“On Hoods and Hoodies: A Theological Reflection on Clerical Hoods, KKK Hoods and the Hoodie”

3 04 2012

Trayvon Martin

 Over the past month I have heard numerous stories/versions of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old young man who was murdered walking back to the home of his father’s girlfriend unarmed. His death was shocking, sudden and a great source of outrage and anger to the African-American and American community at large.

Over one month later, his death is still sending shockwaves of cries for justice against his murderer, George Zimmerman, who after claiming shooting Martin to death out of self-defense that night in February, has been free ever since.

I, too, was shocked and angered. The conditions of Martin’s death and the details surrounding it are cloudy and sinister. Police reports failing to document the entire truth, differing neighboring witness accounts (from women and a young boy) and controversial statements being made about Zimmerman’s and Martin’s moral credibility further complicate how to receive this tragedy.

I have read something about Martin almost every day since I first heard the tragic news, but what I have been waiting for I do not think I have received yet: an in depth look at what clothing means and what messages they convey in the church. From a Christian standpoint, clothing is important as it conveys a particular message of sanctity or damnation. Clothing can do the work of distinguishing the holy person from the average person or even the blessed person from the cursed person. Clothing speaks a language all its own.

I wonder if the language of clothing can this be applied in this case as well. I hope to explore this a bit more and ask questions not only about the social implications of clothing, but also the theological implications as well as I believe that a deep, rich theological account of the symbolism present in this story could open up conversation about aesthetics in general. And hopefully this conversation can permeate the church with as much force as the tragic death of Trayvon Martin has.

A few days ago I heard Geraldo Rivera’s interview about the socio-aesthetic implications of the hoodie on young men, and read his subsequent apology, but I have not heard a theological reading of what this charged moment intertwining justice, death, and social implications was “wearing”: the hoodie. I myself do not have the time to offer an account that does this vast topic justice, but I wish to offer some reflections concerning the heavy meaning held within the (frame)work that the hoodie is (living within and) doing on both its wearer and its viewer in relation to their sanctity or guiltiness.

But before I think out loud through this post, I want to offer the disclaimer that I hope these reflections are not simply an exercise in “intellectual bandwagonning.” My purpose is not to exploit Trayvon’s death in order to further my thoughts or name. I do not want to “jump in on this” in order to give my two cents, sound important and never think about this again. I want to think further about this – what clothes do to and for people politically, socially and religiously. Please think with me as the only thing I have to offer comes from my perspective; but we all know that the world is so much bigger than myself!

Talking to one of my good colleagues/peers, Nathan Walton, about the strangeness of the hood/y/ie, last week, I could not help but wonder about the connection that what we wear on our bodies determines not only our reception in society, our jobs, schools and places of worship, but that what we wear has a strong affiliation with our longevity; what we wear, in a sense, can determine how long we can “live.” Our clothing becomes our timetable based on other’s perceptions of our self/being.

The hood and the hoodie both speak a particular and peculiar message, but often this message is read on multiple levels, whether the wearer intends for it to be or not. Although this blog and subsequent research are not research-extensive by any means, just observatory and experiential, I want to offer my thoughts on the significance of the clerical hood, the head covering of the Klu Klux Klan, as well as the hooded sweatshirt or hoodie. Clothing serves a number of purposes, a few of which I hope to examine more closely. I think it best to dive right in.

In thinking about these three forms of head-covering I asked myself, “What do hoods do?” Thinking through the function and work of hoods, I argue that hoods do three particular things. Hoods serve as a form of protection, a means of covering or altering one’s visibility, and a means of representation (including a form of expression and/or fashion). All three of these functions help determine the validity or falsity of the person wearing it.

Clerical Hoods

It is best to examine how these actions work out in all three forms of the hood individually, so I being with the clerical hood. In his work, Historic Dress of the Clergy George S. Tyack the first form of head-covering came in 1243 when the monks of Canterbury were allowed to wear almuces (“a tippet and hood lined with fur”) while saying their offices (40). The color of the fur lining the almuce became an indication of one’s function: the inferior clergy and monks had hoods lined with dark colored fur, silver-grey (the more expensive) fur signaled the “higher dignitaries” (40). In the 14th century, almuces became more commonly worn by laymen as they “discarded its use” and it became “an ecclesiastical dress, which in its origin and nature was not specially connected with the Church” (41). The hood transitioned from a sign of clerical office to a normative form of dress, but it may not have been solely a fashion move. Tyack reminds the reader of the conditions of (technological advancement at) the time as “…nothing was done to warm the churches…” and “…wooden shutters were the sole protection in the clerestory windows against the wind, rain, or snow” (41).

