The Black Man’s Superhero Cape
By Julius Williams
We see them everywhere, but few know where they actually come from, or fewer yet, what it means to wear one. Over the years, the durag has made an astounding progression from being a stigma on the black community to one of the most powerful pieces of cloth ever created. What seems like nothing more than a simple piece of fabric is easily one of the most meaningful symbols of black excellence.
The origin of the durag can be traced all the way back to the early nineteenth century. Slave masters would make their fair-skinned slaves wear them when they went into town so that they would not be confused with white people. While it’s not a surprise that the trend has a morally questionable origin, I’m sure no one would’ve guessed that it’d be where it is today: on magazine covers, runways, and the heads of some of our biggest influencers. We owe it to our pop-culture heroes for popularizing the durag, thus eliminating the negative connotation tied to it.
The idolization of durags is still brand new; it wasn’t so long ago that they were used exclusively as hair maintenance devices. Durags are often used by black males to holds braids in place and fashion shorter hair into a hairstyle called “waves”, (after rigorous brushing, of course). The durag keeps your hair laid in place, and decreases frizzing in longer hairstyles. There was a time when wearing a durag in public made people see you as poor or a “thug”. You can thank artists like Cam’ron and 50 Cent for popularizing durags, and making it more socially acceptable to wear them in public. Eminem played a part in the resurrection of durags as well. Although he’s not black, we give him a pass because of all he did for the culture.
Not everyone acknowledges the cultural cues represented by the durag. In fact, In the early 2000s, both the NBA and NFL banned the utilitarian headdress. Allen Iverson, a passionate advocate for black culture, stated, “They’re targeting my generation–the hip-hop generation.” He wasn’t completely wrong, either. In my opinion, the higher-ups in the sports leagues viewed the durag as a symbol of power, and abolished it as a way to silence the black community, thus taking away that power. If one thing is certain, it’s that there have been many occasions throughout history where black people have been the victim of such censorship. Part of the importance of the durag lies with the fact that although they continuously try to silence us, we continue to rise in spite of it.
You can find a basic durag at pretty much every gas station and beauty supply for just a couple of dollars, but if you’re wearing it as a fashion accessory, there are more luxurious options available. As time progresses, we see more and more innovative versions of one of mankind’s simplest items. People have crafted durags from everything ranging from Gucci monogram fabric, to velvet. Travis Scott even sported a Bape camo durag on a cover of Paper Magazine. If that’s not already an indication that durags are fashion’s latest and greatest phenomenon, you can also see durags make an appearance on the catwalk, being featured in fashion shows from some of the world’s most renowned designers, such as Rick Owens and Rihanna’s Fenty.
It’s pretty much impossible to discuss anything relating to black culture without also discussing cultural appropriation. There have been numerous occasions where people have tried to “borrow” the durag from black culture, but they were quickly shot down. A perfect example was when pictures of white models at Chanel’s Derek Lam Spring 2015 fashion show wearing what they referred to as “Chanel Urban Tie Caps” surfaced. The black community wasted no time in waging war on cultural appropriation, and reclaiming the durag for black culture. Since then, Chanel has released a statement explaining that the “urban tie caps” weren’t actually a Chanel product; they were being worn by the models backstage to preserve their hair’s volume.
As a way to celebrate our victory, a trend called “Durag History Week” was created. During this week, (which is pretty much every other week), black people share fun facts on durags, or simply show their appreciation for them by wearing them in public. Some people have even gone as far as to have what they call “Durag Day” at their schools. Hundreds of black students wore durags all day to show their adoration for their culture. Needless to say, durags represent much more than just the fabric used to make them. Durags represent unity, pride, and an overall appreciation for what makes us who we are.
Whether you view the durag as nothing more than a piece of fabric, or the black man’s superhero cape, you can’t deny its importance. The black community has effortlessly turned nothing into something, as seen many times throughout history. Today, the durag is a symbol of power, and when we wear them, not only are we protecting our waves. We’re giving the finger to those who wish to silence our voices. As a black man, and a self-proclaimed durag expert, I couldn’t be more proud to be part of the movement.