This paper examines the genealogy and evolution of the protective hairdo, cornrows, commonly worn by people of Afro descent. It describes how hairstyles were employed to communicate during the slave trade and their relevance in African culture.
Cornrows are protective hairstyles used by women of Afro-descent with curly, tightly-knotted hair. It is a braiding technique that uses linear and geometric motifs to create a continuous row pattern. The traditional form of cornrowing is known as "Irun didi." However, the terminology and pronunciation of cornrows vary by region, as Caribbeans refer to them as "cancerous," and African American communities and the African diaspora use the term "cornrows." In addition, they all symbolize the same history. Donaldson states in an article, "A braided style, like cornrows, helps protect [hair] from moisture loss and breakage." According to the author Toni Love, women and men have worn cornrows for at least 3,000 years. The practice dates back to the 19th century for men regions of Africa, particularly Ethiopia. It was used in identifying Warriors and Kings.
The ancestry of braided hairstyles like cornrows all began in Africa. It was a type of ethnic representation for the tribes, groups, and regions, as they all adorned their heads for cultural significance that possessed complexity and diversity, comparable to the various styles that our age recreates now. It symbolized the cultural identity of a Black individual; the braiding of one's hair identified the tribe to which an individual belonged. The hairstyle is still prevalent in West Africa, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia). Cornrows were a form of self-expression that indicated age, religious views, wealth, and marital status. Women and men adorned their cornrows with shells, glass, corals, fresh flowers, and twigs to show their identities. It created the path for community integration, socialization, and bonding.
The Fulani braids were another braiding style that profoundly impacted our culture. Te Fula, often known as the Fulani, is the world's most significant nomadic pastoral population, populating West Africa and the Sahel. A highly classic hairstyle for women consists of five long braids that are either hand-braided or looped on the sides and a coiffure in the center of the head. Beads and cowrie shells are utilized to adorn the hair. Attaching the family's silver coins and amber to braids as a heritage emblem and for aesthetic purposes is a tradition passed down through the generations to women and young girls. South Africa's Box Braids date back to 3500 B.C., making them one of the oldest hairstyles. Over 3,000 years ago, women in the Nile Valley wore chin-length bob braids similar to the Eembuvi braids of Namibia. For their traditional attire and rituals, hair was originally woven into more delicate skull caps made of resilient materials such as wool, felt, and even human hair. Cowrie shells, pearls, and other essential objects adorned the box braids of ancient women, alluding to their eagerness to mate, admiration of wealth, high priesthood, and different categories.
Box braids were costly in terms of time, materials, and labor to install. A woman who could afford to spend many hours admiring her crown was likely wealthy. Depending on the length and thickness of your braids, the installation process might take between four and eight hours.
During the era of the slave trade, cornrows served as a means of communication for African-Americans because enslaved people utilized them as escape charts. The braided hairstyles were a statement of defiance, representing the people's escape route to freedom, and they would hide grains or seeds in their braids on their trip to slavery. The entrance of colonizers in Africa has resulted in prejudice and ridicule against the hairstyles of the natives. The hair of black people in Africa bears cultural importance and symbolizes their identity. It is a representation of their resilience and originality. The unique, intricate styles of the women's cornrows represented their pride in beauty and culture, which the colonists recognized and utilized to dehumanize them. When Africans were dragged onto slave ships, many Europeans shaved the hair of African women, degrading them by removing their sense of dignity and individuality.
During the age of the colonizers, cornrows significantly impacted the African people, and the braiding styles were an integral part of their cultural identity. Moreover, the era of slavery has ended, and cornrows have evolved. It has continued adapting to humans' braiding techniques to conform to the aesthetic ideal while preserving its symbolic significance. However, after the abolition of slavery, braids fell out of favor for a time. As a means of assimilating their newfound independence with the western culture, black people began to adopt aspects of western society. They decided to disassociate themselves from any notion of "different," seeking assimilation into white groups by adopting straightened or comparable white hairstyles, such as the prevalent slicked-back hairstyle. This is where the "relaxer" hair treatment for black women's hair texture was developed. This product was invented by Madam CJ Walker, born in 1867 on the same plantation where her parents were enslaved. She was the first successful female entrepreneur of the 19th century, known for selling her Hair Grower product door-to-door.
Cornrow hairstyles continued to evolve over the years, but its influence. In the 1960s and 1970s, during the civil rights movement in America, cornrows saw a rebirth as black women embraced their natural hairstyles and pride. During this period, the natural hair movement re-established a love and fun with black hair that Western aesthetic standards obliterated. , hair department head for Netflix's The Harder They Fall, shared in an article that "Once Black people started celebrating their texture in the late '60s, early '70s, you had women that were tired of wearing the wigs and pressing their hair and pulling it back. They started using their hair and celebrating the things they'd done traditionally as children. From my memory, the first person I can think of with braids would be Cicely Tyson."
As the black community continued to progress, beauty standards improved, and black people began to take pleasure in their beauty and refuse to adhere to the aesthetic beauty standard of the western ideal, which includes recognizing the cultural significance of cornrows on black people's hair. In the 1990s, cornrows experienced the second rise in popularity. Jada Pinkett Smith and Janet Jackson both sported cornrows in their respective roles. A symbolic act, the justification of a visible sign of self-acceptance. During these, cornrow styles got increasingly innovative as a greater diversity of sorts emerged. Two-cornrow braids, cornrow braids with extensions, side cornrows, and jumbo box braids enhanced the flexibility of expression.
The origins and history of cornrows continue to impact black culture profoundly. Cornrows' styles and innovations continue to evolve, yet their symbolic significance remains the same. Its history demonstrates the influence it had on African culture since the various tones reflect the diverse cultural identities of its people. This is still the case in the current age, yet cornrows are still viewed negatively in the workplace and schools. In Western communities, it still carries the racist connotation of unprofessionalism, rebellion, or flamboyance. As cornrows are viewed as a distraction rather than a symbol of representation, the same concerns colonists attempted to convey about African culture are still prevalent in the current generation. Despite their roots and connotation, box braids and other fashionable hairstyles in our day are still viewed the same way. Therefore, braids continue to exist in our culture as a beauty standard that the black community has upheld through years of demonstrations. Still, the oppressors continue to seek to eradicate that history from our lineage.
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