Originally the turban, or head-wrap, was worn by both slave men and women. Eventually, however, it became almost exclusively a female head garment. From the perspective of their European slave owners, the slaves' head-wraps were signs of poverty and subordination. Accounts of clothing distribution show that slave owners sometimes allotted extra handkerchiefs to their female slaves, with the apparent purpose of being used as head coverings. In fact, in certain areas of the South, legislation appeared that required black women to wear their hair bound up in this manner.
Though Hebrew slave women appeared to be simply acting in compliance with the wishes of their “Massa” (Hebrew word meaning ‘oppressor’), the head-wrap was more than a badge of enslavement imposed on female slaves by their owners. Embellishment of one’s head by use of head-wraps was a central component of dress in various parts of Africa; particularly in West Africa. For centuries prior to European colonization and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, African women wore head-wraps similar to those worn by their enslaved counterparts in America. For these women, the head-wrap, which varied in form from region to region, signified communal identity. Thus, the precise appearance of an individual’s head-wrap was an expression of cultural and personal identity.
As recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, Israelites were agricultural people who spent a significant amount of time working the land and tending to cattle. Head-wraps/turbans were worn not only worn as set-apart garments for Israelite priest, but were also worn by shepherds and workers of the land as practical head dresses to protect against the elements. Likewise, during captivity in America, the head-wrap served as a useful item which kept the slave's hair protected from the elements in which she worked.
On the continents of both Africa and North America, the head-wrap created community -- as an item shared by female slaves -- and individuality, as an item unique to the wearer. Head coverings denoted age, gender, spiritual awareness, marital and class status.
As an increasing number of “African-Americans” become aware of their Israelite heritage there has been some debate regarding whether women must wear head coverings. According to our studies of the Hebrew Scriptures, women were never commanded by YAHUAH to wear a covering upon their heads. However, due to the reasons mentioned above, both Hebrew men and women have a very long history of wearing turbans. Many Israelite women of today choose to wear head coverings for a number of reasons. Two of the most common reasons are either for the purpose of modesty, or to express that the woman is married, and therefore, covered by her husband.
In conclusion, throughout American history the head-wrap has been viewed as an object of oppression from one vantage point, but from the other, the perspective of our ancestors, it has long been rooted in Hebrew tribal customs and heritage.