We aren’t sure whether it was Shakespeare or Mark Twain who coined the phrase “the clothes make the man” but it is true that clothing makes an obvious declaration of one’s status in Africana religions. I see the relationship between head covering and spirituality as demonstrative of how people articulate inner commitments, using outward forms. In a world that casts them as ugly ignoble and nonhuman, black men and women have crafted beauty, dignity, and self-respect according to their own aesthetic ideals. Now normally, we hear religion and head covering and think of the classic women’s clothing artifact in African American Christianity, the Sunday church hat. Extravagant, elegant, the grand custom of wearing Sunday go-to-meeting hats is acknowledged in a curated collection from the Philadelphia milliner Mae Reeves at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This magnificent homage bears witness to female ministers, mothers, saints, and other woman exemplars in black faith traditions whose dress practices emphasize finery as a unique devotional expression.
Of course, it is not only within Christian churches that we find such crowning glory. Traditions of hat-wearing encompass diverse religions, from Islam and Judaism to the many African-derived spiritualities that black people favor. So, to be clear, this not about your Mama’s church hats. In fact, looking at the ways that black men have donned hats as markers of religious virtue permits us to shift the focus away from sartorial practices that we ordinarily associate with women. And why not? Black men have always been connoisseurs in the realms of fashion. In contemporary spaces we note the rise of the Dandy Lion – framed both as a masculine street aesthetic and as vibrant ghetto cosmopolitanism – a move that showcases men of color as eminently dapper and proudly diasporic. I would argue that the black Dandy’s self-conscious internationalizing of local style counters the notion of “the cosmopolitan” as belonging solely to a global aristocratic elite.
And so what if we situate male fashion within a matrix that incorporates African, Asian, European, and American design, hip hop sensibilities, and queer identities? While black men have historically sported wraps, kuffias, fezzes, and turbans without comment, I want to argue that the hat says something more. The hat is where spirituality joins together, in novel articulations, with identity and performance. But what does it mean?
Viewed in a larger context, it is readily apparent that men’s fashion tastes can be as fancy as women’s. Consider the sheer variety of clothing embraced by black male leaders in their public roles. From the fabulous uniforms worn by Marcus Garvey in parades and majestic pageants celebrating pan-African greatness, to the impeccable regalia of the Fruit of Islam, the men’s society of the African American Muslims, male headwear denotes martial discipline and nationalist pride. Again, the handsome apparel of the Nation of Islam is exquisitely preserved in the collections of the African American Museum, highlighting the resonances between costuming and religion. Of course, in some African-based sacred traditions we see that dressing the head literally clothes the embodied Spirit, as with this possession ceremony with the Nago captain and military general Ogou, a venerated loa from the religion of Haitian Vodou. Less well known are the ways that headwear has historically served vital purposes in cultivating racial affect for black American male religious leaders and teachers. Take the fez, for example, a dress accoutrement originally associated with fraternal orders. Although it typified a costume vogue in lodges and secret societies during the early twentieth century, eventually the fez would be visually linked to black Islam. An accessory worn by “dark skinned people” as a sign of nobility, its geometrically conical shape was said to resemble a unfinished pyramid, the signifying mystical figure of Freemasonry. So black Muslims gloss the fez in a saying that goes: “as a pyramid houses wisdom, so the fez houses wisdom in the brain.” Seen here, Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple, wore a fez in accordance with his own interpretations of Islamic theology, with which he integrated ideas from Freemasonry, New Thought, and Hermeticism.
Dressing the head in alignment with their values and beliefs appealed to black men who found meaning in racialized understandings of religion promoted by leaders like Noble Drew Ali. Hats became powerful emblems for male religious during the period of the Great Migration, when millions of black Americans from the southern states, as well as Africans, Caribbean immigrants, and others, entered the cities of the North and Midwest and discovered alternatives to the theological and social norms of Protestant Christianity. In so doing they asserted declarations of selfhood and citizenship that repudiated conventional racial classifications; they professed identities that challenged the denigration of their bodies and souls; they adopted mythologies that they believed revealed their true, divinely established origins; and they declared themselves to be Moors instead of blacks, Muslims instead of Negroes, and Hebrews and Hindus instead of coloreds and niggers – no longer bereft of God’s favor, without claim to history or spiritual lineage. Later, as leader of the largest African American Muslim organization in the United States, the Honorable Elijah Muhummad carried the tradition of fashioning the head with the fez as a signature style (also seen here with his inestimable jewel-studded kofia). When worn by the prophet, the hat displays regal power and prestige and authorizes prosperity for the entire community. Such themes would translate broadly into the ideologies of economic self-determination for which the Nation of Islam was well known.
