Durag: A Short Personal History

The first time I ever wore a durag, my cousin tied it on my head and said, “You look like a gangbanger.” It was a compliment.  His sister agreed and they laughed because I was the baby of the family and the softest by a mile.  I ran to the bathroom and found in the mirror there a boy looking back who did look tougher, meaner; his soft, curly hair covered by the black flap of polyester.  As children, we’d already been taught to understand that something as simple as a tie-cap was a symbol of thuggishness.  Someone, somewhere, had already stigmatized the durag for us.  We’d already bought into the criminalization of a simple hair accessory for no other reason than it was a Black hair accessory. And since we were proud of our Blackness, in our childish logic, we aspired to this equated thuggishness, too. I practiced my mean mug in that very mirror with my cousin’s durag on my head, cape out.
            The first stigmatization, of course, came not from the accessory, but the hair itself.  From the earliest ages, we were taught that well-known trope of good and bad hair.  That which was curlier, kinkier – which is to say: Blacker – was bad hair.  As the light-skinned, mixed-race cousin with long, loose curls, I was told I had the good kind.  That earliest stigma of Black hair I first learned was a self-induced response to my own good hair, an unconscious genuflection to the imagined primacy of European blood.  We were taught in infancy that the things that are of Blackness are things to be hidden, to be processed, to be bleached out, and learned away.
            In the 90s, it was still rare to find Black beauty products in the chain drugstores that populated the retail strips of the suburb I lived in.  That was still the market of corner stores in Black neighborhoods.  We Black boys wore short hair under durags slathered with Blue Magic or Murray’s or Sportin’ Waves and constantly brushed.  In middle school, we compared techniques in the never-ending search for three-sixty waves.  I – with my long, loose curls – might have had one wave in my entire life. One.  Singular.  But still, I greased and brushed – knocking flakes from my eternally dry scalp – and wrapped my head every night.  Durags weren’t allowed in school, so we’d stuff them in our back pockets, strings hanging out.
            In my Catholic, private high school, I first experienced the written regulation of Black hair.  Braids and dreadlocks were banned by the dress code there.  These styles – as ancient as humanity itself and present in every culture across the globe (including Europe: Celts, Vikings, etc.) – were deemed “unprofessional”; not the last I’d hear of that word.  We were being taught to “be men” and men, apparently, did not wear their hair twisted or twined.  Who then were all the men I’d known my entire life?
A friend of mine at this school would have his hair cornrowed every Friday night only to have them taken out every Monday morning.  I had no patience for that and the very necessity of it were my first inklings about the biases that informed ideas of “professionalism.”  I may have had enough European blood to make my hair closer to that gold standard of straight, but it was not straight enough to simply comb back into some “professional” style.  In effect, we Black students were being told that our hair was not allowed to be as long as our white classmates.  In that place, we got in trouble when the strings of our durags hung from our back pockets.
            The freedom that college provided me was never having to take the thing off.  So I rarely did.  I wore durags under matching ball caps, with matching jerseys, boots and sneakers.  On the days I went bareheaded, whether rocking a short fade or intricately-braided cornrows, every hair was laid, plastered, perfectly in place.  This was because of my durag and there was pride in this.  There was something about discussing the poetry of William Blake in streetwear, or George Eliot’s The Mill on the Flossin a bandana, that felt free of pretense.  It was simply was.  I was simply a young Black man dressed as he felt he should be and displaying his ability.  I learned the supposed disconnect between my appearance and my intellect was a false one.
            “Blackness” is performative, and mine arguably more so. I have, in some ways, done the opposite of my societal conditioning and run towardsBlackness, away from the European blood stamped across my features, entwined in my very hair.  The dirty little secret is, however, European-ness is performative, too.  (And so on for Latin-ness, Arab-ness, etc.)  Our cultures are ones we commit to, by choice. This is especially so for those of us who are constantly conditioned to assimilate to the ideals of American Whiteness. This is an inorganic thing, more often a reaction to non-whiteness than anything else.  The American ideal culture is not English, nor Irish, not German, Dutch, Polish, or French.  All of those actual European cultures (and more) do have space here, but they are not American Whiteness.  American Whiteness is defined in the negative.  It is NOT Black.  It is NOT Hispanic.  It is NOT Middle Eastern.  So on, so forth.  American Whiteness is an absence.  Like the emperor with no clothes, it must use force to coerce us into blinding ourselves to its non-existence or else we see its fragile vulnerability.  If it ever were to drop such coercion, then white children might start – gasp!– acting NOT white.
            As I got older and durags passed out of style for a few years, I found that I became more self-conscious wearing one.  It began to feel like a rebellion when before it’d only ever felt like me.  I’m from a generation taught to one day put the durags and bandanas away and replace them with the suit and tie.  I was supposed to become “professional.”  To assimilate to the American ideal.  If you cannot be white (ahem, I mean “professional”), then, for God’s sake, at least actit in public.  This is neither real nor healthy.
            The renaissance of the durag that has been happening the last couple years (just in time for another round of braids for me) is an encouraging piece of the movement of Unapologetic Blackness that we’ve seen in the wake of the murders of Black men and women across the nation for no other reason than their presumed criminality.  This movement is revealing that the ideas we’ve been taught about respectability and professionalism are – like the good hair“compliment” I still sometimes get – ultimately anti-Black/Latinx/PoC.  They stem from outmoded ideas of public acceptability born of men long-dead whose worldviews few of us would ever agree with.  This stigmatization is coming from without and it requires our buy-in.  No amount of assimilating, no amount of European blood, will ever make us a part of the club of American Whiteness, not permanently. Those who have achieved such membership – who unlock that “You know, sometimes, I forget you’re even Black” level – often realize later just how toxic and precarious that position can be. All culture may be performative, but there are many types of performance in this world.  Some roles reward the actor with pride and accomplishment, others gnaw away at everything she has.
            But.
            We do not have to buy in.  Solange can rock a durag to the Met Gala just as I can rock mine to the grocery store.  There is no thuggishness in wearing a polyester hair accessory.  And when we take them off our hair will be laid and waves dripping.  Because if the centuries-long assault on the Black appearance has done anything, it has given us defiant pride in how we look.  Black folks will forever show up fly to the function and we don’t care if you see us in a headwrap.  We’re happy to let know: we worked for this.  We’re not ashamed to show we put in the time to look good.  Whether waves, braids, weaves, dreads, wigs, or nails; whether the glow, the walk, the look, the dance, or the shoes that look fresh out the box; none of these things just happen. And when someone categorizes such things as low-class, vulgar, or childish, you would do well to remember the nude emperor who has used these words to coerce blindness for generations. After that, if there are still any questions of ability, intellect, or maturity floating around, just know:  I’d stake my durag against your necktie any day of the week.

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