How turbans helped some blacks go incognito in the Jim Crow era – NPR

He didn't change his color. He just changed his costume, and they treated him like a human

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South Asian scholar Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne wore a turban to avoid anti-black discrimination in the American South
By TANVI MISRA | NPR |

n 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 South Asian American Digital Archive.

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 article 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 Sikh communities in North America in the 19th century. South Asians weren’t immune to racial prejudice.

The ‘Turban Trick’: A Political Statement

I spoke with Paul Kramer, a historian and professor at Vanderbilt University, who found that the turban was also used by African-Americans. They sometimes added robes, accents and carefully cultivated personas to bypass segregation laws and other kinds of discrimination.

The New York Times picked up the story about Routté’s Alabama trip. He’s written about 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 in 1947, with a plan.

Before he boarded the train to Alabama, he put on his spangled turban and velvet robes. When the train reached North Carolina during lunchtime, Routté walked over to the diner car where the only vacant seat was occupied by two white couples.

One of the men said, “Well, what have we got here?” to which Routté replied in his best Swedish accent (he had been the only black student at a Swedish Lutheran college in Illinois), “We have here an apostle of goodwill and love” — leaving them gaping.

And that confusion seemed to work for Routté on the rest of his trip. He dropped in on police officials, the chamber of commerce, merchants — and was treated like royalty.

At a fancy restaurant he asked the staff what would happen if a “Negro gentleman comes in here and sits down to eat.” The reply: “No negro would dare to come in here to eat.”

“I just stroked my chin and ordered my dessert,” he said.

After he returned to New York, Routté said he felt like “a paratrooper behind enemy lines.”

His son Luther Routté is now 74. Both of his parents — prominent in activist communities in Harlem and Long Island — were always doing “social experiments,” trying to find solutions to the prejudice they saw in the world. And this experiment exploded the myth that blacks were innately inferior and warranted inferior treatment, he says.

“He didn’t change his color. He just changed his costume, and they treated him like a human,” says Luther Routté, who has been a Lutheran pastor for 25 years. It “shows you the kind of myopia that accompanies the whole premise of apartheid or segregation.”

Through the “turban trick,” Routté basically transformed himself from a threat to a guest — black to invisible.

Read the full article, How Turbans Helped Some Blacks Go Incognito In The Jim Crow Era, here (NPR, 19 July 2014)

 

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