In Church Vestments: Their Origin and Developments Herbert Norris furthers the function of fur found within the hood explaining that before long the fur became exteriorized displaying the luxury and status of the clergy (174). The exterior of the hood named a new emerging reality where fashion would soon play a part. He states, “No longer was the erstwhile outer cloth [of the almuce] of sober black, now that it was a lining to the fur; rich fabrics and gay colours were used instead” (174). In the 15th century the fur-lined hood draped around the neck became a more popular ornamental innovation and the hood disappeared entirely (175-176).

I give this abbreviated background to signal the multi-functionality of the hood, or almuce, in Christian religious institutions. Not only did the hood function as protection from the elemental conditions of the weather, but it also morphed into representational purposes outside of clerical function. But it also plays with the notion of social visibility and invisibility. It soon became a marker of class distinction through decorative means. It became a fashion statement at the same time as it became a class marker. In this way, it could serve the function of distinction in obvious and subtle ways. It showed one’s office but also one’s economic importance. Clerical clothing bought into categories of separation and segregation, it signaled the “haves” from the “have nots” and the distinguished from the insignificant.

I would like to venture one step further. I believe that the almuce (hood) created perception as well as determined perception of others. It served as commentary signaling that the church’s internalized mentality through social indicators linked directly with their clothing. Perhaps the church reflected societal practice and standards in marking distinction with, not clothing itself, but the message that clothing type and quality designated ones worth, one’s sanctity or a lack thereof. Keep this in mind, as I believe this is extremely important.

The Klu Klux Klan

In his work, The Fiery Cross, Wyn Craig Wade argues that the Klu Klux Klan’s emerged initially as a club around the time of the Reconstruction in America as a defensive response against, “the radical legislation calling for the ‘the social and political emasculation’ of Southern whites…” (31-33) The mysteriousness of its name would be culminated in its dress as the first members dressed in sheets and pillow cases parading around town much to the puzzlement of the local people in their town (33).

They wanted “…elaborate and menacing costumes…” with ambiguous symbols coating them. Lofty cone-shaped hats concealed their heads and they soon punched out eye-holes for vision. The height of these hats were exaggerated to compliment their mysteriously outrageous loosely-fitting white outfit (33-34). Initially a club of practical jokers, the Klan soon turned its energy towards “emancipated blacks as a new course of butts for their practical jokes.” (35) But as it spread with great popularity, soon the Black target was no longer the victim of jokes, but profiling and great psychological and physical victimization (36).

According to http://kkk.org/, the functionality of the hood for the “ghosts of the Confederate dead” as they were known (35), serves different purposes, mainly as a tactic of intimidation, anonymity and representation. Primarily a tool of intimidation and fear towards Blacks, the KKK (as they are called), often communally dress in long white hooded robes. It is the threat of anonymity that works particularly well here for the KKK as the person(s) being threatened, harassed or attacked will not be able to identify their assailant.

The website reports that participants may not want to have been so easily identified as, “The membership included businessmen and men of the cloth, police officers and high ranking officials. Fearing their reputations may be tarnished by open support for white supremacy and the KKK, these members could conceal their identities by wearing the KKK hoods during rallies and other activities.” This may have been the case due to the questioning of the legality of their actions.

The white hood with a conical shape specifically emerged around the 1920s. Around this time as well different colored robes (including the hoods) emerged noting special designation and ranking within the larger organization.

The history of the KKK hood is an interesting one. Unlike the initial function of clerical robes, the KKK hood maintains a different sort of protection, a social protection. Worn with no intention to offer protection from the weather, the hood’s main function is towards anonymity. This connects quite well to the notion of visibility. The genius of the KKK hooded robe was the fact that it allowed visibility and invisibility in the same breath. Wearing hoods, the identities of its members are not immediately known by its victim, but the Klan as a whole is quite visible (this seen most clearly in the brightness of their robe). The function of the hooded robe is to initiate fear in the communities the KKK found bothersome and/or threatening. And this fear occurred through the masked face of the assailant and the communal presence of a sea of white. This sea is quite important as it highlights a notion of representation. As a community, the KKK is invisibly visible. They are seen only in the way they want to be seen, as a unit, as a people with particular values and goals with which to achieve those values.

