Do cornrows come from Africa?

This post is also available in: French

 

Recently, the article on Boxers Braids in French Magazine, “Paulette” , had made react some readers, outraged that we can say that cornrows were created by boxers, simply hiding their African history. And what a surprise to see that among the photographs chosen to illustrate the subject, the edition only chose white models. As if cornrows were only acceptable on Caucasians … That was not the purpose of Paulette, one suspects, but some have read it as a contempt for cornrows worn by black women.  Seeing cornrows in all the fashion magazines , usually worn most often by western models, means that this hairstyle has aesthetic value only on white women.

Récemment, l’article sur les Boxers Braids de Paulette Magazine, avaient fait bondir certaines lectrices, révoltées que l’on puisse dire que les tresses couchées avaient été conçues par les boxeuses, en taisant purement et simplement leur histoire africaine. Et quel étonnement de voir que parmi les photos choisies pour illustrer le sujet, la rédaction n’avait choisi que des modèles européens. Un peu comme si les tresses couchées n’étaient acceptables que sur les Caucasiennes… Là n’était pas le propos de Paulette, on s’en doute, mais certaines y ont lu un mépris pour les tresses portées par les noires. Et puis, voir ces tresses couchées dans tous les magazines de mode, portées le plus souvent le plus souvent sur des mannequins occidentaux, revient à dire que cette coiffure n’a de valeur esthétique que sur les femmes blanches.

However, braiding hair is an integral part of African culture. An art handed down from generation to generation and is a mode of transmission.

In brief, a history is necessary to demonstrate the ancestral character of cornrows in African culture.

Cornrows, unlike braids, are a hairstyle in which hair are very close to the scalp, that can form a geometric design, like cross roads or paths formed in the grain fields ( this is where the American name cornrow originates from). It is often called “African braid.”

It differs from the “braid” which is formed by interlacing threestrands that are pending from the scalp. And it is indeed part of other hair cultures like the Vikings, Native Americans, and Chinese.

Cornrows seem to be the oldest hairstyle of humanity; Indeed, The Venus of Brassempouy and the Venus of Willendorf are two statuettes dating from approximately 22,000 years before J-C ; both represent a woman with braided hair. When we observe prehistoric art and in particular female statuettes called “Venus” dating from the Gravettian period (between 29,000 and 22,000 before present) and discoveries in Europe, we are struck by their similarities to Africa. If today most prehistorians have lined the side of the thesis of braided coarse hair, some continue to propagate this qualifier “lady in the hood” to name this portrait of gravettian era. All Venus with hair have coarse hair.

This type of braided hairstyle spread from the Nile Valley.

Nubians, Egyptians and the ancient Hebrews, first adoptanted hair styled with thin dreadlocks, while part of the black population prefers to shave the hair, including the Egyptian priests and women from Masai origin. Others used the hairstyle called “Afro” hairstyle or even the so-called “gradient” which recalls the Ramses helmet.

 

dame de brassempouy dame de willendorf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subsequently, this type of hairstyle will spread throughout the rest of Black Africa. The braided hair showed the caste, different life events (wedding or death) or social rank.

  • To the West, there were Fulani, Akan, Dogon, Mande, Yoruba, Wolof, Hausa
  • In the Center was the Mangbetous, Fang, Bamileke, Bantu (from all Africa) etc.
  • To the East, the Maasai to today.

The other historical traces, concern the first great African civilizations such as ancient Egypt where the hairstyle symbolized the social rank. Men and women wore different types of hair braids: cornrows or simple braids. They were often ornamented with gold thread and other refinements. At that time, hair was granted special care (scented oil, lotus flower). Thus the proto-dynastic king in TERA NETER Country Kemet (ancient Egypt) carries the hair arranged in braids. This type of braided hair is then observed in many castes of the Egyptian-Nubian population (scribes, pharaohs, craftsmen …). women.

There is an incredible variety of braids according to African countries: they may differ in size as these young women in Namibia.

 

tresse femme namibie

Or these young girls from Congo Brazzaville in 1940:

tresse congo

Another hairstyle to remember; the hull as among women Mangbetu, Congo and Uganda where the skull is deformed to be elongated. Mangbetu wrap the baby’s head in the ropes before bone growth for a year, giving them a very elongated skull, a sign of beauty and intelligence. The origin of this practice dates back to ancient Egypt, as the famous Mangbetu harp, we also found among the Fang of Gabon, the Azande, cousins of Mangbetu.

tresse mangbetu

The conical headgear Zulu women who also inspired the look of Lupita.

tresse zulu

The relief braids, from Côte d’Ivoire

tresse cote d'ivoire

The combination hair braided with checked patterns and extended by braids as this young dancer of Brazzaville in 1940:

tresse brazzaville

The braids using twisting hair process:

tresse peul

Note also the complexity of braids with often ornamentation that goes against the stereotype that African braids were only a practical pretext. There is an art of braiding in Africa.

