The tradition of dressing up for church within the African American community in Harlem has persevered through a shifting social landscape.
Certain theologians and historians believe the practice can be traced back to times of slavery when church-goers would transform their straw hats into a religious headpiece by placing a sunflower on the brim. Others see it as a form of emulating white church dress, or even as a means of appearing more worthy in the eyes of God.
Harlem is Harlem but it's also changing
While the source might be unclear, what is certain is that the tradition was brought over to Harlem in 1905 at the start of the Great Migration – when blacks began leaving the South to find a better life in northern industrial cities. In 1930, the population of African Americans in Harlem reached 70%, a time that saw the rise of the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance but also a catastrophic fall in employment rates during the Great Depression. A disaster that would affect Harlemites for decades.
“For the negro, his church is his instrument of escape, his weapon of protest, his protective fortress behind which he seeks to withstand the assaults of a hostile world," writes sociologist Dr Kenneth B Clark in his 1965 book Dark Ghetto. “Within the church, a negro porter or maid can assume responsibilities and authority not available to him elsewhere. Here the negro domestic exchanges her uniform for a 'high-fashion' dress and enjoys the admiration and envy of other friends.”
In the 1960s, black nationalists rebelled against the traditions of church dress as they saw it as lacking in Afro-centric relevance. But while some young black Harlemites started turning to Islam, many remained faithful to God, although appropriating their style to something more suitable to the times. Thus the likes of kufi caps, garments made from colourful African fabrics and new hairstyles became common at the church.
Today, the Harlem tradition of dressing up in your Sunday best faces a new challenge in the form of gentrification. Between 1990-2010, the African American population in Harlem has decreased from 88% to 53%, while the white population has increased from 1% to 10%. With many of the older buildings being knocked down for new apartment complexes and businesses, it seems Harlem is beginning to be taken over by a new demographic.
Yet after this Easter Sunday, it’s clear that the African American community are still dressing up and going to the 400 plus churches that still remain in the area.
We caught up with Janette Beckman to speak about a photoessay that she has just completed on this longstanding tradition in Harlem...
Could you speak about where you were photographing?
I went up to Harlem to photograph people coming out of church. People there are known to dress up especially for Easter Sunday, it's a famous thing. I thought it would be an interesting photo essay on tradition. I went to this Abyssinian Baptist Church there and encountered all these people, like that guy in the blue striped zoot suit.
It's as if they're dressing up for God. Did you grasp that this tradition was still important for this community?
Religion is very important for the black community in Harlem. Maybe they are dressing up for God but they're also doing it for each other too. It's not a wealthy neighbourhood so it's a good excuse to look good and show off what you've got.
I think people go to church to be uplifted rather than to just hear some vicar repeat verses
I was talking to one lady and she said she'd had her hat for 25 years, the one with the scarf tied around it. She was telling me that she bought it on sale at the time, and is still wearing it today. There was also this guy with a blue stripe suit, who said he wears it every Easter.
And it wasn't just older people attending the service was it?
No, it's really a family affair and they take it very seriously. Even the little kids are dressed up. Some of those kids look like they're in their first communion dresses. There were also a lot of people wearing white, I guess for purity. Easter is an important holiday if you're religious.
There's such a large number of churches in Harlem, with so many religious sects.
They have these amazing gospel choirs in some of these churches. I was standing outside and you could hear the choir, people stomping and singing. I think people go to church to be uplifted rather than to just hear some vicar repeat verses. People really believe in their pastors too. The pastor in the white suit with the African fabric was really happy to pose for me, he seemed to know everyone on the street too because they were all coming up to him and shaking his hand. Also, outside that baptist church I was talking to another lady and she was asking me if I was religious and wanted my business card so she could speak to her pastor and bring me into the church.
How would you describe life in Harlem at the moment, would you say people are happy?
