From the Met Gala to ‘Insecure’ and ‘Atlanta,’ what happens when the nuances of black women’s hair care are celebrated?
Women in nighttime bonnets and scarves and do-rags have been mostly invisible in pop culture — until now
Rainbow Johnson, portrayed by Tracee Ellis Ross on ABCs popular black-ish, frequently wears a head wrap to bed. So do Rainbow’s precocious daughter Diane, played by Marsai Martin; Rainbow’s meddling mother-in-law Ruby Johnson, played by Jenifer Lewis; and her older daughter Zoey Johnson, played by Yara Shahidi, who has gone off to grown-ish college and taken her head wrap with her. For context: Clair Huxtable didn’t wear a head wrap or bonnet to bed. In real life, Phylicia Rashad probably did. But when we saw Clair, the pristine mother Rashad played on The Cosby Show, in her pajamas or lying in bed, her bouncy hair was always out and perfectly coiffed.
Head wraps, bonnets and silk scarves have never been completely absent from popular culture, but the ones black women use to protect and preserve their hair at night haven’t been as public or as prevalent — until now. Solange just wore a do-rag to the Met Gala, and she was praised far and wide. For many black girls, tying your hair up at night with some sort of head covering is akin to brushing your teeth. There’s no formal ceremony or ritual behind the act, it’s just something you have to do to maintain whatever style you’re wearing at the moment.
In grade school, that might be cornrows or individual braids, adorned with a cacophony of plastic beads or barrettes, that require a cotton, silk or satin piece of fabric to keep your edges neat and to ward off the inevitable frizziness. If it’s relaxed hair, then a thin cotton scarf, stocking cap or do-rag likely holds your wrap or doobie in place and keeps your hair straight. For weaves, and for natural hair, satin bonnets usually do the trick, protecting your mane (or bundles) from cotton pillowcases or sheets that can dry out hair and cause breakage. And while satin bonnets and do-rags are plentiful at beauty shops in black neighborhoods, most of my headscarves were sourced from my mother’s dresser.
“The headscarf is a rite of passage for black girls that starts you on your own hair journey,” said Kairo Courts, who was costume designer for the first season of FX’s Atlanta. “I remember asking Zazie [Beetz] early on if she was a bonnet girl or a head wrap girl. She likes head wraps, and we started to talking about having to re-tie them at night because they come off. Everyone has a different recipe for their hair.”
I started to notice head wraps and bonnets on Instagram via Snoop Dogg selfies that turn into single mother memes. There are also the raw yet endearing Cardi B dispatches. And then these artifacts of black culture began to make deliberate appearances on a handful of black, millennial-leaning shows, including HBO’s Insecure, Atlanta and Fox’s Empire. Until I watched Issa wake up next to Lawrence with a scarf tied around her head, or Diane protect her pigtails with a printed scarf at night, I hadn’t even realized that such a foundational part of my black girl existence was missing from the television shows — Sister, Sister; Moesha; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — that taught me about myself and my identity.
“Black women have begun to embrace their natural hair,” said Tia Tyree, a communications professor at Howard University. “In the past, the Afro or the scarf in media meant a woman was pro-black or militant. She wasn’t an everyday black woman. She has to be resistant, even if she is just wearing it to bed. I think we’ve reclaimed that representation and we aren’t going to be ashamed about tying a scarf around our heads to maintain our hair. It’s a reality, and if you want me to tell my real story, it means I have a headscarf on.”
The sea change became even more apparent in the promotional images for season two of Dear White People, which debuted on Netflix on May 4. To mark the show’s return, Dear White People creator Justin Simien, his showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser and their team sent out press materials that included an image of three black girls sitting on a bed wearing some type of head covering. The character of Coco Conners is in a leopard print bonnet, and the character Joelle Brooks is in a printed silk headscarf. This picture currently sits atop stories in Vanity Fair, Newsweek and Thrillist, and while the image might appear inconsequential, the inclusion of the head wraps immediately conveys that this show is content made for us, by us.
