How Turbans Helped Some Blacks Go Incognito In The Jim Crow Era

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tags: Jim Crow, Turban



... '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...




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