Measured by a Hat
The Citizenship Struggles of John Mohammad Ali
By Kritika Agarwal |
MAY 20, 2014
Traveling on the lecture circuit, enlightening the curious American public of “India’s Millions,” or the “Wit and Wisdom of the Far East,” John Mohammad Ali cuts an intriguing figure in this pamphlet from the Redpath Chautauqua Collection.1 Described as the son of the doctor for the Maharaja of Kapurthala, “the Indian Prince whose presence at the World’s Fair in Chicago created so much comment,” the pamphlet paints Ali as the authoritative native informant whose “literary taste” and “desire to impart correct information concerning the country of his birth… induced him to give a part of every year to lecture work.” On the cover, a striking image of Ali adorned in “native costume” and mustache appears in front of popular representations of Indo-Islamic architecture, including the Taj Mahal. Ali, who had arrived to the United States in 1900, and had established a “large business in importing and selling tea and cocoa at wholesale,” naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1921. “Notwithstanding his dark complexion,” the District Court in Detroit, Michigan, declared him a “high-caste Hindu” and a “white person” and, thus, eligible for citizenship. In a time when naturalization was limited to “free white persons” or those of “African nativity of descent,” Ali’s citizenship, like that of several other Indian immigrants at the time, was somewhat of an anomaly.
As Ali toured around the nation, lecturing on the “oddities and absurdities of the Indian social system,” the absurdity that was racial politics and scientific racism in the United States at the time soon caught up with him. After the 1923 Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind that declared that Indians were “not white,” and thus ineligible for citizenship, Ali’s citizenship status was suddenly up for debate. Soon, Ali found himself caught in the middle of an unexpected court battle when Wallace Visscher, U.S. Attorney in Detroit, Michigan, filed a denaturalization suit against him and alleged that Ali had procured his naturalization certificate illegally because not only was Ali not a “free white person,” but that his skin was “unmistakably dark, like other members of his race.” With his citizenship status in jeopardy, in 1925, when the case finally reached trial, Ali disowned his previously recognized status as a “high-caste Hindu” and attempted to recall previous court rulings that had held Indians claiming to be of Afghani and Parsee origin to be white and thus eligible for citizenship.2 Ali claimed that even though he was a native of India, “originally his ancestors were Arabians who invaded the territory now known as India, and settled and remained there,” he had “been careful not to intermarry with the ‘native stock of India’ and… kept their Arabian blood line clear and pure by intermarriage within the family."3
Ali even presented evidence in the court linking his genealogy all the way back to the Prophet Mohammed himself. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, “Features in the hearing in the United States District court of the case of John Mohammed Ali were a family tree extending backward through thirty-one generations to the Prophet himself, the spectacle of a University of Michigan professor measuring a swarty (sic) turbaned head for a sheik’s characteristics and the briefly told story of the petitioner’s love for his British wife.” As noted in the story, at his denaturalization hearing, Ali’s counsel produced a witness, H. H. Bartlett, Professor of Heredity in the school of Psychology in the University of Michigan. In court, Professor Bartlett “testified that Mr. Ali was a descendant of Arabian people who emigrated from Arabia to India, approximately in the Sixteenth Century, and that he believed from facial, cranial, and other physical characteristics, Mr. Ali’s blood line was without a mixture from the rest of the Hindus in Punjab, India.”4 The Professor also “measured Ali’s head in the courtroom and reported to the judge that the head possessed the elongated characteristics of the Arabian sheik. He reported also that Ali was a “white man.” The word “sheik,” he said, was a perversion of the Arabian word “shaikh,” meaning elder or chief.” Ali’s racial performance continued as he spoke in court about his love for his British wife of eighteen years and about his conversion to Christianity. Despite the turban on his head, Ali, perhaps with the same “excellent voice and perfect command of the English language” that he had employed on his lecture circuit, insisted that he had “forsaken the Mohammedan religion” and that his love for his adopted country should not be “measured by a hat."5
The judge, however, did not buy Ali’s or his witness’s testimony. Judge Tuttle admitted that he could not “follow” the argument made by Ali’s defense – “No reason has been suggested, and I can discover none, why the mere fact that the early ancestors of the defendant came to India from Arabia…renders the defendant a white person,” he wrote. Furthermore, applying a visual test, Tuttle wrote, “His skin is certainly not white, but unmistakably dark like that of the other members of his race. He is a native of the continent of Asia, specifically of the country of India, and more specifically of the province of Punjab, the place of the nativity of the alien held, in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind.” Tuttle declared that Ali was not a white person and cancelled his citizenship as having been illegally procured.
1. “Mohammad Ali,” South Asian American Digital Archive, http://www.saada.org/item/20111208-527
2. See In re Balsara, 1910, and U.S. v. Dolla, 1910, for example.
3. United States v. Ali, 7 F.2d 728, 1925.
4. Wallace Visscher, Assistant U.S. Attorney, to the Attorney General, March 5, 1925. File 38-636. Records of the U.S. Department of Justice. RG 60, (National Archives, College Park, MD).
5. “Prophet Heads His Ancestors,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 11, 1925.
Kritika Agarwal is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). She is currently working on her dissertation titled, “Uncertain Citizenship: Asian Americans and Denationalization in Twentieth Century United States.” She can be reached at email@example.com.