But, as illustrated by ’90s favorites such as The Cosby Show, Martin and Living Single, having black executive producers, showrunners and writers on staff hasn’t always meant the authentic portrayal of the facets of our lives. Michelle Cole, the costume designer for grown-ish and black-ish whose oeuvre includes Martin and In Living Color, couldn’t recall if either Tichina Arnold or Tisha Campbell-Martin wore a headscarf on Martin. I recall many “horse hair” and “beady beads” jokes lodged at Pam from Martin, but no head wraps on screen.
Cole does remember receiving a call from executives when she was working on The Bernie Mac Show, which debuted in 2001 and was created by Larry Wilmore (who executive produces black-ish), informing her that there should be no “scarves on the head” for the show. Cole says that now, almost 20 years later, things are different, and the actors on black-ish and grown-ish usually request headscarves to wear in particular scenes.
“It wasn’t like we sat down and had this big discussion about head wraps,” said Cole. “It’s just that we are black women and this is what we do. We go to bed with our head wrap. I don’t think the decision to not allow headscarves on Bernie had to do with race. I just don’t think [the executives] were aware of how much it’s a staple in black women’s lives.”
The head wrap has usually been associated with black mammy stereotypes such as the Mammy character Hattie McDaniel depicted in Gone with the Wind, or with characters like the waitress Queen Latifah played in Jungle Fever, who didn’t want to serve Wesley Snipes’ character and his white date (Annabella Sciorra). Debbie Allen addressed some mammy connotations and attempted to reclaim them in A Different World’s 1987 “Mammy Dearest” episode. Costume designer Ceci (who goes by one name) began her career as a costume designer on A Different World and currently works on Dear White People. It was she who was tasked with dressing Charnele Brown, who played Kimberly Reese, in a black mammy head wrap similar to the ones worn by Aunt Jemima on boxes of pancake mix.
Ceci remembers a contentious atmosphere leading up to the filming of the “Mammy” episode and an emotional Brown, who didn’t want to wear the head wrap because of its associations, and especially the associations with her darker skin tone. Jasmine Guy’s Whitley Gilbert did wear a bonnet — or as she called it “a polytechnic moisture control cap” — in season four episode eight of A Different World, one of the show’s most pivotal episodes when she and Dwayne Wayne finally confess their love for each other. Ceci says that now, actors don’t blink twice when asked to wear one.
“There were lots of tears,” said Ceci. “It brought up a lot of emotions. But that conversation is nonexistent on Dear White People. … It is what it is, and if you don’t understand it, it’s not for you.”
These days, head wraps are subtle signifiers of black womanhood and its multiplicities, and this imagery rarely comes with any sort of translation for nonblack audiences. Issa ties a small scarf around the sides of her teeny-weeny Afro. Rainbow protects her curly tresses with a printed silk scarf tied haphazardly to almost resemble a turban. And Cookie has worn a Chanel silk scarf that she ties at the nape of the neck with the ends cascading down her robe. Often, taking something off means freedom, but for black women, putting on a bonnet or head wrap means you are in a safe space and able to exist as you are. “There has always been a certain mystique associated with black women,” said Courts. “People say ‘black girl magic,’ and seeing the scarf is like a magician showing you her secrets. A lot of people aren’t privy to this ritual, and it’s intriguing to someone who can’t relate.”
Ayanna James, costume designer on Insecure, believes there’s a level of normalization that comes with showing a head wrap on-screen. She compares black women wearing a head wrap each night on Insecure to the women of Sex and the City going to Starbucks every morning. But despite this movement toward showcasing black-girl head wrap society on mainstream platforms, wearing one out of doors still has consequences. According to Dress Coded, a report put together by the National Women’s Law Center that details how dress codes influence the education of black girls, 68 percent of Washington, D.C., public high schools ban head wraps or headscarves.
“There is a negative connotation when you see a young lady on the street with a bonnet or a headscarf that you wear to bed,” said James. “People see her as less valuable, [as] more uncouth and wild. … But the more we see the Olivia Popes and the Annalise Keatings in their natural state, the more it helps the rest of the world understand our journey. Representation matters, and for the younger black girl who may have issues with her hair, it shows that she is not alone. The subtle nuance of wrapping our hair at night is what collectively brings women of color together.”