Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats

by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry

foreword by Maya Angelou

Published by Doubleday

212 pages, 2000











Reviewed by Sienna Powers


A single glance is not enough. It's too easy to say, "You can do a book about anything." Even the subtitle is deceptively simple: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. This is enough for a book? A whole book?

The second, deeper glance entrances you. The photographs are astonishing. The women mostly confront the camera properly adorned in their Sunday best and topped by some sort of delicious headgear. Some of the hats are somber and understated. Others are jaunty or jolly. There are designer hats and legacy hats. Still others flirt dangerously close to ridiculous. Yet, somehow, in this context and worn with pride -- and in some cases even defiance -- they are, as the title states, crowns indeed.

It is, however, the third look -- when you're actually reading -- that absolutely pulls you in. As one of the subjects, 38-year-old Sherrie Flynt-Wallington says in Crowns, "Sometimes, under those hats, there's a lot of joy and a lot of sorrow." The brief interview that accompanies each of the 50 portraits in Crowns uncovers slices of that joy and sorrow. It's an unforgettable encounter. And you end up thinking, "Why didn't anyone do this sooner?"

It was a question photographer and co-author Michael Cunningham asked himself when he first conceived the idea in 1998. A friend of his had returned home after a family reunion and reported that she had "gotten a kick out of the big, fancy hats her relatives wore to Sunday service. Right then," writes Cunningham, "I could see the book. I jumped on it the very next day. For generations, African American women have had such a deep passion for hats. I just knew some other photographer had done a book already. I did some research on the Internet and, to my surprise, found nothing."

All of the photographs are black and white, something that Cunningham made an early decision on. He says that he felt that color photographs might have made it look or feel like fashion work. More importantly, perhaps, he also felt that, "color would have placed too much emphasis on the hats themselves instead of the women wearing them."

It was interviewer and co-author Craig Marberry who brought the final component into place: the women's own voices to complement Cunningham's stunning photographs. As Marberry writes in his introduction, "When the Apostle Paul wrote an open letter... decreeing that a woman cover her head when at worship... he could not have imagined the flamboyance with which African American women would comply. For generations, black women have interpreted Apostle Paul's edict with boundless passion and singular flair, wearing platter hats, lampshade hats, why'd-you-have-to-sit-in-front-of-me hats, often with ornaments that runneth over."

It is this perfect blend of respect and humor that really helps to make Crowns work on all levels. The portions of the interviews Marberry has chosen to reproduce are brief, pointed and entirely human. We meet, for instance, Nancy Carpenter, 61, photographed sitting on a sofa smiling merrily and surrounded by no less than 14 of her hats. She talks about when she got her first hat and "blacks could only shop in certain stores." She talks about a store in Winston-Salem called Montaldo's where she wasn't allowed to purchase a hat.

Looking back on it, Montaldo's hats weren't any prettier. They didn't have anything so nice that we couldn't afford it. I guess it was just the thought that you couldn't go in there that made you want to go in. It wasn't a good feeling.

So simply stated, yet how poignant. And how sweet when, just two paragraphs later, she is finally allowed into Montaldo's and she marches in and buys herself a hat.

By the end of her monologue, Montaldo's has closed down and Carpenter's ending note is sweet, though without spite. "Funny thing was, by the time they closed, I owned about a hundred hats -- more than they had in the whole store. And mine were prettier."

Other stories deal with family memories ("They say I look like Mama in my hats. Sometimes, in church, I find myself sitting where she sat."), action hats ("I almost lost this hat when I was preaching the Women's Day service... I went one way across the pulpit and the hat went the other."), the fashion value of hats ("I was twelve when I first saw church women in fashionable hats. I said, 'Oh, I got to do this.'") and the necessity of the church hat ("If a woman wears a hat all the time, she's going to look naked in the casket without one.")

A recurring theme is the traditions that glorious hats pay homage to. Jacquelyn Jenkins puts it succinctly:

African American women dress to the nines to go to church, more than any other women. It's part of our heritage. Our African ancestors always wore some type of headdress to decorate themselves. Slave women wore bandannas to keep the dust out of their hair, but they also added wild flowers to dress it up.

In her usual form, Maya Angelou's foreword is brief, to the point and beautifully revealing. In a couple of pages, she tightly renders both the part the hat plays in an African American woman's Sunday and the ritual she might go through to don it.

And then, she leaves home and joins the company of her mothers and aunties and sisters and nieces and daughters at church whose actions have been identical to hers that morning. They too had waited longingly for the gift of a Sunday morning.

The only photograph missing from Crowns is one of a congregation of women in their church hats. But this is a quibble. Crowns is a memorable, and in its own way important, book. The talents of this writer/photographer team have blended perfectly here. I'm already looking forward to their next collaboration. | November 2000


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.