Our hair is a map to freedom: What I learned about resistance from the “1st” free Black town in the Americas
They have an understanding that women’s bodies are not only carriers of Black futures, but have been integral to memorializing a Black past.
By Teju Adisa-Farrar
When God made mountains
He made runaway slaves
— Nikki Giovanni, Chasing Utopia
We were not supposed to survive.
Last month, AfroPunk published an article about Argentina’s genocide of their Black populations. Unsurprisingly, Argentina is not much different from other countries who have tried to erase their Black populations or their impact on national culture and political heritage. Under Trujillo, there was the Parsley massacre that killed thousands of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, primarily because they represented Blackness (and specifically a rebellious Blackness).
In addition to the active destruction of Black populations in the Americas (and around the world), there are historical myths perpetuated that further erase the presence and resistance of Black communities. One of these myths is that there was no or minimal resistance to enslavement.
Another myth is that the languages and cultures of different African communities were lost with enslavement. We see how deeply ingrained African culture, spirituality, and dialects are into our creolized societies with many of the Caribbean islands and Brazil. This is exceptionally true for the “first” free Black town (pueblo) in the Americas, San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. Although San Basilio was officially recognized by a European government 72 years afterwards, the creation of the Palenque community likely started as soon as the first Spanish ships reached what is now Colombia, alongside other communities that would go unrecognized or be destroyed. Where there is Blackness, there is resistance and there is also affirmation.
In the 1600s, San Basilio de Palenque was founded by a community of escaped Africans, many of whom are believed to be from modern day Angola. The town’s official founding date is 1691. The Palenqueros (the word “‘palenque”’ refers to “walled communities” created by escaped Africans in the seventeenth century), as they are known, were Africans who escaped from the Cartagena port where Spanish slave ships would dock. They created this walled town, one of the few in South America, to protect themselves and provide refuge for other enslaved Africans who could make their way to the foothills of the Montes de Maria, where the town was.
When I went to visit, our guide, Juan, who was born and raised in San Basilio, told me the wall that protected the city was built using traditional architectural techniques from the different African populations who escaped to the town. Some of the buildings there still use these African construction practices, like building with the Palma plant. For nearly 400 years Palenqueros in this town have maintained certain African architectural practices that traveled across the ocean with them.
San Basilio was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005 for its retention of oral history, language and culture from the continent of Africa. Though it was dubbed a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage” by UNESCO, it’s also a masterpiece of very tangible heritage, including material culture and practices such as hair braiding, architecture, and traditional medicine.
Palenque is an autonomous community that engages in self-determination. As Juan told us, the Palenqueros do not have, want, or need police in their community. They have their own community justice system and community council center through which they settle all community disputes. Juan emphasized that since Palenqueros have such a strong sense of community as family, and thus accountability, they believe it is imperative to deal with things internally without external intervention and force from those who do not care about or understand the community.
When I asked what type of problems happened there, he said one of the worst things is if someone kills another person’s chicken or when teenage boys from the two different barrios fight over a girl.
In addition to their community justice system, they also have established traditional medicine clinics around the community. For a town of only 3,500 people there are many of these clinics, because in Palenque access to healthcare is very important. Juan explained to us that Palenque is organized into peer groups called ma kuagro, which act as another type of family. If someone is sick and cannot get a friend to take them to the hospital then their kuagro will come together to help them and ensure they get the care they need. Although there is an “official” clinic in San Basilio, when I peeked into it it was virtually empty whereas the traditional medicine houses, as they are called, had people in them, because Juan said they trust their traditions more.
Similar to Obeah in Jamaica, their medicinal practices are related to spirituality, but have not been demonized or ostracized in the same way as voodoo, for example, particularly because there has been little to no European influence on the development of their community. I did not see, hear or feel any shame or feelings of inferiority regarding the way Palenqueros take care of their bodies and community.
Palenqueros are not postcolonial, they are actually uncolonial. Although geographically within a colonial space, they created a Black African society that is in every other way outside of European colonial hegemony. This same uncoloniality is part of their immense pride in being Black and of African origin.
