Cornrows: Mapping Out New Roots
While the popularity of cornrows soars and their cultural significance thrive, it’s important to acknowledge their historical roots deeply intertwined with racial resistance. Some enslaved people ingeniously employed intricate braided hair patterns as hidden escape routes to freedom. Rahel Tesfai, the founder of FroHub – an Afro hair & beauty community and booking platform – sheds light on the fascinating history of cornrows and their pivotal role in emancipation.
The ancient African tradition of cornrows has been enjoying something of a renaissance of late. Beyoncé, Tracee Ellis Ross and Alicia Keys are among the US celebrities who have recently played key roles in boosting the popularity of braids and, as London-based award-winning hairstylist Vicki Senior, says: “People are becoming more and more conscious of what they put on and in their bodies. The natural-hair trend has boosted braided hairstyles as people grow out their relaxed hair.”
One of the many facets of African culture to have survived the transatlantic slave trade is braided hair flat against the scalp twisted in simple lines or complex geometrical patterns using an underhand, upward motion to produce continuous cornrows or “cane rows”. The craft derives both names from the neat rows of field products slaves was forced to cultivate, whether sugar cane in the Caribbean or cotton in other parts of the Americas.
Braiding Through the Ages
Braiding dates to at least 3000 BC, as the Stone Age paintings of the Tassili n’Ajjer caves in the Sahara Desert in south-eastern Algeria prove. Similar evidence of ancient braiding can also be found in Egypt’s intricate drawings, engravings, and hieroglyphs. In present-day Africa, braids can serve as a convenience right through to being elaborate styles for special occasions.
During the centuries-long slave trade, cornrows reminded Africans of their roots, but they were also practical. Some records suggest that slave masters would better treat slaves whose hair more closely resembled European hair, so tightly braided, intricate hair might curry favour. Other evidence suggests that slaves used detailed rows and patterns of braids to represent key routes in escape plans, such as the time and day of a planned escape and maps to direct those who would flee.
The slavery-era historian Fray Pedro Simón (1574-1628), a chronicler of the peoples of Venezuela and Colombia, documented that an enslaved African king, Benkos Biohó, taught fellow slaves in what is now Colombia to communicate secretly with each other through their hair. Originally from the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau in Africa, Benkos led many slaves escapes in Cartagena, Colombia, and established San Basilio de Palenque, the Americas’ first village for escaped slaves, or maroons. In 2005 the village was named as a Unesco heritage site.
Survival Tools to Artistic Expression
Many braided designs purposefully included seeds and beads made from precious metals and stones, which could then be used following a successful escape. The seeds were used to start crops for food and to be traded, while the precious materials could be bartered for other essential items.
The cultural and historical importance of braids can also be seen elsewhere. A lock of braided hair stolen from the corpse of Ethiopia’s Emperor Tewodros II, a beloved national hero even today, by invading British troops after the 1868 Battle of Maqdala was returned to Ethiopia as late as 2019. The official handover of the hair followed years of campaigning by Addis Ababa over the return of hundreds of plundered artefacts.
For many years Black people’s hair was often suppressed, for example, under weaves and wigs, as a quest for smoother hair was pursued. However, the subject of natural hairstyles continues to weave through cultural conversations surrounding Black identity amid questions of liberation, survival and defiance.
On the thorny subject of cultural appropriation, hairstylist VickSensStyles says she does not have a problem with other races wearing cornrows. “It became trendy with non-Black people when Kim Kardashian wore them. For them, it’s just a hairstyle, not a lifestyle. It’s simply people jumping on the bandwagon. Everyone should be free to do what they want with their hair, but they should take the trouble to know where it originates from and the struggle that came with it.”