I would suggest that the KKK hood functions much like the clerical hood. It communicates a means of designation and separation. It represents a people and their core values. It serves as religious garb making their actions and work, “sacred.” Their dress alone invokes religious support as many were Christians (some leadership within their church). In other words I want to argue that since the KKK believes that what they were doing is validated as an act of purifying America, that this “religious action” is, in turn, “valid” – for example cross burning and clergy participation within the organization. The hood then designates purity value. Those wearing the hood are on the right side of the pious fight, and those on the other side, damned. Unlike the clerical hood, the KKK hood’s functionality weaves into itself. It is serving all three functions at the same time protecting itself (and America) from certain peoples, through masked identity it designates borders of visibility through invisibility, and it serves as a representational caucus.

The Hoodie

Lastly, this leads me to ask the function of the hoodie. What work does the hoodie do concerning Black American youth? What role did Trayvon’s hoodie play in his death? What is it about a hoodie on a Black body that automatically announces it as “suspicious”…“up to no good”…and “on drugs”? I want to suggest that the hoodie also functions in three manners like the clerical and KKK hood, but first I want to examine the implications of particular types of clothing on Black bodies.

In her work, Slaves to Fashion, Monica Miller argues that, “The history of black dandyism in the Atlantic diaspora is the story of how and why black people became arbiters of style and how they use clothing and dress to define their identity in different and changing political and cultural contexts.” (1) She defines dandyism is playing up a particular situation through clothing. Clothing serves as a means of changing or perhaps refashioning identity. She asks, “How has the representation of black people been transformed from images of dandified “luxury” slavery to that of self-fashioning black dandies whose likenesses are now ubiquitous on the stage and on the streets?” (1) In other words, are pieces of clothing carrying with it a message that the Black body has carried from slavery into the present? What is the hoodie doing for Trayvon Martin? Is it setting him back in a way? Rivera seemed to think so.

Taking a step back, my initial thought of the hoodie’s purpose is purely representational through fashion. It is an identity marker naming the wearer as one who is abreast on modern culture. In wearing it, they are making a fashion statement, not particularly tied to race, but tied to time period. The hoodie signifies youth culture; worn by rural, suburban and urban youth alike, it presents to society a statement that the wearer wears what they want, that they can fashion their own look amidst the continuous images of sophisticated fashion.

But I do not want to ignore Miller’s points. Maybe there’s something deeper here. How the Black body dresses itself may be dictated by an image of the past that the Black community may not be aware of today. Perhaps Black fashion is the result of a ghost, the haunting of Southern slave society. Perhaps it is a performative. Maybe it is both. Miller suggests that, “Stylin’ out, like any performative act, needs an actor and an audience; the audience can be anything from oneself in a mirror to fellow strollers on Harlem’s 125th Street to the international media. The messages sent out by the black well-dressed must be interpreted by their viewers; black dandyism takes on meaning as black style communicates moments of mobility and fixity, depending on who is looking.” (3)

Fashion requires an audience. Whether it is being “well-dressed” or following an urban image, the dress of the Black male is really important. It says something not only about communal perception but individual identity (3). I think that this is right. Like the clerical hood and the KKK hood, the hoodie is also doing some important sanctifying work. It is justifying a particular type of existence. It is validation of cultural expression. It says, “I represent my culture because I wear my culture.” Part of the sanctifying work that the hoodie does is performative, yes, but I argue that it performs a measure of redemption. The wearer is proud of their culture. They want to redeem the image the hoodie has produced so they wear it in order to make a fashion and cultural statement. The hoodie for the Black youth demonstrates a sort of pride – that you are proud to wear and even desire to represent your generation. It is a symbol of courage to represent a culture you were raised in. The hoodie is representational.

But the hoodie can also be protective. Specifically in the case of Trayvon Martin, the hoodie was protective in two measures. For Martin, his hoodie may have served as a means to protect himself from the elements. (For Rivera, I guess the hoodie would be justified in this case!) That night, Zimmerman denotes that it was raining. The hoodie literally served as protection from the elements.

