May 2005 Issue
Queen For a Day
They came like a wave, the women and their hats, dozens of them surging through a parking lot in downtown Cincinnati one Saturday in late March. To a passerby, it must have looked like the congregation of women (mostly African American, mostly middle-aged
They came like a wave, the women and their hats, dozens of them surging through a parking lot in downtown Cincinnati one Saturday in late March. To a passerby, it must have looked like the congregation of women (mostly African American, mostly middle-aged or older) was 24 hours off and at the wrong location: Here they were wearing their Sunday best on the day before Easter, and headed into the Cincinnati Art Museum instead of a church.
They sure did make for a stunning sight, though. The only things more impressive than their jewelry and brightly colored dresses were those hats, balanced atop their heads like wearable works of art. There were pillbox hats with delicate veils dotted with rhinestones; straw hats with wide brims that seemed to stretch toward the horizon; and ornate hats with faux fur and brilliant feathers, so eye-catching they could make a peacock jealous â€” all of them adding a splash of much-needed color to the chilly, gray afternoon.
"Oh yes it was beautiful," says Linda Jackson Pointer, recalling the nearly 100 local women who'd arrived at the museum to have their portraits taken. The shoot was a special community event inspired by the photo exhibit, "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats," at the Cincinnati Art Museum through June 12. (The Cincinnati women's portraits are on display May 7 and 8 only.) The 30 black-and-white pictures by photographer Michael Cunningham pay tribute to an act that has long been a staple of African-American culture: covering your head in church as a sign of humility, and doing so in a glamorous manner out of respect for the importance of the occasion.
"It's not just a fashion accessory; it's not about having a bad hair day, either," says Jackson Pointer, one of the "Crowns ambassadors," charged with getting the word out about the exhibit. She speaks from experience. Jackson Pointer, 54, has added style to her spirituality - she owns several dozen church hats - ever since she was a child sitting in the pews of Cincinnati's Mission House of Prayer with her mother.
"If you came into church without a hat, one of the mothers there would run over right away and get a white handkerchief or something and throw it on the top of your head," she recalls. Explaining her devotion to the custom, Jackson Pointer echoes the Bible passage that begins the best-selling 2000 book that the exhibit is based on: "But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth
her head." (I Corinthians 11:5)
"It's about showing respect and honoring the church," says Jackson Pointer. "And, it's honoring who you are and your people, paying reverence," she adds, noting the quote by author James Baldwin that also introduces the book: "Our crowns have been bought and paid for, all we have to do is wear them."
To that end, the Cincinnati women who streamed into the museum that March day could have been royalty. Jackson Pointer remembers one elderly woman in particular who would, under any other circumstances, seem fragile - being wheelchair-bound and with a blanket covering her shoulders - except for the enormous hat that she wore, tilted stylishly to one side.
"Even folks who were on canes and walkers," says Jackson Pointer, "it seemed like they were just walking tall, standing straight up, the way they were coming in with these hats on."