KKK Stole Their Hoods & Regalia From African Folk Traditions
Cultural appropriation in America can be audacious. Just look at the Ku Klux Klan
Michael W Twitty
Why do the Ku Klux Klan wear white robes that look like bedsheets? We have been told that this silly uniform used to represent ghosts of the Confederate dead, but that’s not the whole story. The Klan’s hooded masks are one of the most warped cases of cultural appropriation in American history.
Across the Southern Black Belt - named for the extent of cotton cultivation and a black majority - different masking traditions survived the suppression of African cultures and spiritual traditions. From John Canoe in Virginia and North Carolina to Christmas masquerades and Mardi Gras celebrations along the Gulf of Mexico and lower Mississippi Valley, African Americans preserved hooded colorful costumes in imitation of those found along the coasts of West Africa.
Many early Klan members learned these traditions as children growing up among African-Americans. Many original Klansmen were raised by black elders who famously told their charges folktales and stories centered in the early African-American culture. They, as much as their black playmates, feared the revenge of “Raw Head and Bloody Bones”, witches and “the Hairy Man” for disobeying the authority of their caretakers. White children often dressed up along with black children and participated in masquerades - where they saw men dress like women and hide their identities under Spanish moss or animal skins. White children even joined in the revelry by darkening their skin to appear “colored”. All of these traditions would be later used by the early Klan as a way to intimidate African-Americans.
The thought occurred to one man, and others, the possibility of utilizing the new and mysterious organization, to restrain young Negroes who were beginning to run amuck at social conditions, by taking advantages of the Negroes’ superstitious fear of ghosts. It was agreed to give this man’s theory a trial.
Each member was required to provide himself with a mask for the face, with orifices for the eyes and nose; a tall fantastic cardboard head so constructed as to increase the wearer’s apparent height; a gown, or robe, of sufficient length to cover the entire person. No particular color or material were prescribed … each selected what in his judgment would be most hideous and fantastic … these robes added vastly to the grotesque appearance of the assembled Klan.
In the masquerade tradition in West and Central Africa, masqueraders represent ancestral moral authority: they are the dead taking part in the deliberations of the living, going so far as to disguise their voices to represent the return from the spirit world. Masqueraders in this tradition were members of secret societies charged with keeping social order and reminding people of the authority of times past. Crossing or disrespecting the rules was met with intimidation and punishment - usually under double cover of mask and darkness. Violators of the ancestral customs might be whipped or exiled.
The Klan thus incorporated a spectrum of occult language from African traditions to scare, intimidate and harass the formerly enslaved by using a spiritual horror they felt more acutely than others. Their uniforms were colorful, menacing and full of mystical symbols like stars and crosses that were appliquéd onto the fabric. African-Americans were surrounded by war and violence: to them, an inexhaustible amount of negative spiritual energy - embodied by ghosts and other angry dead - surrounded them. The Klansman did their best to exploit their knowledge of those beliefs.
Of all the “mysterious signals” meant to terrorize the black community, none was more salient than the insignia of the encircled cross and the burning cross used to warn and intimidate. The encircled cross, a universal symbol, was embodied in the cultures of the African Atlantic as a cosmogram - the symbol of spiritual power, and the the movement of soul from the land of the living to the dead and back. Archaeologists and anthropologists have found the use of the crossroads symbol across the South and across the African diaspora in the Americas. The Klan’s layering of Christian symbolism onto ancient African religious culture was a horrific omen. To this day, the Klan’s symbol is the encircled cross; their name derives from the Greek word “kuklos”, which means circle, or ring.