Title: 1786 Bold & Beautiful Tignon Women
24 x 36 inches/acrylic
Certificate of Authenticity
In 1769, the law of coartación allowed enslaved people in Louisiana to purchase their own freedom, which afforded them the opportunity to be able to build wealth and status, according to Jennifer M. Spears’s 2009 book Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans. Toward the end of the Spanish colonial period (1763 through 1802), nearly 1,500 enslaved people in New Orleans “had acquired their freedom by cash payments,” according to Know Louisiana, and by 1810, free people of color made up 44 percent of the city’s free population.
Free women of color dressed elegantly and embellished their hair with feathers and jewels. They were flaunting their femininity because they now had the freedom to do so. While most free women of color married free men of color and raised families with them, they were also attracting the attention of non-Black men, which threatened an already fragile social order.
Despite these misconceptions about the intentions of free women of color, in 1786, Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró passed sumptuary tignon laws that mandated Black women to conceal their hair with a headwrap. The laws, Winters explains, “were not necessarily about keeping Black women from having sexual relationships with white men, but [about preventing] free women of color from being able to publicly enjoy those relationships or displaying any material gain that they might have gotten from those relationships.”
The tignon laws were intended “to return the free women of color, visibly and symbolically, to the subordinate and inferior status associated with slavery,” as historian Virginia M. Gould notes in 1997’s The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South, but free women of color subverted this original intention. Instead of wearing drab headscarves that minimized their beauty, Black women enacted their autonomy by purchasing bright, colorful headwraps, elaborately wrapping and tying them, and adorning them with jewels, beads, and ribbons.
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BY PRINCESS GABBARA
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Princess Gabbara is a multimedia journalist and storyteller, who has written for outlets like Shondaland, Vibe, The Boombox, Bustle, Greatist, TheGrio.com, Ebony magazine, Jetmag.com, Essence and Sesi, to name a few. She was previously a reporter for the Lansing State Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.