Cornrow braids are not only widespread in Africa, they are also quite ancient. This clay sculpture with cornrows is from the ancient Nok civilization of Nigeria. It may be as old as 500 B.C. As Peters (1990) notes in her essay on black hairstyle history: "Hieroglyphs and sculptures dating back thousands of years illustrate the attention Africans have paid to their hair. Braids were etched into the back of the head of the majestic sphinx." Cornrow hairstyles in Africa also cover a wide social terrain: religion, kinship, status, age, ethnicity, and other attributes of identity can all be expressed in hairstyle. Just as important is the act of braiding, which transmits cultural values between generations, expresses bonds between friends, and establishes the role of professional practitioner.
Rebecca Busselle, who took this photo of a Mende style in the 1970s, notes:"As westerners, it is difficult for us to appreciate the communicative power that Mende attribute to women’s hair." There are a vast variety of traditional African styles, ranging from complex curves and spirals to the strictly linear composition of this 1939 Dan style from Côte d’Ivoire. The date of this photo, 1939, helps remind us that cornrows were invented long before the civil rights era in the the United States. It might seem tempting to look at the original African styles as more"natural," and our computer geometry models as more"artificial." But stylized geometric models of cornrows are quite traditional to Africa. As we can see in this traditional Mende sculpture: Mathematics is also a traditional part of African hairstyles. Like many other “Africanisms” in the new world, knowledge of African hairstyles survived theMiddle Passage. Heads were often shaved upon capture, ostensibly for sanitary reasons, but with the psychological impact of being stripped of one’s culture. Re-establishing traditional hair styles in the new world was thus an act of resistance; one that could be carried out covertly: "The slaves that worked inside the plantation houses were required to present a neat and tidy appearance… so men and women often wore tight braids, plaits, and cornrows (made by sectioning the hair and braiding it flat to the scalp). The braid patterns were commonly based on African tradition and styles. Other styles Blacks wore proved to be an amalgam of traditional African styles, European trends, and even Native American practices (Byrd and Tharps 2001 pp.13-14)." White and White (1998) note the variety of hairstyles described in runaway slave notices posted in the 1700s, and suggest that some of the more flamboyant styles were worn as outright acts of defiance. In the north free African Americans also wore a variety of styles. The first African American “man of science,” Benjamin Banneker, wore what today would be called a “natural.”
In the 1950s, the revolts against colonialism in Africa and the stirrings of a new cultural politics in America inspired alternatives to straightening techniques. Black artists, scholars, and activists began to look toward African styles. One of the first to make a trip to Africa was artist John Biggers. He realized that the cornrow styles he had seen growing up in North Carolina were actually survivals of African tradition. In his book of drawings that he published from this trip he writes: “Many West African hair styles are worn by Negro women in the United States, including this one—“cornrows.” The hair is greased, combed, and tightly plaited. The ends of the hair that fall upon the neck are tied by a string. The comb has been carved from hard wood” (Biggers pg 99).