The History of Cornrows

Regina King

[Detangling Our Roots] Stop the co-opt. In this EBONY.com series exploring Black hair origins, we trace this intricate form of braiding to Ancient Africa

“Boxer braids,” “KKW braids,” and “Birthday braids” are the cutesy terms used to describe cornrows whenever they’re worn by Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner as opposed to simply calling them cornrows or plaits.

Braids are nothing new, but it depends on what mainstream media outlet you ask. Last April, Cosmopolitan posted a tutorial titled, “Double Cuff Mohawk Braid,” but the hairstyle being showcased was clearly cornrows. To make matters worse, Cosmo promoted the video using the subhead, “You’ve NEVER seen a braid like this before.”

Come again?

Sure, we’ll pretend that Alicia Keys didn’t stun in beautifully adorned cornrows during her first couple of years in the spotlight. We’ll also pretend that Beyoncé never rocked cornrows during her Destiny’s Child days. And we’ll act like Cicely Tyson didn’t show off her cornrows in a national TV appearance years before White actress Bo Derek mainstreamed them in the 1979 film 10.

In 2014, Marie Claire tweeted that Kendall Jenner had taken braids to a “new epic level.” Months later, the LA Times credited Cara Delevingne, Rita Ora and Kristen Stewart for cornrows “moving away from urban, hip-hop to chic and edgy.” So, in other words, cornrows are only chic and edgy when the person wearing them is White?

For many, even the moniker “French/Dutch braids” is seen as yet another attempt to strip cornrows and other braided styles of their African roots. In all fairness, plenty of White celebrities outside the Kardashian-Jenner clan have worn cornrows, including Fergie, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, David Beckham and Jared Leto.

Within the Black community, cornrows tend to be worn more so for convenience, as well as a protective style when transitioning from relaxed to natural hair or growing the hair out until the desired length is achieved. They can also serve as a foundation for sew-ins, but cornrows had another purpose back when our ancestors were rocking them.

Read more of my latest piece for Ebony.com [here].

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