beyonce’s and Rihanna’s Vogue covers together, I didn’t think “flower crown,” as most other sites did, but “power” and “rebellion.” Here are two extremely successful, pro-black black women dominating the biggest month—September—in fashion publishing, unapologetically wearing the boldest headdresses. They reminded me of the moments I’ve stepped out with my hair and my scarf piled high on top of my head, probably obstructing someone’s view at the movies or an art show, but no doubt turning heads.

And they also reminded me of this attempt in 18th-century Louisiana to curtail black women’s beauty, and of the dignified and rebellious women (like Marie Laveau, below) who took the law, flipped it, and made the tignon, their headscarves, an eye-catching accessory all it’s own.

Marie Laveau, aka “The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” one of the most powerful and feared black women in 18th-century Louisiana.

Marie Laveau, aka “The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” one of the most powerful and feared black women in 18th-century Louisiana.

Here’s a little history lesson:

At the time, the Gulf had a high population of free black men and women who liaised with white folk, both professionally and personally. Black women became a target because of their ability to produce children from intimate relationships with white men, who could then lay claim to land ownership and other assets as heirs.

The French and Spanish had vied for control of colonial Louisiana for a century, starting in the early 1700s. And French and Spanish slave-holding laws were, at times, more lenient than the British. For example, owners and slaves could negotiate the terms of a release in some cases. The distribution of property was also more fluid between whites and freed blacks—meaning a white person could easily pass down property to a black person.

According to the 1997 essay “A Chaos of Iniquity and Discord: Slave and Free Women of Color in the Spanish Ports of New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola” (quoted above and throughout)

“Hundreds of deeds, wills, and inventories of estates contain evidence of property
transferred from white men to slave and free women of color and their children.”

When the new Spanish governor Esteban Miró took office in 1786, the increasing freed black population (including the lighter skinned creoles, who were the product of interracial relationships) and their participation in society, including land-holding, were his most pressing issues of concern.

From left: Janelle Monáe, Nina Simone, and sculptor Chakaia Booker.

From left: Janelle Monáe, Nina Simone, and sculptor Chakaia Booker.

“To Miró, it was necessary for women of color 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, to symbolize their ties to slavery through the simple headkerchief.”

The Tignon Law was meant to humiliate free black women.

Headscarves, or tignons, were commonly worn by enslaved women, so the law was an attempt to mentally and physically degrade the free population by reminding them of their ties to slavery and denying them freedom of expression.  

Clearly, the lawmakers were not aware of the amazing flyness of black women:

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“In acquiescing to Miro’s order, free women of color thwarted it by adapting the kerchief into the stylish and flattering tignon that became a badge or mark of distinction of their race, status, and gender.… In some ways, it bound very different women together in an act of defiance.”

Photo: Rihanna for British Vogue, September 2018.