But the hoodie also served as a safety measure through concealment. Martin’s girlfriend said that Martin put his hoodie on after seeing that Zimmerman was following him. Unlike the KKK, Martin’s means of concealment was not to protect himself. In order to shake Zimmerman, Martin conceals his head and proceeds to walk faster, and then run.

But what did Zimmerman see? Just the hoodie? I am not so sure of this. I want to suggest that Zimmerman saw Martin as suspicious because of the combination of this hood and skin tone. He identified Martin as a Black man in his late teens. In his 911 call, he identifies Martin as Black twice and in his description of Martin’s clothing, wearing a gray hoodie. Martin’s skin color was the first indicator of suspicion, but his clothing signaled something tragic. Trayvon Martin was not seen per se, but a Black suspicious teen who “always gets away.” His being in a hoodie subsumed his blackness. He was not only a Black male. He was a Black male wearing a hoodie further naming him young and thus affiliated with crime. In that moment the hoodie that Martin was wearing represented “a people,” the ones who always got away. Martin died that night because of who he was and what he was wearing – Black and Black dress. That was enough to convict him as one of those who broke into Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Martin’s death was only partially caused by his hoodie as it put an accent on a bigger perception of Black existence and location. Martin was Black. Martin was wearing a hoodie. Therefore Martin was out of place. Martin did not belong in that neighborhood. Martin must have been up to no good. Martin was perceived as a trespasser. And perceived trespassers have no protection, even if they are actually the ones being trespassed against.

Theological Wonderings

Hoods and hoodies all function on three levels, but I want to argue that in the case of Trayvon Martin, the perceived hood’s “functionality” of protection, determining visibility and representation are precisely the factors that led to his death. Martin’s hoodie sparked within Zimmerman an urge to protect his neighborhood and himself from any more robberies, it magnified Martin’s “visibility” to Zimmerman, and it placed Martin within categorical existence of/representation of the criminal, the hoodlum, the thug. Martin’s clothing played a role in his death only because of Zimmerman’s social conditioning to see Martin and his clothing together as a threat of death: social death, the death of safety and order and physical/actual death. (See Abdul JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound-Subject) Martin’s clothing signals the real killer, Zimmerman’s social edifice of prejudice.

The scary thing is, even if Zimmerman is not in a church, the mindset is. And this mindset kills.

The whole Trayvon Martin case makes me wonder about the role clothing plays in determining one’s sanctity, where they are allowed to be, and whether they are allowed to live/exist – as they are all connected. Are Christian churches engaging in this, performing this aesthetic theology, without realizing it or perhaps without caring what implications it may have for the body of Christ?

Martin’s death begs the question, what makes a body holy or unholy, beyond clothing even? What practices do we operate within that name certain bodies, peoples and aesthetics pure or impure? Why do we live into, endorse and revive these practices? Is Christ enough in someone or does clothing name Christ’s presence? What does Christ have to wear, to look like to suit our needs? What does Christ have to look like for us to feel safe in church, at home, in our communities, in society at large?

What about bodies cause us to dislike, move away from, separate from, segregate from and hate the bodies of others, even others within “our own”?

Trayvon’s Martin’s death highlights a huge problem about how we dress, and receive the dress and thus efficacy and intentions of bodies. But I want to push further because I believe there is a deeper tragedy going on about bodies, and this tragedy is certainly played out well and subtly within the body of Christ, within the Christian church.

Bodies are separated, but they are separated because they are attached to particular and separate beings. The being affiliated with the body makes the body mean something good or bad. The way of being, the way of life, the struggle, the success, the way to maneuver anything we are faced with is tied directly to our bodies.

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin has brought out something interesting to me: in Black churches, wearing hoodies to church is deemed just and holy when affiliated with a movement, but not otherwise. The dress of Black youth seems to be tolerated until they “mature,” “come to their senses” and “learn to dress properly.” In White churches, it is popular to pray for the people involved in the “tragic” Martin case but not adjust how church life is done in order to get to know those who are profiled by and feel displaced among the majority, for “getting to know” others first means “getting rid of” parts of yourself which steer people away from your church – and this is hard, a little too hard. Welcome is sacrificial work and for some reason, the church is not willing to sacrifice anymore. Sacrifice and welcome first involve giving up personal preference to make church feel safe for the person you hope to welcome and prayerfully become church with you. But again, it is hard work.

