On the Front Porch: At the Drop of a Hat

A sister can wear a hat.  She creates #FACEGOALS under a fedora; does it DELICIOUS with a Derby; and channels CUTENESS while rocking a cloche.
Big hats.  Little hats. Floppy hats. Felt hats. Wool Hats. Sun hats.  Sporty hats. Church hats. Amazing-OMG-Where-Did-She-Get-That? Hats. Even cowboy hats.
From simple to elaborately woven, from fascinators to fantastic feathered fantasies, give a sister a hat, stand back, and watch.  It will be Worn. The. Heck. Out.  The February 2019 issue of Essence Magazine has a photo piece on Black women and hats.  It is entitled, “Showstopping Hats.”  The magazine is partially used as a platform for Black models to showcase some of the latest trends in cranium craftsmanship.
 Hats of the Past
“A deeply rooted tradition in the African American community, wearing flamboyant hats to church has both spiritual and cultural significance. The centuriesold custom continues to flourish throughout the Southern U.S. and in strong Black Northern communities, including Chicago.  The dress hats, which are beautifully fabricated and extravagantly decorated, have evolved into an art form and an important cultural symbol.”  The Fascinating History Behind Black Women’s Church Hat Cultural Tradition by Nicole Kidder, August 14, 2015 (https://bglh-marketplace.com/2015/08/3-historical-reasons-why-black-women-wear-elaborate-church-hats/)

As a little girl, my hat-wearing duties occurred once a year—Easter Sunday. On that day, my mother, Mary Catherine, would dress me in a frilly dress with matching frilly gloves that covered hands that held a frilly handbag. The outfit would be topped off by frilly bobby socks stuffed inside of Black patent leather shoes with frills on top. Freshly-pressed hair adorned my head with –you guessed it–frilly curls!  I looked like a walking bowl of Frappe’, a frothy punch comprised of sherbet ice-cream and 7-up.

The main attraction to my bubbly outfit, however, would be my bonnet, usually white, also frilly, and one that came with a piece of elastic string that draped down both its sides and formed a loop underneath that met in the middle of my chin.  I.  Hated. That.  String.  It was always TOO tight and pinched the bottom of my face. It was so close-fitting that my mouth formed a large “O” from the shock I felt whenever my mother lay the rubber to rest, which she did– REPEATEDLY. I wanted to BEG her to leave that bonnet off my head and to stop adjusting the string once she placed it on me.  But I knew better than to argue with Mary Catherine.  So I just grinned and wore it.  But toward the end of the LONG Easter service, I just sat there and pretended to pass out from all that preaching.  My antics weren’t entirely fake. By the time the sun had fallen, it was hard to believe I was the same person from that morning.  My bonnet’s body would be draped down my back as it hung on for dear life, its string stretched to capacity.  My curls would be a wreck too; hair wisps everywhere.  The bobby pins that had so valiantly held my curls together had a change of heart. They had decided instead to burst out of bondage and make a run for it.   One pin had escaped and landed on the floor of the church pew in front of me.  Another carefully poked its head out from the top of my handbag.

Crown Jewels 
Despite my earlier hat-wearing wobbles, as I grew older, I began to adore wearing them. I can trace my affinity directly to my maternal great-grandmother, Great Grand, who always sported a “church hat” to service every Sunday when I accompanied her as a pre-teen.  I remember her favorite one, a bright turquoise-colored number with lots of feathers.  It looked like a peacock had met, married and mated with an Ostrich and her hat was one of their offspring.  Despite its slightly overbearing appearance, Great Grand held her head a little bit higher everytime she wore it.  As she sat tall and regal in her front pew, it looked like she wanted to be sure to catch God’s eye.

One of my favorite books is “Crowns,” a tribute to ADULT Black women and their church hats that was written by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.  In writing it, the authors found that there are several “unwritten rules” for wearing church hats in the Black community. The rules are clear, specific, and direct.  I call them The Six Rules for Hat-Wearing Approval:
RULE #1:       A worn hat should not be wider than the wearer’s shoulders
RULE #2:       A topper should never be darker than the color of shoes worn
RULE #3:       One should never borrow or TOUCH someone else’s hat
RULE #4:       The exception to Rule #3 is when a treasured piece is passed down to a daughter, granddaughter or daughter-in-law.
RULE#5:        The hat always serves as the focal point, but it must not compete in any way with the outfit worn, which it should also match. This also applies to accompanying jewelry or accessories, such as pocketbooks and gloves. These items should complement the assemble, not overpower it.
RULE 6:          When in doubt, toss the hat out. The penalties for breaking one or more of these rules is not even worth the trouble!
Top Ladies of Distinction, Lincoln Park Chicago Chapter (LPCC) recently resuscitated that hat ritual by asking its members to wear gold-hued headpieces to their recent 17th annual Crown Jewel Awards (CJA), a scholarship luncheon that benefits its youth group, Top Teens of America, Inc.  This year’s occasion was held last weekend at the Doubletree Hotel in Alsip. Despite the frigid weather, more than 150 attendees slushed through the sleet and snow that honored nine (9) “Illuminating Treasures.”  This year’s winners were selected based on their contributions to making the communities in which they live and serve “brighter and better.” CJA awards were presented to two of the Chicago Defender’s very own—me and fellow writer Carolyn G. Palmer, as well as seven other honorees: Courtney R. Avery, Herman L. Davis, Judge Toya T. Harvey, Dr. Donna Simpson Leak, Caprice O’Bryant-Guitterez and Arlinda McDearmon (see CP Around Town in January 23 issue).
Given that the insignia for TLOD organization is a crown, it was only befitting that the LPCC chapter presented each award winner with their own “crown,” a beautiful, bejeweled headpiece gently ensconced in a glass case. “We wanted to remind honorees and participants of the pride and dignity that adorned pâte pieces symbolize for members of the Black community,“ said CJA Chair Lady Elaine Chisholm.   I was extremely humbled when the elaborate token was placed into my hands.
I plan to continue to channel Great Grand and wear hats, not only on Sunday but other days as well.  In doing so, I will remember that “cocked caps” represent the Black community’s ability to triumph over hardships; rise above challenges.  In the words of Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high.” I might add, “and when doing so, set your shoulders back, head up and march with plenty of “hattitude. ”

Shanita Baraka Akintonde

Shanita Baraka Akintonde is an award-winning author, podcaster, professional speaker, professor, wife, and mother propelled by love. Her second book, Leading from the Heart, was released in September 2018 and her third book, Hear Me ROARR is set for release in Spring 2019.   Add yourself to her event calendar and book signing distribution list. Email her at  sakintonde@colum.edu.  You can also reach her on Linked In at Professor Shanita Akintonde, www.linkedin.com/in/shanitaakintonde/


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