By Zee Finley, Age 13
Cornrows have been a staple in African Diasporic culture. Cornrows, “Canerows” in the Caribbean, have been around for centuries. Examples of the style on statues date back to 3500 BCE. The style originated in Africa and survived through the Middle Passage. Many people see cornrows and are not aware of their significance. Each braid is a glimpse of Black history. “Hair is something we see, but we don’t understand what’s behind it, kind of like race. It’s the same way that something seems obvious, but it is complicated and complex,” the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in a 2016 interview.
Messages could be hidden inside the cornrows. Since slaves were rarely given the privilege of writing material or even if they did have it, such kind of messages or maps getting in the wrong hands could create a lot of trouble for the people in question, cornrows were the perfect way to go about such things. To signal that they wanted to escape, women would braid a hairstyle called “departes.” It had thick, tight braids braided closely to the scalp and was tied into buns on the top. During the Middle Passage or the period in the Atlantic Slave Trade when millions of Africans were brutally ripped from their homes and shipped to the New World, the heads of the captured slaves were shaved not only as a sanitary means but also to take away their own culture and identity from them. Adopting this hairstyle by slaves over their time in the new world was a small act of rebellion and resistance to keep their heritage with them.
The biggest way that cornrows helped the African slave population was by providing a discreet and easy way to create maps to leave their captor’s residence. Women braided specific patterns into their hair that symbolized rows of corn or cane, streets, and paths. In the braids, they also kept gold and hid seeds which would eventually help them survive after they escaped.
As well as signifying freedom, cornrows also signify black love. Many Black people have fond memories of sitting on the floor getting their hair braided by a loved one. Braids are not just a hairstyle. They are a symbol of love, freedom, liberation, labor, and revolution. Although they have been wrongly labeled thuggish and have been stigmatized we must reclaim our history by reclaiming our hair. Wear your cornrows with pride, and never forget your history.