The Headwrap and African American Culture

From Bruce Davidson, Time of Change: Civil Rights Photographs, 1961-1965

From Bruce Davidson, Time of Change: Civil Rights Photographs, 1961-1965

This early 1960s photo comes from a collection by then New York Times photographer Bruce Davidson, who documented the Civil Rights struggles of that era.  While many of the exquisite photographs in the book show marches and confrontations, quite a few depict everyday life both in New York and the rural South.

This photo caught my eye because of the woman’s head covering, a kind of kerchief but tied in a different way than you see in photos of Caucasian women. With just a little searching I discovered interesting scholarship on the meaning of the headwrap in African American life.

According to historian Helen Bradley Griebel, the headwrap (also called a turban, head handkerchief, or head rag) had it origins in sub-Saharan African. It became a fixed feature of Southern culture during slavery, since many laws required enslaved women to wear a headwrap as a visible symbol of their status. After emancipation, some women rejected this style of head covering because of its ties to slavery; others embraced it because of its links to Africa and its place in their daily lives.

The distinctive feature of the African American headwrap is the way it is tied.  While the kerchief is usually fastened under the chin or in the back, the headwrap is knotted above the forehead, drawing attention to the face.  “The African American headwrap thus works as a regal coronet, drawing the onlookers gaze up, rather than down.” (Griebel).

An exaggeration?  This older woman is obviously poor, standing on a rundown porch in mismatched separates and scuffed shoes. But her face, crowned by the headwrap, has a regal gaze.

This entry was posted in 1960s and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Headwrap and African American Culture

  1. eimear says:

    I never knew this and I also used try (unsuccessfully) to tie scarves like this as they look ‘cooler’.

    • JS says:

      I don’t like head scarves and wraps, but I’d prefer a silk twill square tied under my chin in the manner of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. Of course I’d need a convertible barreling along the Grande Corniche to make it authentic.

  2. JS says:

    The subject of the photo does have a quiet dignity, but none of my women relatives would have been caught dead in something that looked like that. She looks like Aunt Jemima. My relatives didn’t have money, but they were not dirt poor and country, maybe that had something to do with it. They resembled the more stylish women, black and white, that you’ve featured in the past who lived in towns and cities.

    The only head wraps I’ve seen African American women wear (and not anyone in my family) were the ones fashioned from African fabric that appeared in the 1970s. That trend continues somewhat today, although it’s seen mainly in women who are actual immigrants from Africa.

    • Lynn says:

      Yes, JS, the author of the article I cite discusses the “Aunt Jemima” issue among older and younger African American women. Take a look. It’s an interesting read.

  3. Lizzie says:

    Very interesting. You can still on occasion, see black women wearing headwraps in the lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia.

  4. I want to read more about this fashion and its variations. I also associate it with “Rosies” (as in Rosie the Riveter) who worked in shipyards, munitions plants, or aircraft factories during World War II. Perhaps it was another fashion pioneered by women of color and widely adopted. There’s a color slide show (see Lily Rothman at Time) of “Rosies” that shows this woman in a scarf tied in front (,) and another that shows how widely it was copied:
    I do notice that women who were not African American were more likely to leave their front hair uncovered. My (white) stepmother, who had worked in a factory in Flint, Michigan, tied her hair up this way to do dusty/dirty housework. Although she had lived in the South, I don’t think she saw it as anything but practical.

    • Lynn says:

      I always noticed the Rosie the Riveter connection. I’m wondering if tying the scarf at the top of the head makes the tie more secure–thus better for hard work. So much to learn.

  5. Carol in Denver says:

    What I noticed was how clean-swept is the porch floor. I once bought eggs from a lady whose back door had a curtain that was very worn and with holes in it, but it was freshly laundered, starched and ironed. Such pride, dignity and industry in both these women is very touching.

  6. LizK says:

    I think the front/back tie issue for the “riveters” is practical. If you want to keep all your hair under the kerchief, then tying it in the back is asking for your bun or ponytail to be jostled whilst tying. If you scoop the back into a sling and tie in the front, you are less likely to lose the hair in the back…

  7. Gretchen Blakey says:

    When my mother set her hair in pincurls in the 1950’s South, she wore a scarf tied on top, covering the damp hair. This was around the house and back yard only.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.