Juan, and many people in the community, only speak Palenque and Spanish, so when I was speaking to them in my limited Spanish, I tried to find the most clear way to ask my question, “¿Sientes orgullo por ser negro?” which translates directly to “Do you all feel pride in being Black?” Juan said he feels Palenqueros have a lot of pride in being Black—negros—and being of African descent. It is their African origin that gives them the most pride and sense of self, he stressed.
All throughout the town there were Black faces painted and drawn on sides of houses and restaurants. Even though most Palenqueros don’t speak English, there was a big graffiti—as Juan called it endearingly—that read “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” He pointed to it and said to me “claro,” which is like “right!” A local artist told us that every year in October he has artists from Colombia, the United States, and other parts of the world come paint buildings in the town. He told me it’s very important these artists paint Black people or something having to do with African origin.
Palenqueros have made those connections to other Black movements and communities around the world as a result of this pride and shared cultural history. This pride was also evident in the hairstyles of the people in Palenque.
Mostly women, but men too, wore natural hairstyles from afros to braided extensions to cornrows, and a whole book is dedicated to the importance of natural hairstyles to Palenqueros culture. Written by Ereilis Navarro Caceres and Angelica Rebolledo Pajaro, Los turbantes y peinados Afrocolombianos: una alternativa pedagogica (Afro-Colombian turbans and hairstyles: an alternative pedagogy), goes through the origin and contemporary practices around Afro-Colombian hairstyles and how they can provide a new approach to understanding history, culture, and self-determination.
Unlike in the U.S. and Europe where it is common for Black communities to say “natural hairstyle,” in Palenque hair is assumed to be styled in its natural state so they do not refer to their hairstyles as being “natural hairstyles” because that would be redundant.
As Juan explained, communication in Palenque is three fold: 1) It involves their spoken and written language of Palenque, which draws from African languages (as far as they know—mostly Bantu), French, Portuguese and American Spanish creoles. 2) The drumming and music as another type of communication that was important to enslaved and free Africans, during times when they could not or were not allowed to talk they used drums as their tongues. And, 3) Through their hair as a way to communicate pathways to freedom.
For Palenqueros, their Underground Railroad was literally hairstyles. Juan explained to us that maps to get to the free Palenque town would be braided into the hair of women. Like fractals prevalent in West African architecture, art, and design, the cabello de mujeres—women’s hair—contained the way to Black liberation in the Americas. Freedom was not in the stars, it was in the scalps of their women. This meant that women carried the pathway to freedom on their bodies and were leaders in mapping liberation.
Throughout history Black women have literally and figuratively been architects of liberation for Black communities globally. Their pride for Black hair and hair braiding as an art and pedagogy is carried on in Palenque to this day. There, it seems to be an understanding that women’s bodies are not only carriers of Black futures, but have been profoundly integral to maintaining, remembering, and memorializing a Black past through cultural practices.
Along with the connection to African culture, aesthetics, and pride, Palenquero hairstyles provide another layer of Black resistance. As a result of techniques including the use of hairstyles as maps, San Basilio de Palenque was so good at helping enslaved Africans escape that 1691 actually marks the year the Spanish Crown issued a Royal Decree accepting (though historians would say “granting”) the freedom of the escaped Palenque Africans.
But Palenque was a free Black town before 1691 because they didn’t ask to be free, they took freedom. No permission was required.
It is through knowing this is possible that we can continue constructing uncolonial narratives before, after, and during enslavement and colonization. Blackness is resistance, and pride can be self-determined because it has been since Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas. Palenque is a successful example of this and, just like its women’s hair, it is one of the maps for an alternative future of Black liberation.
Teju is a writer, poet and urban geographer. Her work focuses on subaltern artist & activist communities, geographies of Blackness, decolonization, social art praxis, and postcolonial culture in cities. She’s out here just trying to get funding for her projects, by any means necessary.