A BIZARRE but wonderful scene from "Death and the King's Horseman," which recently closed at the Kennedy Center, keeps spinning in my mind as I witness the media blitz about starlet Bo Derek's cornrows -- the tiny, tightly beaded, braided style that originated in Africa centuries ago.
In the drama, by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, a colonial couple wearing sacred tribal masks nonchalantly practices the fox trot in their home in an African city. They're going to a masquerade ball, and they chuckle patronizingly when an African hysterically tells them the masks' cultural significance: they're associated with ceremonies of death. The couple brushes aside this "primitive" concept with its "irrelevant" cultural meaning.
The adoption of cornrows as a fashion fad, with little consideration for their potent cultural meaning, began when Derek wore cornrows in the hit movie comedy, "10." Her success set off a rush by some trendier white women to have their hair done in the expensive ($300 to $500), time-consuming (4 to 14 hours) technique.
At first, I felt slightly ripped off by the mindless expropriation of this hairstyle. Black mothers often cornrow their children's hair, but the first black women to wear this style publicly were actress Cicely Tyson and singer Nina Simone, who wore it on stage in the early '60s. They were criticized by some traditional black women because they thought the entertainers were portraying a negative image of black women with their natural, unpressed hair.
Later, in the explosion of black consciousness that erupted with such force, black women across America went "natural" and adopted cornrows as a symbol of black identity. It was a hard-won struggle.
To these women it was an expression of soul -- the distinct quality that grows out of a black person's unique and turbulent joy/sadness; it was an expression of the powerful folk myth that blacks live and explore.
Now I know that it's in the American tradition to routinely adopt artifacts from various cultures. The larger significance for blacks is that many elements have been adopted by the larger society with no credit. Elvis Presley did it with black music, for example. To their credit, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post gave credit to cornrows where it was due, although none of them pictured a black woman wearing the style.
But as the style is increasingly designated the "Bo Braid," the implication spreads that she introduced it. As a result, many black women and sensitive white women are irate. JET Magazine headlined last week: "On Scale of 1 to 10, Blacks Rate 'Angry' Over Bo Derek's Hairdo 'Fad.'"
"Nobody can understand how incensed I feel," longtime cornrow wearer Amina Dickerson, education director of the Museum of African Art, told me.
While the trendists have been making a goddess of her, Derek has said nothing. Maybe there's nothing she can say. If the stories are to be believed, she does not possess a mind of her own.
Initially, my reaction was tempered because I told myself that there was a kernel of flattery in the imitation and that if failed to destroy the feeling of queenly beauty among black women who wore the style.
But then something happened that changed my mind -- that made me feel real concern.On the bus, I overheard a conversation between two young black women.
"I see," one said to the other without a hint of a smile, "that you are wearing Bo Derek's hairstyle."
At first I thought they were kidding, but neither laughed. Both doubtless knew that black women had been cornrowing and beading for decades, but its adoption by Derek and her fans made it more attractive to these women -- sanctioning it, in effect.
I thought of black women who were once fired or denied jobs for wearing unpressed hair, the "natural," and cornrows.
And I wanted to say to them: Cornrows don't belong to no Bo Derek. They belong to women selling yams beneath a sweating sun in Senegal. They belong to H Street, Northeast And to Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. They belong to the blues of Jimmie Rushing And to the frenetic energy of John Coltrane. They belong to the women in Howard University dorms And working mothers styling their little girls' hair on Saturday to last all week. They belong to Stevie Wonder and Valerie Simpson. They belong to you . . .
I kept my mouth shut, of course. I got off the bus wondering if Derek would be just a mindless symbol of merchandising and fashion that would go away, or whether all this would become a real cultural rip-off like Elvis Presley and black music?