Simon Benjamin

CultureFashionLiving the Fuck Out LoudPolitics Of Style

durags are black halos

July 19, 2019
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Keeping the ocean in my hair was important work. It was one of the few chores I was gleeful to do as a boy. I remember the first time I told my mother I wanted waves, and she looked at me annoyingly, as if it were a thing that she always knew I’d request but she’d literally never be ready for. The time had come and she knew that because of her upbringing in the 1960s and her long, thick hair; she couldn’t help me. She called on my stepfather at the time to help her; he was an executive by day, DJ by night, and sported an impeccable head of waves at both dawn and nightfall.

The trip to the beauty supply store was ritualistic but mundane. My stepfather was not a man of many words — or feelings, hence the inevitable divorce and perhaps this also cemented my mother’s current status as a lesbian — but he was a man of action. Grab the brush, grab the grease (360 Style Wave Control, to be specific), and lastly, the durag. We gathered the materials, and paid the casually racist shop owners. And before I knew it, we were driving — no, swimming — home. To my stepfather, I was his effeminate stepson but I knew I was only moments away from being the little ghetto, chubby Oshun I was designed to be, and I’d have deep Black waves in my head to prove it. 

The durag might have been the piece that motivated my curiosity in having a head full of waves in the first place. It’s was a specific right of passage as a Black man, and as a Black boy. There was nothing I desired more than to be a Black man. I’d visit the West End mall or Greenbriar in Atlanta with friends, and the durag was clearly to me not just about hair upkeep: it was a silk crown. And I wanted mine.

There are few things in the Black fashion vernacular as universally understood as the durag. Even headwraps and bonnets worn by Black women and femmes have the ability to stay exclusively to Black woman and/or femme culture because of the lack of concern of what keeps a Black women’s beauty kept, the gazing public just cares that she is indeed kept. However, the silk crown was as much of a cultural status symbol as the rivers and lakes it was maintaining. In the early 00s, it was what you matched with clothes and wore underneath hats. It functioned as a parallel to the way a hair weave functioned for others. It showed a masculine grace, it bellowed in the wind, and it could be manipulated to express your mood. It became a viable Black mode of expression, just like everything else we touch, be it food scraps or brass instruments. The cheap slice of silk you bought from the beauty supply store had soul, it had the jazz. 

While I was in Georgia, the rest of the Black folks across the country were wearing their beauty supply crowns too. Specifically, there was North Carolina, which now hosts Durag Fest, an annual celebration of the Black staple that has everyone of all walks of Blackness, celebrating this Black American right of passage. 

It’s not particularly peculiar to me that the durag has become emblematic of an “authentic” Blackness. If the conk — a hairstyle that called Black men to put lye in their hair so it could lay and be manipulated like white men’s hair — was the ultimate expression of respectability, then, the durag can be considered the non-respectable, antithesis of this. It is the crown we wear that brings attention to our differences, not an attempt to assimilate in aesthetic. It celebrates the process of maintaining and often creating our hairstyles. It recognizes that we create ourselves. 

Even more accurate was Solange dawning a durag at the 2018 MET Gala, it bellowed to the floor and created a train: a clear exaggeration of the style we embraced in the early 00s. On it, read the words, “MY GOD WEARS A DURAG.” Octavia E. Butler once wrote, “God is change,” and if this is true, the durag evolved from the silk crown of my childhood to a velvet halo of my adulthood. I always knew that keeping waves in Black hair in boyhood was important work; but as I get older, I’m learning it is a divine work, too.