The Jim Crow South was brutal, and Black Americans were the predominant target of racial harm. While racism wasn’t relegated to the South during the 20th century, Black Americans residing in Southern states were particularly vulnerable and had to adopt unconventional methods in order to survive. From passing to cooperating with demeaning laws as a means of resistance, survival tactics manifested in ways that are almost impossible to fathom.
One of those unusual methods recently surfaced when Manan Desai, board member of the South Asian American Digital Archive, discovered Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne, a Sri Lankan scholar, who promoted the turban as a means of navigating anti-Black discrimination. According to Desai, the turban literally allowed people of color to confound the color lines.
Gooneratne was earning a doctorate at the University of Chicago, but still encountered anti-Black discrimination that often left him confounded. In a 1952 article for the Saturday Evening Post, writer George Weller profiled Gooneratne, who explained how Asian and African dignitaries traveling to the United States “bump[ed] with brutal suddenness into our Southern American solution of the white-colored difference.” Encountering racism in the Jim Crow South often led dignitaries to denounce America when returning to their homelands, as legal historian Mary L. Dudziak recounts in her book, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. The harsh treatment these foreign dignitaries endured in Jim Crow America was described by Gooneratne in his interview.
“They discover, painfully, that they can enter some regional hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, and theaters only by protesting that they are not ‘colored,’ meaning Negro,” he said. “This distinction they are too proud and too indignant to make. They arrive acutely color-conscious, full of memories of days when European colonialists applied the color line to social status in their countries. They go home, in some cases, stinging with the belief that America, too, is semicolonial.”
In response to anti-Black racism, Gooneratne encouraged his fellow Indians to don turbans to avoid harassment in the Jim Crow South.
“Any Asiatic can evade the whole issue of color in America by winding a few yards of linen around his head,” Gooneratne told the interviewer. “A turban makes anyone an Indian.”
While Gooneratne later distanced himself from his stance on turbans, writer Tanvi Misra combats his initial idea in an article for National Public Radio’s Code Switch.
“A turban isn’t exclusively Indian,” she writes. “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.”
In fact, turbans can be understood as racial markers as well. Desai notes that turbans have been used to justify violence against Sikh communities. However, that didn’t stop some Black Americans from donning turbans in an attempt to avoid anti-Black racism. According to Misra, there were two types of turban wearers in the American South. There were those donning them to make a political statement and those seeking to look exotic for personal gain.
Both Misra and Desai refer to the Rev. Jesse Routté, a Black Lutheran preacher, in their work. Routté attempted to use the turban trick while traveling through the Jim Crow South. After encountering mistreatment in Mobile, Ala. in 1943, he decided to use the turban when traveling again in 1947. As Misra recounts:
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.”
Wearing the turban, like passing, was a tactic deployed for survival, and it often worked. Yet, as Desai highlights, the use of turban by visitors and natives alike, played into “the stratification of color,” and that is an issue that continues to persist.