This History Of Cornrows And The Tradition Of Braiding

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I remember sitting in history class being captivated by the stories of the Middle Passage, learning about slave ships and trade route between Africa and the Americas. My class was pretty diverse we had all races but the guilt you hear about when learning about slave history was never a thing for anyone of us regardless of race.

History lessons in the Caribbean were told without inhibition, there was nothing left out because that is how history was meant to be told.

Fast forward to these days, I am raising a son who will have to learn the same history as I did growing up but I often wonder will he hear it all? Will the parts of history that captivated my mind as a child be removed from the shool curriculum to serve some sort of subservient political agenda?

Sadly in most cases the answer is ‘yes’ and with that said I think as a parent it is my duty to teach my child everything about his history even the hard parts. Historical mistakes, hardships, and developments all shape who we are now and gives us the blueprint on how to be better humans.

Historical mistakes, hardships, and developments all shape who we are now and gives us the blueprint on how to be better humans, I am not going to rob him of that.

In the hair space the same holds true, do you know what cornrows mean? Do you understand what your “Summer 16” trendy braid style meant back in the day and the type of history the style holds?

Maybe sometimes when you are just getting a style you aren’t thinking about ancient history but I do believe at some point it is important to understand it and to learn about it.

I was reading a short article on the History of Cornrows and I thought it would be interesting to quote some of it here so that the next time you sit between your mother’s legs to get a braid up you understand just what she is doing.

I often look at little African girls and boys braiding hair and wonder how do they have such a skill? Their little fingers move so fast and some of our own stylists will tell you they just felt as if they were born to braid. I think the history is weaved into their blood past down from generation to generation and the skill is something they are born with.

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Cornrow hairstyles in Africa also cover a wide social terrain: religion, kinship, status, age, ethnicity and other attributes of identity can all be expressed in hairstyle. Just as important is the act of braiding, which transmits cultural values between generations, expresses bonds between friends, and establishes the role of professional practitioner.

Rebecca Busselle, who took the above photo of a Mende style in the 1970s, notes: “As westerners, it is difficult for us to appreciate the communicative power that Mende attribute to women’s hair.”

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The date of this photo, 1939, helps remind us that cornrows were invented long before the civil rights era in the United States.

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Like many other “Africanisms” in the new world, knowledge of African hairstyles survived the Middle Passage. Heads were often shaved upon capture, ostensibly for sanitary reasons, but with the psychological impact of being stripped of one’s culture. Re-establishing traditional hair styles in the new world was thus an act of resistance; one that could be carried out covertly.

“The slaves that worked inside the plantation houses were required to present a neat and tidy appearance… so men and women often wore tight braids, plaits, and cornrows (made by sectioning the hair and braiding it flat to the scalp). The braid patterns were commonly based on African tradition and styles. Other styles Blacks wore proved to be an amalgam of traditional African styles, European trends, and even Native American practices (Byrd and Tharps 2001 pp.13-14).”

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After the civil war, many African Americans began to straighten their hair. Madame C.J. Walker invented a system for straightening hair without the damage caused by other methods.

She became the first black millionaire and donated thousands of dollars to the NAACP and similar groups. But while adults’ hair was often straightened, children’s hair continued to be a place where the cornrow tradition could be carried on: “Little girls received their first simple pigtails or cornrows at Mother’s or Grandmother’s knee. Brushing, oiling and braiding the hair encouraged it to grow.

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Even with the advent of the straightening comb in the early 1900s, school girls had their hair braided and adorned with bangs, barrettes, ribbons, or clothespins.

Only on Sundays or special occasions did younger girls wear their hair loose and curled with hot irons; this hair style requires daily maintenance unsuited to the activities and schedules of either children or their hard-working mothers (Peters 1990).”

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Skip a bit past the fro era of the 1970’s cornrows were on the rise again.

In yet another trend-setting television appearance in 1972, Cicely Tyson wore intricate Nigerian braids. Jackson reports that during this time several professional stylists conducted research on Africa braiding techniques through museums, and Malikia, best know as Stevie Wonder’s stylist, made a trip to Africa for that purpose.

West African immigrants also brought braiding style techniques to the U.S. in the 1970s. As hip-hop emerged as a predominant Black cultural movement in the 1980s, the philly cut became its best-known hairstyle expression among men, while in women’s 1980s styles weaves were receiving the most attention.

Now in 2016, cornrows are back with a vengeance, we have returned to our traditional looks and have mixed in weaves and new ways of doing things maintaining the foundation.

I do find it interesting though that our little girls seem to have always carried the tradition on even when things change for the adults. We know deep down that braiding will always be the number one thing that keeps our African hair the healthiest so the practice remains alive and well in every black household.

Click here to see first-hand the source of the History of Cornrows then share this with someone who needs to learn the history of cornrows and African hair braiding.

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