The purpose of this study was to describe and classify the barriers to breast self-examinations (BSE) and mammography in African American women. A total of 125 African American women were recruited from historically black colleges, churches and community organizations in Nashville, Tennessee. Their responses to a comprehensive open- and closed-ended questionnaire about barriers to BSE and mammography were coded using a hierarchical coding system and analyzed according to participants' stage of behavior change assignment. On the average, each woman reported 3.1 barriers to BSE (2.5 psychological and 0.6 environmental) and 2.5 barriers to mammography (1.5 psychological and 1.0 environmental). Barriers cited included fear of finding cancer, forgetting, lack of time, lack of knowledge, competing demands, costs, pain, emotional consequences, cultural attitudes towards medicine, uncertainty about benefits and laziness. For BSE, the number of psychological barriers exceeded environmental barriers, while for mammography, the number of psychological and environmental barriers was similar. For BSE, but not mammography, psychological barriers appeared most important for women in the precontemplation, contemplation and preparation stages of behavior change. Overcoming barriers to BSE and mammography could increase early detection rates in African American women. Interventions based on stage of change theory may be especially applicable.