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Black man wearing a black durag stands at a park.

The Cultural Significance of Durags

Hair care exists as one of the most distinct and cherished components of black culture. Origins of black hair care span far back to 10th century Africa, more commonly known as the “golden age” of Africa.

Since this time, the African diaspora has come to establish an extensive range of hair styles, hair regimens and hair accessories—each an eclectic expression of the black experience.

One of the most notable symbols of not only black hair care, but black culture, is the head scarf. Although headscarves can scarcely be centralized to an exact region of the world, they were popularized in the United States by slaves who wore them as they worked in the field to protect their hair from the antebellum sun.

Since then, the head scarf has evolved into a black hair accessory of many notable uses and high cultural significance in the black community as well as black culture. One of the head scarfs’ most popular evolutions is the durag (BBC News).

Black man wearing a statement durag about how black lives matter.

The name “durag”, many claim, originates from its characteristics and intended purpose- being that it is a rag or a piece of cloth used to protect a person’s hair-“do”.

Durags exploded to popularity among the African American community during the early 1970’s- a time during which many other tumultuous events were taking place concurrently.

The 1970’s was a period in which black culture and expression was exploding across the American landscape in such a way that nearly rivaled the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930’s (history.com). Black culture germinated throughout music, film and television, as did notable symbols of black culture, such as the durag.

Black men in particular gained a unique benefit from the durag, as it allowed them to become even more creative with their hairstyles and protected their hair as they worked and slept. However, the popularity of the durag did not come without its drawbacks (BBC News). 

Many historical events eclipsed the growing popularity of the durag with unfavorable connotations based on racist stereotypes.

The “war on drugs” of the late 70’s and early 80’s, first pioneered by President Richard Nixon, surmised a tangible enemy- one that often took the resemblance of a black gangster in a durag. This is where the controversy surrounding what may otherwise have been nothing more than a simple hair accessory.

Rather than resist stereotypical designation of the durag, black men fully embraced it. In many urban black communities, it became commonplace to see young black men wearing durags out in public during their day-today activities. Not only that, but durags began to become a staple in the ensemble of musicians in the then burgeoning genre of rap and hip-hop.

A black teenage boy wearing a black durag.

Up and coming rappers of the 80’s like NWA, LL Cool J and Snoop Dog popularized the durag even further by intertwining it with the distinct category of black fashion (Acquaye). However, this only strengthened the affiliation between black men in durags and drugs and criminal activity.

The image of a black man in a durag quickly became a powerful one- with many racial epithets inherently tied to it. This did not thwart its popularity amongst the black community.

In fact, by the early 90’s, durags had evaded the world of high fashion. The biggest black stars in film, music and television- men and women alike- such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Lil Wayne dawned durags on the red carpet almost as an act of rebellion (Acquaye).

American society had longed for years to typecast African Americans as one of two monoliths- the good black and the bad black. But black culture and the resistance of the movements associated with it refused to accept this narrative. But the durag’s significance emanates primarily from its practical use in African American hair care (Acquaye).

The coarse, curly, kinky texture of black hair is extremely delicate and fickle to maintain. The silky texture of the durag coupled with the two rear strings to secure it in place makes it one of the most widely used hair accessories among black men, women and children.

Black tying his blue durag around his wavy hair.

Perfect for maintaining hairstyles as well as keeping hair strands protected from the abrasive texture of cotton and the natural elements, the durag has long been an inexpensive and accessible component of black hair care.

Durags help women improve the appearance and longevity of hairstyles such as braids, locs and silk presses while helping men to achieve what became prominently known as “waves” or a sleek wavy texture in their curly hair.

The practical use of the durag exists as the primary cause for its popularity, but its symbolism in the space of black culture is also another significant reason for its widespread use across the African diaspora at large (Garcia).

Since the dawn of black resistance movements in the western hemisphere, hair and its physical representation has been used as a form of rebellion. Beginning with the globe-shaped afros of the Black Panther Party, durags have since become one of the most contemporary examples of black resistance through the expression of hair. Rather than submit to the designations the western world had attempted to label it with- “ghetto”, “gangster”, “unprofessional”- the black community collectively resisted. Not unlike many other labels and designations African Americans have had to resist in the past (Garcia). 

They did this by embracing blackness as a whole which included the unique needs of our hair texture. This paved the way for inclusion of durags in high fashion, with durags appearing on fashion runways and red carpets more and more frequently (Acquaye).

But more significantly than that, it helped give African Americans the space to be authentically themselves in popular media without having to diminish the bold aspects of their culture that others deemed undesirable or unacceptable.

The impact of the durag set a precedent that continues in present day black film, TV, fashion music and so much more.

 

Sources:

Acquaye, Alisha. “The Renaissance of the Durag.” Allure, 26 Dec. 2018, https://www.allure.com/story/durag-fashion-history-black-people-reclaiming-the-narrative. 

Garcia, Sandra E. “The Durag, Explained.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 May 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/style/durag-solange-met-gala.html. 

History.com Editors. “War on Drugs.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 31 May 2017, https://www.history.com/topics/crime/the-war-on-drugs. 

“How Celebrating a Head Covering Became an Annual Event.” BBC News, BBC, 5 Oct. 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-34445489.

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