Big Mama passed away nearly a decade ago after having succumb to a long descent into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease. Before she left this earth, we all experienced flashes of her prior self. I remember her smiling at me with recognition one summer in San Diego, hugging me as if she knew my name and that I was her grandchild. That same summer, while my mother sifted through Big Mama’s church crown collection, she showed my mother how to properly wear a little round black number decorated with flowers and a cute little veil.
In her heyday, Big Mama was sharp—the kind of sharp that turns heads, commands respect and spurs envy in one fail swoop. She stayed color-coordinated and well-accessorized always with a clean hanky in her handbag and nary a scuff on her heeled shoe. Needless to say, her church crown game was fierce. And this made sense as she’d been a member of the Great Black Migration who originally hailed from Alabama where church crowns on Black women’s heads were as necessary as cornbread with greens.
I already knew that Sunday was the golden opportunity for us to don and look our very best—presumably for the Lord (as per I Corinthians 11: 5) but also for darn sure for ourselves and each other. I already knew about the pageantry of the Black church experience and, as a child, I never missed a Sunday of hot combs, hair ribbons, white gloves and spit-shined patent leather shoes. I already knew that Sundays were a longstanding tradition reaching back into Jim Crow and bondage where we as a people could and would be left alone to nourish and maintain our own sense of humanity. Where we could be free to celebrate our natural sense of style and flair. Where we could remember that somewhere down deep in our souls the fire of our African ancestry, pride, knowledge and excellence still burned bright and fierce. What I wanted to know were the direct African connections; and I learned that there are many!
The Dhuku. The Duku. The Gele. The Tukwi. All are versions of what we commonly call head wraps or head ties but all are consistent in their elaborate designs and what they say about the women who wear them. Depending on the tribe, how these head ties are crafted can denote the woman’s lineage, wealth and marital status. Naturally, the more ornate, the greater the impression she and her accessory made on any onlookers.
When we were kidnapped and brought to this American wilderness, slave traders mandated that we wore head ties as yet another way to classify us as property. However, you can’t keep a jewel from sparkling. African women in America didn’t forget their head wrapping skills and used those talents as a quiet act of defiance. “I don’t care what you see me as. I will always be great and here’s my crown to prove it.” Church crowns are every bit an extension and adaptation of this attitude and our inherent African sense of fashion.
We Black women don our crowns, whether a factory-fabricated hat or carefully wrapped tie, because we make it our business to SLAY. We may be undervalued and underappreciated in this world, but we have NEVER lost the knowledge of our true worth. We are the mothers of the earth and we demonstrate excellence in all that we do. We rock crowns in church, at work, on the street, at home, and particularly on special occasions because we never miss an opportunity to outwardly demonstrate the beauty within.