It’s Deeper than the Bonnet: The Debate Surrounding Black Women And Their Bonnets

Actress Mo-Nique went viral last month after she took to Instagram to shame Black women out of wearing bonnets and pajamas out in public. Now from how it seems, the conversation regarding whether hair bonnets should be worn in public has been an ongoing topic of debate everywhere.

In the five-minute-long video the actress recalled seeing many young Black women wearing  “head bonnets, scarves, slippers, pajamas, and with blankets wrapped around them” to the airport. Noting that this is something she has seen very often, Mo-Nique stated that in her opinion, Black women wearing bonnets while outside were showcasing a poor representation of the pride that they should have for themselves.

“The question that I’m having to you my sweet babies is, when did we lose pride in representing ourselves?” Mo’Nique asked viewers over the weekend. “When did we step away [from] ‘Let me make sure I’m presentable when I leave my home? Let me make sure I’m representing the family I created so that if I’m out in the street I look like I have pride in myself.’”

For many Black women, Mo’Nique’s statement hit a nerve. Michaella Louis, a senior social work major at FAU says, “I believe that as long as it doesn’t bother or hurt anyone, why care so much about it?”

Nya Craig, a sophomore digital design major at FAU says, “I think bonnets are fine. I wear it to hide what’s underneath. Most black women wear it to protect their hair. No, I wouldn’t wear to a professional setting because you always have to dress to impress…Think of it like this…would you rather see someone walking around with a bird nest on their head?”

While the debate over its propriety remains, the bonnet has an important backstory. Initially only worn by women in high society at home through the 17th century, the bonnet became a standard fashion by the 1800s. It symbolized grandeur and inferiority. ( www.historyinthemaking.org)

However, as the head covering increased in popularity, it became a mechanism to concentrate dominion over enslaved African Americans. The outdoor workers wore a simple bonnet of scrap fabric tied at the chin while indoor workers donned the fabric reflective of European styles. Thus, the bonnet became sort of a rite of passage for enslaved African Americans.

Following the end of slavey in America, bonnets were no longer considered fashionable due to their connection to subjugation and servitude. However, it maintained prevalence in our society as a reinforcement of social status.  Cultural figures such as Mammy and later Aunt Jemima wore bonnets as a symbolic representation of Black women’s place in America.

Along with this, the increasingly complex relationship between Black women and their hair led to the innovation of hair treatments by many pioneers. Thus, the bonnet became a purposeful tool to sustain and protect hair. During the Black power movement of the 60s and 70s, bonnets transmuted into headwraps and civil rights icons such as Nina Simone wore these head coverings as an act of rebellion against social injustices.   

The bonnet is as authentic as it gets when it comes to the reality of the experience for black women. Hair protection under the cover of silk scarves and bonnets is commonplace because we’ve grown up learning the importance of caring for our hair. Wearing cultural head wraps and bonnets has long been a tradition for us and it’s unfortunate that our headwear is a reflection of one’s level of pride in themselves. 

 It is also apparent that there is a generational divide in this debate amongst black folks.Older generations agree with Mo’Nique’s statement and equate headwear with pride.

Being under the microscope of the world at large is extremely exhausting for Black women in trying to fit into the social norms of what is deemed as “acceptable”. Black women are always forced to uphold this representation of “Black excellence” or we will always be negatively stereotyped as “ghetto”. One anonymous user took to Twitter to ask, “Why must Black woman always have to look ‘done up’ when white woman are allowed to walk around wearing their messy buns and yoga pants and it’s considered quirky?”

Social media users also took notice of the fact that Black men are not treated this way when they wear durags. Durags, instead, have become a fashion symbol of hip hop thanks to rappers and celebrities.

Black women are constantly feeling hyper-analyzed by society and are often forced to subject themselves to white standards.But how much longer can we allow white standards of how we should act or behave to impact how we judge ourselves? When will Black women be able to catch a breath? 

The reality is, bonnets aren’t the problem. It is the standard against Black woman.

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