“You’re wearing THAT out?”
My mother’s eyes were huge and the corner of her mouth was turned upward with disdain.
“Yep,” I said, matter-of–factly. I had prepared myself for this. “I think it’s beautiful. See you later!”
I left the house with a regal purple, gold, deep pink, black and white headwrap towering atop my head. The bun at the front of it wound around itself like a blossoming flower. I felt beautiful and oddly… connected to something, someone. I just didn’t know to whom or what it was.
Growing up, the only thing that could cover my head outside of the house was a hat and even that had certain stipulations. Looking “right” was a huge thing for my family and in many ways I’m grateful for the standard of dress that was enforced. It would later inform my style choices in life. It gave me the good sense not to follow the trend of wearing bed clothes to class in college among other silly so-called styles, and it gave me a baseline upon which I could build my own sense of style.
What it did not give me, however, was a sense of pride in my heritage through the lens of aesthetics. It forced me to assimilate to a standard that left no room for cultural or personal exploration. Much of what has been worn out of pride among African-Americans was/is considered “lazy” or “unkempt” in my family. This, unfortunately included one of the most beautiful expressions of pride and self-identity among African and African-American women – headwraps.
I wore them here and there in college because I went through a period of obsession with the incomparable Erykah Badu, but I never delved into the history behind these elegant pieces of historical pride until recently.
The trend has resurrected mightily within the past few years. Everyone is wearing them. I shied away even though I thought they were gorgeous. I never really understood my family’s aversion to women wearing headwraps until I came across this PBS article about the significance of headwraps among slave women. This quote stood out to me in particular:
The head-wrap was an object of oppression from one vantage point. But from the other, the perspective of the slave community, it was a vehicle of empowerment and a memento of freedom.
“Object of oppression.” That phrase explained perfectly how many of the older women in my family saw headwraps when worn outside of the home. They were taught that it was something to be ashamed of. A symbol of the oppressed, poverty-stricken, ghetto, “untrained.” There was never an explanation, just an overwhelming tongue-lashing about looking presentable.
Another article I came upon while looking for the origins of the headwrap among African-American women gifted me this beautiful quote:
“The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity; but at its most elaborate, the African American woman’s headwrap has functioned as a “uniform of rebellion” signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.'”
I wore that beautiful purple, gold, deep pink, black and white headwrap to my birthday dinner that evening and felt regal. For me, it was not so much the need to rebel as it was the intense desire to connect with my ancestors, to understand why something so empowering is seen as so oppressive or even tacky by some, and to explore how it all makes me who I am.
What makes me most proud is that I chose to do what made me happy, what made me feel beautiful, what honored those before me. Many may see it as a simple thing but for me it was a monument along my road of “self-definition.” A small token of pride, but a huge step along my road of self-discovery.
La Truly is a writer, college professor and young women’s empowerment enthusiast. She mixes her interest in social and cultural issues with her life experiences to encourage thought, discussion and positive change among young Women of Color. Follow her on Twitter: @ashleylatruly and check out her site: http://www.hersoulinc.com.