The symbolic Revival turban
In 1858-59, a great Christian revival, known as The Prayer Meeting Revival, swept across continental United States and the British Isles. Tony Cauchi, writing online, says, "The results of this revival were filled churches, transformed lives, missionary expansion, evangelistic passion, philanthropic growth and a massive revitalisation of the universal church. It was extraordinary, even in Jamaica!"
The fervour spread, 1860-61, to Jamaica, where enslaved Africans were emancipated in 1838. The Africans who came here with their own religious perspectives and practices were prohibited from carrying out their spiritual rituals on the plantations. But suppression didn't mean death.
Conveniently and clandestinely, they retained what they knew, despite attempts to Christianise them. Yet, even after Emancipation, certain practices and rituals were outlawed. So when in 1860 the 'Great Revival' enlivened the religious zeal of white people, the 'newly freed' Africans and their descendants took the opportunity to revive their own spiritual practices under the guise of Christianity, thus the Christian elements and symbolism in their rituals.
Their participation in the Great Revival was so significant that they inadvertently created a 'new' denomination/sect called Revivalism or Zion, which is divided into 60 from 1860, and 61 from 1861. And like other denominations, Revivalism is replete with symbols, which are subject to various interpretations - negative and positive.
The most obvious of the symbols is the uniforms that Revivalists wear. They are easily identifiable, and are embellished with a plethora of equally symbolic paraphernalia. To complement the mostly colourful tunics are turbans, worn by men and women. The turbans gave coinage to the term 'wrap-head church'. But what is the significance of these headpieces that are sometimes artistically arranged?
They are left to different interpretations based on their colour/colours, arrangement, embellishment, and the occasion on which they are worn. Because of this, turbans and their wearer are oftentimes misunderstood, unintentionally evoking fear or resentment. In essence, there is much negative attitude towards Revivalism.
This issue was brought up in a discussion with Linda Edwards, a Jamaican living in Florida for the past 20 years. She had travelled to Watt Town, St Ann, for the first quarterly Zion Headquarters conference recently.
"There is good and bad in everything, and people who don't know you see the turban and they run away from you ... because they don't know .... You can't criticise what you don't know. You got to get into it and know it before you can criticise it," Edwards told Arts & Education, while admitting that some practitioners might be doing things that are not regarded 'clean'.
To Pastor Henry Hunter of Morant Bay, St Thomas, the turban represents many things. He is a long-time Watt Town pilgrim and schoolroom sojourner. He was also in Watt Town for the first quarterly conference. When Arts & Education bumped into him, he was wearing a long, black gown adorned with red and gold cords. His black turban, which he called a diadem, had an Arabian look. A diadem is a type of crown denoting power/authority.
Instructed by 'angels'
Hunter said the colours and styles of the turbans are based on how the wearers are instructed by "angels", and the angels that they are working with. He also pulled a biblical significance when he said, "If yuh go back to the Bible, when Jesus Christ was laid in the sepulchre, they say the napkin that he wore was folded properly and laid aside. This (the turban) is a representation of the napkin that Jesus wore at the time."
It, he said, also represents healing, and, as a diadem, power, and "a spiritual covering of the head". "Because, you see, as servants of God, being faithful to God, we will come under spiritual attack. It's a war that we are in, a spiritual war going on between God Almighty and the Devil," Hunter explained. The turban then is a protection for the head.
University of the West Indies educator and Revival scholar/ researcher, Dr Clinton Hutton, said the Revival turban is coming out of the Revivalists own belief systems, and that the turbans mean different things. The styles, he said, are influenced by those worn in Africa, East India and in biblical times.
Another reason for the style, colour and influence of the turban is to attract a particular type of spirit. In this case, Hutton said, the turban is like an altar, a seal, as it is adorned with objects to induce spiritual possession. In this case, the spirit takes over the head of the wearer until the possession is over.
But amid all of the symbolism, the artistry of the turbans is very important, with wearers skilfully arranging them into eye-catching, if not flamboyant styles. At Watt Town, when Arts & Education visited, there was a myriad turbans, but it was those worn by the men that were most outstanding, as you can see.