Now, we have come across a story from the Jim Crow era about cultural mimicry between people of color.
In mid-20th century America, the turban was a tool that people of color used for “confounding the color lines,” writes Manan Desai, board member of the .
At the time, ideas of race in America were quite literally black and white. In some places, if you could pass yourself off as something other than black, you could circumvent some amount of discrimination. People of color — both foreigners and African-Americans — employed this to their advantage. Some did it just to get by in a racist society, some to make a political statement, and others — performers and businessmen — to gain access to fame and money they wouldn’t have otherwise had.
‘A Turban Makes Anyone An Indian’
Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne was getting a doctorate at the University of Chicago in the ’20s. Originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he traveled around America lecturing on the need to abolish the caste system and on India’s push for independence from the British, among other topics.
In a recent about Gooneratne, Desai notes that visiting scholars from Asia and Africa, like Gooneratne, were startled to encounter anti-black discrimination. But some of these people, who were lugging around colonial baggage from their own countries, found a way around racism.
Gooneratne, for one, used his turban while traveling in the Jim Crow South to avoid harassment, and advised others to do the same, Desai writes.
“Any Asiatic can evade the whole issue of color in America by winding a few yards of linen around his head,” Desai quotes Gooneratne as saying. “A turban makes anyone an Indian.”
Pause. Let’s take care of a couple of housekeeping details: A turban isn’t exclusively Indian. It has variations in the Middle East, East Asia and North Africa. But it was seen as a “racial marker” for Indians, Desai notes, and led to acts of violence against in the 19th century. South Asians weren’t immune to racial prejudice.
I spoke with , a historian and professor at Vanderbilt University, who found that the turban was also used by African-Americans. They sometimes addedrobes, accents and carefully cultivated personas to bypass segregation laws and other kinds of discrimination.
He’s written about a black Lutheran minister, the Rev. Jesse Routté, who pulled off what Kramer calls the “turban trick.”
Routté had traveled to Alabama in a turban and robes, put on an accent, and quickly realized that it was quite easy to fool everyone there into thinking he was a foreign dignitary — and to be received as one.
“Then it kind of goes viral in 1940s terms,” says Kramer, “where the press picks it up, it becomes this colorful story that people are talking about.” When an article appeared in The New York Times, he says, people started pulling up examples of other cases.
“He’s not the first person to pull this off,” says Kramer, “so it’s not entirely a novelty.”
But Kramer says Routté is the sole representative of the first category of African-American turban wearers — those who did it to make a political statement.
Routté’s experiment began after he traveled to Mobile, Ala., in 1943 for a family engagement. He wasn’t happy with how he was treated.
“I was Jim Crowed here, Jim Crowed there, Jim Crowed all over the place,” he later told reporters. “And I didn’t like being Jim Crowed.”
So he went back with a plan… read more on npr.org