Much like the fez, the turban became an inspiration for black men who sought access to sacred truths while reimagining their religious associations within the global community. In contrast with the fez, the turban was associated with the dress of adepts of initiatory religions like Theosophy, Occult Science, or, in the case of Rabbi Arnold Ford – a prominent linguist, poet, and musician for the UNIA – African American Judaism and its complementary strains in the black Israelite and Hebrew traditions. The turn to the turban draws our attention to the profound theological conduits by which Africana mystics affirmed transnational identities, be they Moorish, Ethiopian, or Egyptian. To be sure, this kind of synthesis was a feature of black religious pluralism in the early twentieth century. Turbans also became more visible as Americans looked to Eastern-inspired sacred traditions for new avenues of cultural consumption. But African American Orientalism was conceived with different intentions. In the first half of the twentieth century, black political and social thought was imbued with international currents, with turban-wearing race men like Ford, Sufi Abdul Hamid, and Robert T. Browne reshaping dominant religious discourses to suit their own activist ambitions. Their deployment of Orientalist tropes cohered with a fascination with the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, seen by most Americans as distant, exotic geographies that overflowed with precious raw materials for acquisition and plunder by the imperial west. Yet for Africana religious thinkers, these were the lands and ancient sites which provided the mythic sources and intellectual traditions by which aspirants probed esoteric mysteries, delved into holy texts, and evoked the hidden knowledge that would illuminate the past glory and greatness of a people. The black encounter with Orientalism was also linked to formations of nationalism and the emergence of fledgling independence movements that championed solidarity and pride amongst the darker races of the world. Drawing from disparate sources, black male religious circulated esoteric ideas they believed were accessible only to those righteous seekers who divined the occult secrets that would provide viable blueprints for racial ascension. In time the turban would be deftly coopted by a new variety of cultural innovators, many of whom sported decorative turbans in order to dismantle normative perceptions of African American manhood. Immaculate and exotic, the turbaned male provided a striking contrast to racist and stereotypical images of black men in the United States. With its lavish foreignness, the turban was also a useful tool of cultural dissimulation. The celebrity keyboardist and 1950s Hollywood lounge star Korla Pandit, for example, who successfully posed as an India-born virtuoso, was discovered only after his death in fact to have been black/American-born. It was not uncommon for stage entertainers to reinvent themselves after fictive conceptions of Indian mysticism, assuming flamboyant guises as “Hindoos” and religious fakirs, swamis, and yogis, while others repurposed Oriental styles in strategic acts of passing, appropriating the turban as a subversive symbol of racial hybridity and ethnic boundary-crossing. The audacious pretense of racial and religious imposters was an open secret among early twentieth century storefront Voodoo spiritualists and fortunetellers; and for many others, the allure of the turban was too good to pass up. Imaginary figurations of East Indian costumes and rituals, spurious as they were, impressed African American Conjure merchants, who blurred the lines between spectacle and subterfuge in their promotion of magical products and supernatural commodities, like so many fabulous fakes. Yet and still, flagrant borrowing, plagiarism, and outright theft was considered de rigueur, consistent with the ways of trickery and illusion that became part and parcel of the commercial branding of African American occultism, including what Katrina Hazzard-Donald calls “marketeered Hoodoo.” Nevertheless, as a preferred mode of adornment for black males in vernacular sacred traditions, the popularity of the turban underscores the flexibility with which presentations of race, identity, and culture were defined and redefined by those who were seemingly unbothered by mundane questions of doctrinal purity.
The vitality of the fez and the turban as meaningful attire reminds us of how religion can be embodied in ways that render theologies legible for those who are able to see and comprehend them. As African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century forged collective agendas for their advancement by engaging in vigorous political and social debate, we should never forget that their perspectives were embedded within a wide spectrum of spiritual views and visions. Their ways of dressing the head may be rightly understood as inspired acts of self-expression. By the end of the century, many of these black male leaders and performers would be consigned to obscurity, and African Americans would continue to wrestle with the implications of nationalism, masculinity, and the meanings of blackness in an emerging post-colonial age, in which romantic racial mythologies and religious parochialism were often at odds with the norms of secular discourse and the subjective ethics of identity. Earnest participants in conversations about the future, black males often donned hats to make individual statements of personal conscience. And so, in the wearing, their hats were talismanic, evocative, emphatic. They invite us to consider other sartorial trends within black religion, not only from the familiar realms of the Christian faith, but also in Islam, Judaism, occultism, and the myriad branches of African tradition in the diaspora and beyond. Well, then. Hats off to both the fez and the turban, and the depiction of these fine accessories enjoyed by so many black men, worn in relentless service to their race, their religions, and their implacable devotion to the elevation of a people.