That time that I decided to cover my hair everyday
“We just know inside that we’re queens. And these are the crowns we wear.” Felecia McMillan
For black women, hair and head coverings come with ample baggage. The relationship between black women and their hair has been a tough road travelled. However, with tenacity and ingenuity held for generations, Black women found a way to make peace with their headwear and feminine glory: the ubiquitous church hat.
For Black Americans, the Sabbath was often a time of respite in an otherwise dreary life. On Sunday, the community was able to come together with families and friends, to take time to praise God, relish in their own space and find spiritual strength for the week to come. Early versions of Black theology focused on the relatability of the passion of Jesus; his unjust conviction, his mockery and his crucifixion. However, as Blacks moved further from slavery, new expressions of faith arose. The Black church tradition, though rooted in slavery, became the crux of Black culture. For women, nothing said church like church hats.
Church hats in all shapes, sizes and colors. Big brims, pillboxes, felt, straw, velvet, plumes, flowers, netting, sequins. Just about anything goes with church hats. The hats may be very expensive, depending upon how ornate they are, thus making them a relatively attainable status symbol. Most importantly, the church hat is representative of a self-created definition of Black femininity and beauty. These hats truly do represent crowns.
Black women have been the backbone of their churches for generations. Older women known as “church mothers” are revered matriarchs. There is an unspoken code that the mothers sit up front, crowns atop their heads. A perfect representation of a woman’s glory.
I remember my mother’s hats. There were many of them, and she kept them in big, white boxes under the bed. Sometimes she put some under my bed too, when she ran out of room. The hats were all different shapes and colors: A sophisticated, camel colored wool hat with a long front brim. A red pillbox with a sassy veil. Large round hats fit for a luxury seat at the Kentucky Derby.
As a little girl, there was nothing more glamorous. Walking through JC Penney there were hat stands with round, padded pegs on the ends of metal arms. Bouquets of hats sat upon the stands. I especially remember the spring time colors; pink, baby blue and white. These crowns were ready to be taken to an Easter Sunday church service.
I am more of a millennial than church mother. I have never worn a church hat to a service. I have only worn them when they were pulled out of those white boxes beneath the bed. Sometimes, I was able to wriggle my hand away from my mother’s in the department store long enough to try one on. But for me, the church hats were worn by our very own queens. Hats were symbolic of true womanhood.
As an American Black woman with a kinky hair texture, I too have been told that a woman’s hair is her glory. I have received comments from family members that were similar to the experiences discussed in this chapter. I chemically relaxed my hair at a young age and I have also worn straight hair extensions. I have been told that I don’t have “good hair” because my hair is not long and flowing. Even when my hair was at its longest, it formed a voluminous puff of tightly coiled hair; it did not hang down. I could not have easily used that hair to wipe the feet of the Savior. Any quest for long hair to be my glory is futile.
In my 30s I decided to cut my mass of natural hair down to a short, cropped style. I had barely any hair at all. The haircut came at a time in my life where I needed reinvention. I felt that as I was getting older, I needed to be seen as a more authoritative figure. I was tired of being asked if I was a litigant seeking child support when I went to work at family court as an attorney. I also reached a point in my life where I simply wanted to opt out of the female appearance-driven rat race. I was tired of trying to lose the last 10 pounds, to find the perfect hairstyle, to feel beautiful when I compared myself to other women. Short hair was an easy way to “opt out.”
Soon, though, I did miss the femininity and versatility that came with more hair. I craved a change, but I did not know what. It turns out that what I was waiting for was head covering to enter my life.
I attend a seminary that has both Muslim and Christian students. Hartford Seminary is the leading trainer of Islamic chaplains in America, and also attracts traditional, Christian seminarians. My classmates are from many walks of life and faith traditions. Men and women wear head coverings like hijab, turban and taquiyah on a daily basis. Then there are those who wear symbols like religious garb, cultural dress, large wooden crosses around their necks. I admire their outward proclamations of faith. I admire the way in which their head coverings or clothing give them constant reminders of their connection to God.
Though I don’t teach anymore, I am trained as a yoga teacher. Yoga is a practice rooted in India. People in India are known for living spiritually every moment of every day. They are never separated from their faith. There is not sacred space and normal space. Everything is sacred. Every time is spiritual. Every moment is an opportunity to connect with the divine. I wanted to experience a physical, daily ritual to represent my new faith journey as a seminarian.
One day I stood in front of the mirror and wound a pale gray, jersey knit scarf around my head. I coiled it into a low chignon on the left side of my head. I picked through my sparse jewelry box and found a rhinestone pin, which I attached just over the twisted bun formed by the scarf. I looked at myself and I felt beautiful and confident. It felt natural. I woke up the next day and tied on a scarf once again. And the next day and the day after that.
My reasons for beginning this practice were unclear. I certainly did not agree with Paul’s biblical instruction for women to cover their heads out of subservience to both God and their husbands (if you read First Corinthians 11, you will learn that men do not need to be covered before God under Paul’s theology). But as I stood at the mirror each day carefully winding fabric around my head, I did feel closer to God. I felt solidarity with Muslim classmates. Islam is, after all, the only other faith that shares Jesus.
I combed the internet to learn the art of wearing scarves. I learned about the tichel, a head covering for observant Jewish married women. They were beautiful. In fact it was through a website about tichel wearing that I stumbled upon the Wrapunzel community. Many in the Wrapunzel social media group were Jewish, some were Christian. One covered because of her Pagan religion and many covered for reasons of their own like feminism or help with anxiety. Some, much like me, were not sure why they felt drawn to head wrapping, but felt it was a calling.
At the same time I continued to research everything I could about head covering. I read countless critiques of this practice, claims that it is often a cultural mandate and not a choice. Some had opinions that head wrapping set women back hundreds of years. And in the age of radical Islamic terrorism, the outward symbol of the hijab has come under fierce attack. Even though hijab is worn by women, it has become one of the most recognizable symbols of male, militant Islamic terrorism.
France banned the wearing of hijab in public. In 2015, a Muslim, married couple waged a deadly assault weapon attack in San Bernardino, California. Pictures of the suspects released by the media showed the wife wearing hijab. As a result, head covering for any reason became a potential source of Islamophobia and fear. And this is when I decided to adopt this practice.
I now own loads of pretty scarves. I own shapers and volumizers to wear beneath my scarves. I have sparkly fun headbands and pretty pins. I love the feeling of standing before a mirror and tying my head every day. It is a physical meditation. It is a sign of my devotion to God. I am a woman who has suffered with low self-esteem and insecurities. But, when I wear my head wrap it feels like I am putting on a crown. When I wear it, I am a woman who exudes gravitas. I am a woman who is a matriarch. And I am a woman who feels closer to God than ever before.
I don’t wear a wrap every day. In the end, it just wasn’t something that I stuck with. Perhaps my calling to cover ended. I don’t carry the cultural weight of the tradition on my shoulders, so I have the privilege of covering for whatever reasons I choose, or not at all. But I continue to be fascinated and enchanted by covering, and all of the ancestors in the sisterhood of covers and crowns.