Cornrows – A Spirit Force

By Camille Yarbrough

If you are among the many thou-

sands who are wearing their hair in

the style that we call Cornrows, then

as quiet as it is kept, you are carrying

on an African tradition that’s more

than five thousand years old.  Um

hum, the braided hair style that we all

call Cornrows dates back at least as

far as thirty five thousand BC.

Unfortunately, most major newspapers

and fashion magazines across

the country have had feature articles

touting Cornrows (usually modeled

by Euro-American women) as a new

fashion in America “recently adopted

by Black women.”  Well, Cornrows

are not new to America.  Black women

have been wearing cornrows in this

country since our great-grandparents

were first brought here from Africa

some three hundred sixty years ago.

Even while being transported from

Africa to the Americas as captives on

slave ships, in spite of the terror, the

debasement and brutality imposed

upon them, many African women

somehow managed to Cornrow their

children’s hair and, I’m sure, each


But most important to note is that

Cornrows is more than fashion.  It is

also Symbol.  Let me explain what I

mean.  Centuries ago our African an-

castors developed hair braiding, in-

cluding the style that we call Corn-

rows, into an art form.  They named

the different styles and used them as

symbols to identify, among other

things, social status, age group and

religious affiliation.  They incorpor-

ated   the braided hair symbols into

their ceremonies, festivals, rites and

rituals and in that way symbolic-

braided-hair styles were passed on

from generation to generation and es-

tablished as part of the African

cultural support system.  So Cornrows

became Fashion, Symbols and Tradi-



Cornorws where you been?

i been undercover

But I’m back again

Where have Cornrows been?  And

why are they so popular now?  As I

said before, Black women in America

have been wearing their hair in Corn-

rows for three hundred-sixty years.


But during slavery our great grand-

parents were victims of behavior-

modifying cruelty which altered their

attitudes about themselves and their

hair. They were ridiculed and constantly told that they were ugly and

that their hair was “bad”. This mental

terror was reinforced with physical


  when you’re in pain

  what folk think and do and say

  about you

  the thought, the act, the name

  by an by in pain

  you think and do and say the same


So our great-grandparents began

not to love themselves and would not

do anything to call attention to their

appearance. The women could not

and would not style their braids any-

more the way they did in the market

place back home. No longer could

their braids be worn as symbols of the

religious and beautiful.

Our men stopped wearing braids.

in Western society it was not con-

sidered manly. And because of the

forced disuse of our African

languages our braids even lost their

home-names and had to be renamed

after some ol’ rows of corn and had to

put up with being hidden and peekin’

out from beneath ol’ field hats, beat

up head rags, later under sweaty un-

comfortable wigs and…worst of all

  …the straightnin’ comb was queen

  the king was conkalene

  on Saturday nights when the eagle

  flew and everyone was clean.


So Cornrows and thread wrappin’

were alright for week days but not

good enough for Sunday-go-to-

church time. It was no longer

Fashion, Symbol or Tradition.  It had

been reduced to bein’ “low class”…

in the same category as our music

and dance…a heathen style that it

was best we forget.  It became a style

to be worn by little Black girls who

were called “Pickaninnies” and

“Topsy” and who were said not to

know who they were or where and

who they came from, but who were

supposed to have “just growed.”

These shame-born attitudes were

passed on and reinforced from

generation to generation.  And, it was

not until the “60’s”—the “Move-

ment” –that our spirit, which had

steadily been getting stronger, spoke

out and we as a people became free

enough to look at ourselves again

and to like what we saw.

  “Me too asked Great-Grammaw,

  “Did the spirit die?  And great-

  grammaw said:

  No such thing!

  You can still hear the royal rhythms

  Still fell the spirit in the air.

  Look around and you will see the

  old, old


  that we now call cornrowed hair…

  You see, the spirit of the symbol

  is not changed by time, place,

  class or fame.

  and not even by hate or shame.

  oh noo…you see,

  it’s the spirit that makes the symbol.

  And the spirit goes by many names.

  When our ancestors were brought

here they had no hidden jewelry or

gold…all clothing had been taken

off of their bodies and they carried

nothing in their hands.

What they brought with them was a

Culture and traditions those were older

and more sophisticated than those of

their enslavers.  But, most important

of all, our great-grandparents

brought with them the spiritual

energy that gave birth to their culture

and traditions.  And after seven thou-

sand miles and three hundred years

of separation from the motherland,

our spiritual energy is still African

and getting stronger.

Now Cornrows is back as a fashion.

After all else, it is a natural adornment

for us…a classic style for our fine,

kinky African hair.  How-to books are

being written about it (Accent African

by Col-Bob Associates, 250 E. 52nd

Street, New York, 10022) and every-

body is going it.  But, I wonder if we

can be more protective of our hair

braiding tradition than we have been

about our music and dance.  Other

peoples can guard their culture but

because of our unique situation in the

world it seems as if our culture is up

for grabs.  Cornrows run the risk of

being turned into a “fad” and dis-

missed next year as being out of style

by those who are now exploiting it.

If we are worthy descendants of our

heroic ancestors, we will see to it that

little Black children continue to sit

between Black women’s knees and

squirm and cry about being tender

headed as I did and finally to quiet

down and listen to the older women

and their women talk and learn about

being family and about being Black

and about being loved, as their hair is

firmly but lovingly braided into the

style that we call cornrows and as five

thousand years of tradition is passed

onto them.


Camille Yarbrough is a

writer/actress/composer living and

working in New York.

All quotes taken from Cornrows by

Camille Yarbrough, Coward, McCann

& Geoghegan.


     THE BLACK COLLEGIAN April/May 1980