The standards of beauty and fashion are constantly changing, but a few styles have remained ageless. One of such is cornrows.
Cornrows date back to 3000 B.C. with origins in the horn of Africa (Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea etc.) and also the western coast of Africa. Africa is home to so much diversity which cuts across culture, geography, language music, arts etc.
Today, this eye-catching style has gone across all borders. Cornrows have become indispensable to the world of beauty, hair, and fashion. It is a style that can be worn on its own, or as a flat base for the attachment of wigs, weaves, and crochet braids. This is how important it has become.
But we tend not to remember it’s history, and the beautiful culture that was the progenitor of that hairstyle. Black culture has gifted us with the iconic laid-back hairstyle, but it isn’t a tale that looks as ravishing as the hairstyle itself. It is one of survival, tenacity, and faith. In the spirit of Black History Month, it is essential to remind ourselves of all the many contributions black history and culture has added to the society today, and the beauty world is no exception! The list is endless, from natural hair dyes such as Henna, to ancient beauty secrets such as the Chebe Powder, Skin regiments, to hairstyles! No one knew of cornrows the way it is known today, until black history happened.
Cornrows were made for the tight textured curly and coily hair. Having the afro hair in cornrows is one of the best suitable means designed to protect afro hair.
In Africa, cornrow braids and other hairstyles of African origin had a strong link with tribal customs, spirituality, culture, and identity. Through the way the cornrows were braided, one could tell the identity, clan, tribe, religion, marital status, social class, age or sex of an individual. So cornrows were a non-verbal means of communication.
Braiding patterns and pieces of arts intercepted in hairstyles be it cornrows or braids was a major facet of the typical African society. Beads, shells, raffia, corals, flowers, twigs, grasses, clothing materials and pieces of metal were usually attached to hair. In most clans, sections of the hair was shaved with paths in it – especially for males.
It was a common sight and still is in many African societies to see the older members getting hair done for the younger ones. Mothers and elderly ladies made cornrows braids and other hairstyles for their children in family huts, taking the time to bond as well. It was an integral part of family time, and the children grew up to continue the same cycle. Thus; the practice transcended successfully from one generation to the next. This was the sort of serene ambience that dominated much of the daily lifestyles of majority of African societies at the time.
Later, the Transatlantic Slave Trade happened to Africa! It led to over 1.5 million Africans taken into slavery in the fifteenth century. A vast majority were people from Central and West Africa. A major constituent of this slave population was the youthful and vibrant workforce because the slave masters only wanted those who could work on the cotton and sugar plantations.
They might have taken these Africans into slavery but the Africans did took something along with them. Something that was not as erasable as the dehumanizing forced shaving of their heads. They took their culture and beliefs with them across the Atlantic Ocean..
Despite several futile attempts to deprive the Africans of their culture and identity, such as; forcing them to take on new names, abandoning their language, shaving their hair, and torture, Africans remained largely unbroken in spirit as their values, culture and identity were deeply engrained in them.
Despite the resilience, it hadn’t been the most pleasant of times for the African communities scattered across several plantations and farms. It was gruesome. The higher the resilience of Africans, the greater the punishments and ill-treatment meted out by the slave owners. African hair that grew back had to be covered in scarves even though they were in cornrows. It was claimed that the African hair “distracted” the white men, when in truth, even before the transatlantic slave trade, Afro hair has always been an object of fascination.
The slave masters insisted that the Africans hid their hair. At this stage and on foreign soil, proper maintenance of their hair was hampered. There was barely enough time available for any activity outside work on the plantations. To worsen the situation, they no longer had access to the raw materials and tools which they were privy to back home for their hair care. So their hair which was once a source of pride to them became uncared for.
While they hoped for a better day, they travailed. They prayed in secret, communed secretly, passed messages across to each other in whispers and when these became impossible they would resort to non-verbal means of communication. The early Africans put to good use their ancient knowledge of coded languages against their masters.
One of such means was through the multifaceted African black hair. It was in this time that the cornrows patterns on Afro hair became more complex. Interactions between slaves were restricted but the braids and cornrows they wore could send the necessary message across. These included locations to meet, feelings, and acknowledgements.
Enslaved Africans were no strangers to freedom, they had the vast topographical landscapes of Africa to experience true freedom. Hence, as soon as they were taken from their ancestral home, the most important to them was regaining freedom. This resulted in revolts on plantation sites and all means exploited to achieve this one goal.
The cornrows were used to create maps and paths of escape as these routes could not entirely be memorized. The number of plaits worn could indicate how many roads people had to walk or an escape route. Most times the escape routes were seen when slaves were in transit to and fro with slave masters. So the paths were braided down for subsequent escape. Routes not to take to avoid re-capture by another slave master were noted as well.
While getting cornrows done, it was usual practice for slaves to hide grains of rice, seeds, or pieces of gold in their cornrow braids while doing the braids so they could feed on them as they journeyed through the middle passage. They would have to survive on that for as long as possible till they could get to free zones where they could trade their pieces of gold.
It is quite hard to imagine that the twists and turns of today’s delicate cornrows were simply tunnels of escape, survival lanes, and treks of endurance. However, it is more interesting to see how these experiences have gifted us a timeless, iconic style. It is hard to think that something this beautiful and good could have evolved from all that pain. A true example of making lemonades from lemon.
Slave trade was later abolished in 1968, and cornrows had increased in popularity. With a recent demand for going natural, cornrow braids are even more popular. Today, black people are no more discriminated against based on the color and texture of their hair.
The impact of slavery on African hair turned into resilience. It became a symbol of freedom. When Africans realized the lost pride in their afro hair and identity, they gave up all societal expectations of what the afro hair should look like and decided to wear it in its natural state. It is important that when you see cornrows today, you recognize that black people faced extreme discrimination because of the texture of their hair and skin colour. The same style has contributed much to the world of beauty today. Either worn on its own, or as a flat base for the attachment of artificial hair, it is undisputably essential.