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Black History Month 2022: The History Behind Cornrows

In celebration of Black History Month, we are taking a look at the history of the distinctive Cornrow hair style in Black culture. Your Exec officer Tabitha Ajao has brought together the following insightful article.

Tabitha Ajao

By Tabitha Ajao

Friday, 7 October 2022

Where it all started

Cornrows have been in fashion for a long time. The hairstyle differs from the “braid,” which is formed by the braider interlacing three strands of hair that are hanging from the scalp. Braids are a part of other hair cultures like the Vikings, Native Americans, and Chinese. The term cornrows originated somewhere between the 16th and 19 centuries in colonial America and was named after the agricultural fields that many enslaved people worked. In the Caribbean they are sometimes referred to as ‘Canerows’.

The hairstyle can be linked back to the times where slaves were forced to work in the sugar cane fields. But before that though this style was likely called ‘kolese’ meaning “a creature without legs’ in Yoruba (Nigerian). The general term for cane/cornrows in Nigeria is ‘Irun Didi’. Irun translating to hair in Yoruba and Didi being the name of the hairstyle.

Depictions of women with corn rows have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateu of the Sahara, dating back to at least 3000 BC. In ancient Egypt men and women wore cornrows or simple braids, often adorned with gold thread and other delicacies.

It is also documented that different types of hairstyles symbolised social ranks, for example warriors and kings were identified by their braided hair styles. This type of hairstyle then spread from the Nile valley throughout the rest of Africa and is still largely worn throughout West Africa, Sudan and the horn of African and can signify a person’s age, religious beliefs, kinship, marital status and even wealth.

Cornrows during slavery: used as a way to escape

Slavery began when millions of Africans were brutally ripped from their homes and shipped to the new world, where they had their heads shaved to take away their cultural identity. Cornrows helped enslaved Africans put up small acts of rebellion and resistance by not only allowing them to keep their heritage close, but also providing a discreet way to transfer information.

Cornrows soon became used as a way for slaves to secretly communicate with one another. Slaves would style their Cornrows, in different patterns as a means of communicating in code written messages.

The best documentation of this is in Colombia where Benkos Biohò, a royal captured from the Bissagos Islands by the Portuguese, escaped slavery and built a Palengue village in Northern Colombia, where he then created an intelligence network. Coming up with the idea of having women make ‘maps’ and deliver messages through their cornrows.

Slaves did this to avoid messages getting into the wrong hands and risk being caught escaping. A particular number of braids could indicate possible escape routes or even be used to signal a meet up time, without drawing scrutiny. Slaves would also hide bold fragments or seeds to give the wearer some nourishment while escaping.

The enslaved wore cornrows as a simple way to wear their hair during the weekend, cornrows were also considered the best option for those who were allowed inside plantation houses and required to keep a tidy appearance.

Culture appropriation vs Culture appreciation

Hairstyles such as cornrows and dreadlocks hold a cultural significance and sentimental value for people of African descent. In the recent past, they have been appropriated by multiple celebrities for example Kim Kardashian.  

Appropriation is defined as taking certain aspects that are originally from a less-dominant culture and using them in a way its members may find offensive. An issue that arises with cornrows being worn by other ethnicities, is the individual wearing cornrows without showing any appreciation for their context or creators.  

Cornrows on Black people, among other hairstyles like dreadlocks, are still labelled as looking “unprofessional” in grooming policies, and yet white people wear them without experiencing the same problems that their black counterparts face.  

The discrimination against cornrows even carries itself to the present day. From schools to the workplace, black people have found themselves being persecuted simply based on how they style and wear their hair in public.

In 2009 at St Gregory's Catholic Science College of Harrow in Greater London, a young boy was discriminated against for wearing cornrows to school. The school made the decision to ban wearing cornrows because of concerns in the area about gang culture and the belief that cornrows "encouraged that mentality". Courts were favour of the young student and eventually he won the case. However, this highlights the social categorisation and discrimination against black hairstyles that still takes place within society.

Celebrating African cornrows as high fashion can be positive, known as ‘culture appreciation’ but the history behind the hairstyle needs to be acknowledged. In the UK, the Halo Code is a campaign pledge designed to protect black employees who choose to come into work with their hair in its natural state or protective hairstyles (associated to any racial, cultural, or ethnic identities) from discrimination. The halo code ensures they will face no barrier or judgement in the workplace for this.

The relevance of Cornrows in modern day society

To this day, cornrows have remained popular hairstyle many black people chose to wear. Cornrows have come to symbolise so much more than just aesthetics, the hairstyle has come to symbolise heritage, community, and strength.

Celebrities such as Alicia Keys, Laverne Cox, Beyoncé, and more, publicly display cornrows on and off the red carpet. Showcasing versatility and showing appreciation to cornrows.

Black stylists and influencers continue to innovate and share their work with the world, through social media. Inspiring millions on social media sites such as Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube.

Black people have one of the most versatile hair types out there. With it being easy to manipulate into curls, straighten and more. Due to where a person lives, their hair may be impacted by humidity, pollution, and moisture. For this reason, many black people enjoy wearing protective hairstyles; which are different types of hairstyles used in order for black people to protect their natural hair from the negative side effects of elements in their environment.

Cornrows are a low-maintenance sleek, style that can remain in good condition for weeks. The hairstyle is a very popular protective style amongst the black community. It is important we continue to acknowledge the history behind cornrows within black culture. With important acknowledgements and protections against racial discrimination, being put in place black people can feel more comfortable styling their hair as they wish.


Join us for a Canerows Demonstration + Q&A

Tuesday 18 October at 12:30pm

Think Tank, Luton Campus

Find out the role canerows play in black culture both today and historically. There'll be a live in-person demonstration of cancerous being braided, followed by a Q&A session.