Here are examples of very elaborates hairstyles like this Fulani girl in Sudan early century with shells and corals as an ornamental.

 

tresse peul soudan - fulani cornrow soudan

Or that girl from Senegal in 1884:

tresse-senegal - cornrow-senegal

Among the girls of Guinea, the complexity of the hair beautifully contrasts with simple placing girls.

 

Also watch this young Moroccan girl in 1937:

 

tresse-maroc-cornrow-morocan-girl

Let us look now at how these affect African hairstyles today, including Caucasian female.

To see this hairstyle of a girl taken from Eritrea in the 30 ‘s…

 

tresse erythree

… We see how Bo Derek did not invent these braids lying but was inspired by this kind of ancestral hair.

tresse Bo Derek

The bun of Sarah Michelle Gellar

tresses Sarah Michelle Gellar

Doesn’t remind you that Wolof girl of Senegal?

tresse wolof senegal

 

Let us add that the popularity of the braids do not date from today.

Example below with Marlene Deitrch and Elizabeth Taylor:

Marlène Deitrch tressesElisabeth Taylor tresses

 

Cornrows were recently honored by the American artist Shani Crowe with “Braids” is a series of photographic portraits and videos highlighting the beautiful and profound dimension of hair braiding – a discipline that Shani Crowe considers a art in itself.

For her works, Shani Crowe draws braiding style of African American women of the 60s, as well as various existing braids on each region of the African continent. A way for the artist, to honor her cultural identity. A great initiative that we would like to see more often on afro-american celebrities or black models who prefers their weavie or relaxed hair. Note also the approach of Beyonce: She had opted for braids at the time of the first anniversary of her daughter Blue Ivy, for Thanksgiving in 2012 and also during his trip to Cuba with her husband Jay Z. In her latest video clip “Formation” and her performance of the Super Bowl 2016, Beyoncé claims loudly its African-American identity. The singer puts her words forward by posing on the cover of March issue of Garage Magazine, an English magazine dedicated to art, wearing braids recalling her debut in the Destiny’s Child.

Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ciara or Alicia Keys were also spotted with cornrows  on red carpet but this remains exceptional.

Isabelle Gazania-Haas

Fossette Magazine

If you like illustration of black women take a look at my tote bags on my shop.

11 Comments

  1. You’re case that cornrows are African is incomplete. You gloss over the European origin of the Venuses. You’ve entirely ignored Greek statues also representing cornrows. And to say Sarah Michelle Geller’s hair looks like the Wolof girl of Senegal is a massive stretch. She looks more like a traditional Dutch milk maid.

    If you’re worried about cultural insensitivities, why did you not examine any Asian historical art at all?

    This is so obviously biased that it is easily dismissed by anyone who is intellectually honest. Hysterical political correctness feeds bigots and gives them an excuse to ignore real inequities that affect people’s access to equal pay, healthcare and equal protection under the law.

  2. Hi Laura,

    I am sorry you feel that way, I feel a lot of frustration and anger in your message. This blog post contains a huge amount of information about the origin of cornrows. Don’t forget, this is a blog post and not a book. Having this in mind, instead of being angry, you could use the information you have to write an article or a book blog about cornrows, that would be more beneficial to the black community than lashing out at someone who wants to share my history and educate people. Being black, French with African parents, I am not worried at all about cultural sensitivities as Americans or British are. I know my history and I am proud of it. You say that the blog post is biased, why don’t you show historical facts to prove it? I think you are the one stretching it too much, talking about equal pay and healthcare etc.. what is the point with cornrows??

  3. I’m a bit confused. The author displays the oldest known representation of this hair style, Venuses discovered in France and Austria; additionally points out that the hairstyle was present in Viking, Native American and Chinese culture. Nevertheless the author concludes that the hair style radiated out from Egypt.

    Being largely ignorant of the subject myself, I’m curious where the basis for this conclusion is. If the earliest known exemplars of the style is in Europe, whence comes the conclusion of Egyptian origin? Clearly the vikings travelled all over the place so it’s easy to imagine that they saw the style around somewhere and copied it, but how did the hairstyle radiate across the oceans to the Native Americans? Or does the author only mean that on the African continent it radiated out from Egypt?

