Dedicated to Ana María and Emilsen Manyoma
They cut her head off because they wanted to make an example. They wanted to make the others bow their heads in fear. They cut off her head because they thought it meant she wouldn’t come back. They were wrong.
At the end of January this year, Afro-Colombian human rights activist Emilsen Manyoma was decapitated. Did you hear about it? She was one of at least 15 Colombian human rights activists murdered within that month. Hundreds of Afro-Colombians have been killed over the past couple of years, not only as a result of the militia presence supported by Colombia’s long civil war, but also of the multinational mining corporations seeking to drill into the mountains in southern Colombia, where Black and Indigenous Colombian women are protecting the land. In North America, the names of these human rights activists are not showing up on our social media feeds as hashtags—or in any other form. In fact, hardly any U.S.-based media outlets reported on Manyoma’s murder. Most of the information available on her murder is in Spanish, with the exception of a Telesur article titled “Colombian Human Rights Leader Assassinated” and a broader article on the OkayAfrica International Edition blog.
The Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network has described the work of the Afro-Colombian women in Northern Cauca using the term “Revolutionary Mothering,” citing a book that I coedited along with Mai’a Williams and China Martens. The Black Women’s Mobilization for the Care of Life and Ancestral Territories in Colombia has raised awareness on their work by participating in the Inter-Ethnic Agrarian Protest that shut down roadways, occupied government offices, and, most important, cared for the lives of their communities, which both the Colombian government and corporate interests have seen as expendable (at best) and increasingly inconvenient. According to spokeswoman Francia Márquez, the mobilization works alongside Indigenous groups “to bring peace and liberty for our people.”
Manyoma—who was only 32 years old when she was killed—specifically worked with an organization called CONPAZ, a peaceful network of people of African descent, Indigenous people, and farmers with a vision for social and environmental justice. She actively spoke out against the human rights violations of the militias occupying her community and raised awareness around the abuses Black and Indigenous people suffer, insisting that their lives matter and that the land on which they live should not be violated. The last time she was seen by her community, she was getting into a taxi for a night out with her husband. Days later, they were both found decapitated.
Photo via CONPAZ
Though appalling, the brutality of these murders may not be necessarily shocking to students of Latin American history. The legacy of Spanish Colonialism has made decapitation a subject that connects Manyoma to generations of Black resistance in Latin America. For example, it connects her to a woman from the Congo named Ana María, who was one of the leaders of a 1776 uprising of enslaved people on a sugar plantation at Boca de Nigua (in what is now the Dominican Republic), the first plantation in the New World. The plantation was also the home of the first uprising of enslaved people 300 years earlier.
Ana María and her comrades defeated their captors and created what is thought to be the first Black communal government in the colonized Americas. The Spanish military eventually captured and killed Ana María and the other leaders of the uprising, decapitating them and posting their heads at the city gates for over a week for all to see. According to anthropologist and activist Fátima Portorreal, at that time the Spanish felt it was not enough simply to kill enslaved people. Instead, due to Catholic beliefs around death and the afterlife, the Spanish set out to punish enslaved people’s bodies and spirits by severing their heads; quartering their bodies and burying each part in a different place; burying them while shackled; and/or denying them a burial at all by throwing them in the sea without ceremony. In doing this, they also hoped to dissuade other potential resisters from fighting for their own dignity.
However, the Spanish were unsuccessful in their attempt to kill Ana María’s spirit. Portorreal’s continued Black feminist activism in the face of death threats in the contemporary Dominican Republic, and her commitment to teaching others about Ana María, flies in the face of the intentions behind Ana María’s decapitation. Though the logic of slavery continues to shape violence against people and land across the Americas, the continued activism of Black and Indigenous women in the face of violence proves that the spirit of resistance cannot be killed, even when those in power resort to archaic measures in attempts to murder it.
How can those of us in North America refuse to forget the important work that Ana María risked her life for and that her sister comrades are still taking risks for even now? A first step is to educate ourselves about the work that is going on now. And if those of us living in North America—where militarized police kill Black people with impunity—cannot see the direct connections to the work Black and Indigenous people are doing in Colombia, and how the taking of Manyoma’s crown resonates through the Black New World, maybe we should take a moment to check the embattled status of our own heads.
The Crown in Black Popular Culture
Still from Solange’s performance on Saturday Night Live
“Don’t touch my crown,” Solange insists on the track “Don’t Touch My Hair” from the unapologetically Black self-care era album A Seat at the Table. And indeed the crown is a consistent figure in Black self-making in the Americas. The crown imagery in the film Moonlight reminded me of growing up in South Florida and seeing small, jeweled crowns in the back windows of cars, the reclamation of kings honored briefly by the streets and each other.
