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  • Karen Domínguez Mendoza

Braiding Hopes: The Economy of Black Hair in Antiracist Struggles in Colombia

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“The peinadoras (traditional hairdressers) are coming in!”—some women said that Sunday morning. A clear blue sky was filled with birds flying around the square of the Modern Art Museum in Cali, Colombia, my hometown. The sound of the river mixed with the sound of artists rehearsing for their evening performance. A joyous bustle of those meeting old friends accompanied the arrival of the peinadoras and their hairstyle models. Fielding the call of the Association of Afro-Colombian Women (Amafrocol), they came from different towns on the country's Pacific Coast to compete at the Peinadoras Gathering and Afro-hairstyles Contest Tejiendo Esperanzas (Weaving Hopes). The event is a fascinating celebration of Black beauty. 


The museum square got overcrowded. Booths were decorated with vibrant African-print fabrics and clothes, jewellery, and Black-owned hair care products. The museum’s seminar room was packed with attendees listening to the scholars’ talks. The spicy smell of delicious typical dishes impregnated the air. I was chatting with a peinadora who had been combing Black women’s hair for over twenty years in her native Padilla, Cauca, southwest of the country. Like her, a group of around twenty-five peinadoras occupied the space with combs of all shapes and sizes, hair accessories and bold hair extensions, bearing the massive load of hard work and patience that braiding around six or eight hours requires.  


At dusk, all eyes were on the beautiful models showcasing their hair artwork on a runway rigorously examined by the judges. After a round of deliberation, they announced the winners of the hairstyling competition. The night came to the rhythm of marimba, cununo and guasá (local musical instruments) playing currulao (Afro-Colombian music from the Pacific Coast), which all participants joined in chanting songs and merging their bodies in a dancing elation.


I am revisiting the memories and images I captured while conducting fieldwork for my research in Tejiendo Esperanzas in 2019. 


“As a mixed-raced Black Colombian woman growing up in a mestizo family, my Black inheritance remained rootless.” 

This is a legacy of the predominant mestizo social order in Latin America, which aims at the population’s homogenisation based on their racial and cultural mixing or miscegenation. My seemingly ferocious curly hair had been an element of disruption, identity dislocation, anger, and ambiguity. This identity-seeking journey tangled up in my hair shaped my research on Black hair politics for my Bachelor’s thesis at Universidad del Valle in Cali. 


Further engagement with Black women’s organisations, such as Amafrocol, who mobilise Black aesthetics as an antiracist strategy, enabled me to learn from other Black women’s experiences by braiding each other’s hair —for the first time in my case. I experienced delight, sisterhood, and appreciation around our peleros (a term used in Colombia meaning unkempt hair). This praxis evolved into an academic inquiry, which my PhD work at Cambridge University draws upon. 


“I came to theory desperately wanting to comprehend — to grasp what was happening around and within me”, embracing bell hooks’ words. And so I went to theory for help. As critical praxis, Black feminism and decolonial theories helped me understand how resistance can be crafted through practices of bodily contestation

“Bodies are like canvases that depict social and political struggles and challenge oppressive societal arrangements. Everyday cultural practices such as combing and grooming are part of the diasporic Black resistance repertoires. Therefore, social theory is not disembodied but carved into our bodies, braided in our hair.” 

Through my research, I seek to unpack how Black hair entrepreneurship shapes the development agenda of anti-racist struggles in Colombia. From Madam C.J. Walker, the most successful Black businesswoman in the US, to the Black hair-care entrepreneurs at Amafrocol’s hairstyling contest, Black beauticians have centred debates on economic development and enterprise within antiracist movements across the African diaspora. By interweaving Black aesthetics, the economy of self-help, and community-building, Black hairdressers have played a key role in steering debates on Black economic development and turning beauty parlours into platforms for political and economic change. I am interested in digging into how Black hair is embedded in a symbology of power that sets the machinery of our economic and social structures in motion. 


By scrutinising the linkage between development and antiracism through the workings of Black hair entrepreneurship, we can delve into the cracks and contradictions capitalism posits when facing racism in business. Power relations are assembled in our bodies. Querying Black hair's economic and political legacies for community organising underpins the layers of antiracist struggles, moving forward in the utopia of crafting a world without all forms of social injustice. 


I hope this research contributes to weaving such hopes as the women of Amafrocol do. 

This piece is a homage to their relentless work.



The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Editorial Board, the Scholars’ Council, the Gates Cambridge Trust or the University of Cambridge.

 

Karen Domínguez Mendoza ['23] is a Black feminist PhD candidate in Latin American Studies. She researches the intersection of Black hair entrepreneurship, development, and antiracism. 

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