Harlem is Harlem but it's also changing. There are more white people moving in and I know some people are disgruntled about that. But there are some good things happening too, like my friend Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant Streetbird (featured in Issue 13) has been set up to benefit the community through hiring locals and keeping the prices low.
Before in Harlem, there was only Slyvia's Restaurant [serving Southern comfort food since 1962] and that was it. Now there's a lot of different places to eat and they're even opening a Whole Foods Market on 125th Street, which would never have happened before. But then they're also tearing down places and building these giant condos, which means a lot of people who aren't from Harlem are moving in. Harlem is so beautiful in itself, with its big wide boulevards that are almost like something you'd see in Paris. It used to be a place where people would have their vacation house to get out of the city, it was all about beautiful living.
It seems it's the traditional elements, such as going to church, that highlight whether the original community is still existing.
It's mostly local black people in those churches. There's a huge amount of tourists that go to the churches just because of the gospel singing but, as I said before, Harlem is still Harlem. I'm happy to see it thriving because there's still some poverty stricken parts, so if it's looking a little shinier now, I guess that's a good thing.
I was reading about storefront churches. Are they still around?
Yeah, I've never been inside but I know it's a huge tradition. A lot of the hispanics will have a smaller church set up in a storefront and have services in there. But wherever it is, in Harlem everyone always dresses good – like you see those pictures of Malcolm X always in a suit.
Why did you decide to go out and photograph these church-goers?
I've just been wanting to do this for a really long time. I've been going up to Harlem a lot recently to help Marcus with Streetbird and just realised it would be a great idea.
People seemed to be really upbeat coming out of church
Instead of capturing people dressed in wacky clothes for St Patrick's Day or at the Easter Parade, I wanted to look at a different type of religious celebration. When they came out of the church, they weren't really parading. They were just hanging out on the street and talking to each other, it seemed like a real community.
How did you approach them?
Well, I got up there around 11am and just asked, what time did the service come out? They said, oh around 1pm. I'd just walk up to them, tell them I was working for a magazine and complimented them on what they're wearing. Everyone was super into it. I feel it's always been my thing to go up to people respectfully and just talk to them and make them feel a part of it. It's just my way.
And they were posing with a sense of pride?
Definitely. Also when you're doing something like that you really have to be on your toes because you'll be photographing one person and there'll be someone else with an amazing hat appearing behind them. You can't be rude, because they're there proudly posing for you, so you have to keep them happy while looking for the next person. There's that picture with the guy with the two ladies with the turbans, I think he was from Africa, and he was joking around saying he had these two beautiful women. People seemed to be really upbeat coming out of church.
It seems like the actual event of going to church, dressing up and generally participating is perhaps more important for the community than the faith itself. It's a binding force.
It's inspirational to see people getting together like that. And people grow up in that society, going to church with their parents. Traditions are still pretty strong in the community.
Do you have a lot of history with Harlem?
I spend a lot of time walking around Harlem. There's a good feeling on the street there because people are friendly and open, people say hello to you. It's a real place where real people live.
He was shouting, save Harlem now, in this baritone voice and really loud
The first time I went to Harlem was when I got to New York, some time in the early 1980s. I'd just go up there to shop, which was unusual for people outside the area. I was always interested by what was going on because I was from another country and had created this myth about Harlem.
In 1985, I did this story for Paper Magazine on this guy called the Picasso of Harlem [Franco the Great] and he painted nearly all the store shutters on 125th Street. If there was a jewellery shop, he painted a guy giving a lady a ring. If it was a record shop, he'd have music notes. That was my first Harlem story and now I'm always up there for something or other. I feel relaxed there.
Out of the church pictures, there's this photograph of a guy shouting, holding a stick. As soon as I got there, I heard this guy shouting, save Harlem now. He was shouting in this baritone voice and really loud. He did that all the time I was up there, for maybe three or four hours. He was standing by a building that had just been taken down to build new condos, it was right by the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Harlem is changing, some of it for the good, some of it not, but I think people will always go to church.