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The history of our hair is prolific.
Black hair can mean many different things to each one of us. The stories are so rich with language, symbolism and influence that despite its use as a tool for oppression, it continues to triumphantly inspire and empower.
The unique curves of our coils and curls afford us the utmost styling flexibility (we can do just about anything with our hair). And while many hair creations ebb and flow with fashion, politics and the arts of the day, those particularly born out of the Black braiding culture have an uncanny ability to transcend trends in meaningful and expansive ways.
Cornrows are one of those hairstyles.
What’s in a Name?
With roots dating as far back as the early 5th century BC, cornrow braiding has both a magnificent history and a prevailing presence in today’s world. The stories and imagery are those of great strength, influence and artistry and we continue to wear them with pride. But, like most things, cornrows are not without their controversy.
When it comes to discussions about Black hair and how it influences mainstream society, cultural appropriation is a topic rarely left out of the conversation. The argument over who actually owns cornrows (or canerows) is common; and is inspired by research that shows how other cultures have a long history with braid styling, too.
However, what is often omitted from the dialogue and might explain why the claim to the cornrows name shouldn’t matter so much to the Black community is another principal piece of our history; its origin.
In her book, Don’t Touch My Hair, author Emma Dabiri explains how the word itself is an extension of a post-colonial history, by way of enslavement. She explains how slave owners made up the Cane/cornrows names to signify which crops the enslaved were forced to cultivate…sugarcane or corn. In America, enslaved Africans wore cornrows. In the UK and the Caribbean, the hairstyle was sometimes called canerows. The names were symbolic of the intent to erase the culture and identity of the enslaved, along with their beautiful history of African braiding. As Dabiri writes, the act “betrays the sad history of slavery”.
In fact, the correct overall term for the classic backward-directed rows of hair closely braided to the scalp is called ‘Irun Didi’, derived from the ancient Yoruba language; and each unique braiding pattern has its own individual name:
Koroba – a classic Irun Didi style which translates into “bucket”, as the shape resembles that of a vessel used to transport liquid.
Kolese – means “a creature without legs”. The Irun Didi pattern likens that of a snail, referring to how our hair naturally curls up at the nape of our necks when fashioned this way.
Suku – known as the hair of Queens, this regal Irun Didi translates as “basket”, in reference to its shape, but traditionally, it denoted royalty as worn exclusively by the wives of the Oba (King).
Ipako Elede – a traditional Yoruba Irun Didi that means “back of the boar’s neck/back view of the boar or pig. Although the hairstyle became less popular (its shape wasn’t considered as flattering to most face shapes), its existence lives on.
The Work of Decolonization
Today, colonialism continues to exploit Black hair culture. Instead of distinguishing individual names, African braiding styles are often clumped together and are directly connected to slavery, an egregious disregard for the Black experience. However, Dabiri challenges us to consider thinking differently: ”The words and terms we use to describe ourselves remain central to the ways we relate to our bodies”…if we want to “set about the work of decolonization, we need to consider language”.
Overcoming generational prejudices and pain is indeed a tall order. We are competing against a conditioning that has a centuries-long head start. Nevertheless, recognizing and understanding how deeply it shapes our lives gives us incentive to continue forward while vanquishing mental shackles and ultimately, experiencing true freedom.