Phil Freelon, architect of the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, cited the Yoruba corona (the symbolic crown found in Yoruba wooden figures in present-day Nigeria) as a core influence on his design for the museum. That inspiration made it so that the whole building is a space in which the experiences of Black people in the United States are alchemized into wisdom, pride, and regal remembering.
Examples of the crown proliferate in the daily, displayed lives of Black people, quietly and flagrantly: the flamboyant church hat pageantry of elder Black women, the sacred space of the barbershop for Black men, the unending creativity of the hairstyles of Black people, and the sacred trust built in shaping each other’s hair.
The History and Cultural Significance of the Crown
The crown has a spiritual significance that has traveled with people of African ancestry through the New World and that is maintained through religious and spiritual practices such as Pentecostal anointing, lave tet (head washing) in Haitian vodon practice, and head rogation in Lucumí and Ifa practice, all of which involve prayers and the cleansing of the very top of the head with coconut and other sacred items. The highest blessings and most sacred initiations in New World African religions focus on the area described as the crown chakra as a place to keep sacred medicine and multigenerational wisdom. When someone becomes a priest in these traditions, members of their spiritual community refer to them as having been “crowned.”
The significance of the idea of the crown among Black people in the Americas is not a simple cultural or nationalist reclamation of having been kings and queens in Africa long ago, and it goes beyond the members of the community who have been specifically initiated into New World African religions. When I think of Black people in the New World, transformed violently by the journey of the Middle Passage in the holds of ships, I think about the impact on all of the chakras of the enslaved. I think about the underwater change that happens: the singing witness of the whales, the pain of learning or remembering a new way to breathe. What if every survivor of the Middle Passage experienced an initiation of sorts? Crowned by the involuntary change, forced to access forms of devastating death and somehow transform them into life.
Black feminist theorists such as M. Jacqui Alexander write about the Middle Passage not only as a forced and brutal mass movement of people, but also as an energetic shift involving every body of water, land, and air on the planet, or as the poet June Jordan says, “New energies of darkness/ we disturbed a continent/ like seeds.”
Heavy Is the Head
This is part of why Ben Carson’s absurd characterization of the kidnapped, chained survivors of the Middle Passage—whose descendants worked for no wages and without any rights to their familial relationships or their own bodies—as “immigrants” who “worked longer and harder for less” angers so many of us so deeply. Carson’s extreme revisionism reminds us of the stakes of the critique in the recent film Get Out by demonstrating how deeply white supremacy can get into someone’s head. And it also painfully reenacts the consistent ideological violence of mass media, educational curricula, and everyday conversations that deny the violence Black people in the Americas have survived.
These ideological acts of violence are theoretical partners of the physical act of rubbing the head of a Black child for good luck during the segregation era and, of course, the still-common violation of personal space and dignity that occurs when white people feel entitled to touch the hair of Black people without permission. We have to think about this spectrum of head trauma in order to understand the use of decapitation in the underreported violence against Black women activists in Latin America by corporate-backed right-wing militias. And we have to remember what is so important about the heads and crowns of Black women activists and our community as a whole: Our heads are what we are using to imagine another world; our crowns are where we are holding the intergenerational knowledge that makes it possible.
When right-wing militias murder human rights leaders like Manyoma, their hope is that the head cannot function without the rest of the body and that the environmental peace and social justice movement will fall apart. This logic not only misunderstands the non-hierarchal communal modes of organizing that have been most effective for Black and Indigenous women, but it also underestimates the spiritual strength of the work that goes beyond one lifetime and is activated by an intergenerational commitment to community, children, land, and ancestors.
Like interpersonal abusers, state and corporate violence intends to use trauma to get into the heads of potential activists. In this case, they acted with the hope that Manyoma’s community would remember the horrifying image of her head removed from her body instead of the enduring image circulated by the people who love her. The image of her open mouth that spoke the truth, eyes that would not ignore injustice, arms that included the living and the dead in the movement, and of her head held high, her heart open.
And I ask myself, and you: when the violence of this moment, the lies of corrupt government, and the use of executive action to harm our bodies, our families, our environment, and our spirit start to get into your head and limit what you believe is possible, will you contract with fear and only look out for your own self-interest? Will you tell cowardly lies about our history like Ben Carson and pretend you do not know what you and those before you have learned through the initiation of struggle?
Or, will you remember Manyoma and Ana María? Maybe you will. I can feel you rooting down into centuries of bravery and reaching out to your community until you find your arms wide open, your heart unguarded. I can hear you: your throat speaking hope in the face of fascism. I can see you: your mind open to a bright, unkillable light emanating from you and beyond you, blessing all of us. Your crown.