Many churches will argue that welcoming people unlike us is actually impossible. It is too hard to learn newer, more complicated music. Or it is too hard to sing softly or loudly. It is too hard to give up our “nuanced,” (read: cultural) way of worshipping so that others can feel fully present and have their “nuanced” ways of worshipping too. Separation just seems better (read: easier) for “all of us.”

Unfortunately, church has become about how we “do it” as opposed to how God is doing it. And the hoodie reveals this! Clothing is making a prophetic statement to the church to change its ways of existing and knowing and reading and receiving others’ existence. The hoodie screams do not call profane what God has called clean, for the wearer could be a child of God.

I am sure that you are wondering how I am able to directly link Zimmerman’s actions to the church as a whole. For me, it is about aesthetic (and thus righteous) profiling. It is obvious with Martin’s death that there is some “work” going on with clothing and who the clothing is covering. Honestly, the sad thing is that Trayvon would have looked suspicious to anyone, Hispanic, White or Black, because for some reason the body of Christ has let clothing like a hoodie, sagging jeans, and sneakers name a person dangerous. Anyone in that dress automatically becomes labeled: 1) a Black thug or 2) a young thug. Either way, they are a thug and thuggishness is affiliated with urban life and urbanness, blackness. Trayvon had both his skin color and his age working against him. He did not have to say a word; his clothing was the first voice to announce that he was both young and Black, and that that combination certainly could not be trusted. He had to be up to no good. What could have been to Martin, a fashion statement and preferential state of dress turned out to be the target sign on his back. He did not/did look a certain way, and thus he was immediately named “bad.”

This is a church problem because unfortunately profiling does not stop at the church door, because people do not stop at the church door. People carry ideas; ideas do not carry themselves. Ideas are weaved into our church life and practice and often the labels of holiness are attached to them – ideas exist distinctly in worship’s words and are dressed in spiritual language. Now, we have a great excuse to hate others – the Bible says so (or at least this is what the Bible is saying to them!)

Notions of holiness and order and proper behavior codify profiling, prejudice and hate. Societal practice is welcomed in the church more than the outsider is! The young person, the Black person, the whoever has to fit within certain categories of aesthetic existence in order to be deemed non-threatening – to holiness, to safety, to image, to reputation, to whatever.

This is harmful though. This thinking kills. If a younger person cannot express themselves stylistically through their clothing but instead experience limit, hate and disapproval in the church, how is the next Trayvon Martin not sitting in our youth group or after school program? It puzzles me how Martin’s case is able to be fully taken up as a rally for justice by churches who discourage the way he dressed. Are they not operating in the same work of profiling that made Martin a target in the first place?

For me, maybe the solution is for Black and White, for all churches, to pause for a second and think about what we are doing now, what we have “always done,” and what we plan to do after this case dies down. Because it will. And after the case dies down, problems of dress and people affiliated with dress will remain in church as a whole. We need to ask ourselves (and our teenagers and young adults): Will clothing matter to us in new ways? Will bodies under that clothing matter? Will bodies affiliated with particular forms for dress matter? If we cannot answer with great certainty a hearty “yes,” then I suggest putting the signs down and stopping the self-righteous prayer requests. If we do not change our reception of people and their dress, why do the rallies and cries for justice matter? What about the cries for justice within our own churches, communities and homes?

Dear church: This whole thing is as much about us as it is “Justice for Trayvon.”

I suggest that the body of Christ honor Martin, yes, but we must stop the rallies until some serious discussion is taken up on what clothing means for and to us. We need to start asking what their bodies and how they dress their bodies means for their spirituality, then our spirituality and why this is the case. We need to ask which bodies are present, and which are absent, and then ask why. So I will say it again – we need to put down the justice signs and take off the hoodies that we are only wearing because “everyone else is doing something” until we are actually ready to listen to, love, honor and respect those who wear hoodies. If the Trayvon Martin case is just about race, then his death is in vain. His death is about race yes, but it also about what we dress race in, and even the fact that we feel we have a right to dress race in “right/righteous clothing.” Martin’s death is about people being allowed to live, to exist and to be fully present.

I challenge the body of Christ to ask itself, “Would Trayvon be fully a part of this church? Would he be loved for who he is and how he dresses, respected because of his voice and spirit, listened to when he gives great ideas or asks great questions, and cherished because he is comfortable in who he is here?” If the answer is “maybe,” “no” or “I do not know,” then we need to ask God and ourselves “why not?” Then, we need to get to work.

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