    I also don’t understand what this sentence means. “If today most prehistorians have lined the side of the thesis of braided coarse hair, some continue to propagate this qualifier “Lady in the hood” to name this portrait of gravettian era.” It’s quite possible that this originates from translation issues.

  4. Hello Miss BB, “Dame de Brassempouy” was found in France it was created 25000 years ago. The “Venus de Willendorf” was found in Austria it was created 24-22000 years ago. The cornrows are very antique and very beautiful hairstyle. :) Aude

  5. There are many origins of cornrows. The African is just one,that looks at african origins, it goes back to 3500 BC .but there are other origins. you say that Laura needs to give information on her thoughts yet you agree with the first study because that agrees with you . you did not ,offer any new and accurate information on what you think .why does it matter so much. if it is found that the origin was italians only italians can use cornrows. use what ever you would like to use .(question were did love originate from. Crow

  6. I mean you didn’t elaborate on Chinese, native, Viking, or Gaelic/Celtic culture(s). The Chinese also locked their hair, as did native Americans, Vikings, etc. Clearly there isn’t one source of this style of braid, as they’re found globally in every culture, spanning from the americas to east Asia.

  7. A very interesting blog, and the way I read it seems as though the author is writing about the origin of braids in Africa, rather than the wider world which I think is a point a few people missed. I actually came here due to a daft article on cultural appropriation where people (of all races) were claiming that only Africans can wear braids and dreads. Well, we know the Celts did all sorts of things to their hair, including bleaching it with lime and moulding it into spikes, so it isn’t so drastic to believe that other cultures braided or dread-locked their hair! It’s your hair and you can do whatever you like with it, whether braided, dreads or straightened :)

  8. Since it is a fact that all Homo Sapiens came out of Africa, and once looked like we might expect Africans do today, i.e. were dark-skinned and had curly hair. Naturally there are going to be cultural vestiges in all Homo Sapiens cultures. Hair-braiding of various types definitely appears in many cultures, and was very popular in antiquity, often a sign of social status. These Venuses are both from Europe (France and Austria) and over 20,000 years old. Clearly braiding of all types is ancient and fairly ubiquitous to Homo Sapiens. Racism as we know it today is relatively modern, a nightmare anti-aesthetic construct built by avaristic colonialists to excuse their greed. There is no historical evidence of what we today call racism based on skin color before the Middle Ages. I was shocked recently when people criticized Vanessa Hudgens, a mixed-race woman, though not Black, for wearing braids, and called her “a White woman”. To me this is similar in kind, though not in degree, as the KKK calling anyone with “The Drop” Black. The woman is half Filipino. Certainly a woman of color in her appearance.
    All women were slaves until very recently, owned outright as personal chattel property by husbands and fathers. We still have bigger battles to fight out there than all this petty nastiness over who wore whose hairstyles. Sisters of every shade should really support each other.

  9. sick of this race card soooooooo sick everybody is coming after them stealing their something

  10. I really enjoyed reading the article and looking at the images. However, as a caucasian/native woman, I feel there’s this disdain for caucasians who have used these hairstyles, whether in film or fashion, vanity or just for fun b/c they like them. I totally understand the meaning can get lost, much like the native tribal headdress (meant only for certain members and certain occasions) but I also know that I love seeing people dress as natives and show interest in native things and activities such as pow wows, flute-playing and wearing moccasins. I think that people will be people and we’ll pick up what we love along the way. It’s a compliment. While Beyonce may don the African braid for some occasions, she also has a very caucasian hairstyle on an everyday occasion, as well as in concert. I’m guessing this is okay b/c she has French ancestry. Also, when I look in Ebony or other African/Black-Centric readers I don’t see much of anything including other races, even when wearing clothing that is clearly European in nature, but I don’t feel that those dressing the men and women in these readers think that only black people look good in them and that the European’s don’t. I’m not sure why it’s such a big deal for a white fashion designer to have white models wearing braids (regardless of what you call them…since I think it was Caribbean that we derive the word “cornrows” from). I remember, as a child, my black friends asking if they could plait my hair. If I had never had those friends, I may not have known that term. The experience was very enjoyable and bonding. It was not something I got at home, though I know it played a very big role in the home in black culture. However, I felt for a time, that I was allowed a glimpse into a world I did not know, without biased, without discrimination, as children often get to have. As adults I feel we move away from this attitude of sharing to an attitude of holding and harboring. History is great, but I’m unsure as to why there is a comparison happening in this article. All of the white women are clearly of modern times…I think we can all figure out from these images they weren’t the first to wear it. I think it’s fine to acknowledge where it came from but I don’t think the words “stealing” or “lying” or “only” is truthful, appropriate nor helpful.

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