Black Theology and Black Power, 50th Anniversary Edition
Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian
Joshua R. Canada is Director of Strategic Partnerships in the College of Liberal Arts, Azusa Pacific University.
On April 28, 2018, society lost one of its premier scholars. At age 79, James Cone, a central figure in the development of Black liberation theology, went on to glory. Cone’s 1969 book, Black Theology and Black Power, became a seminal text in religious studies, theological studies, and ethnic studies, as well as for scholars seeking to look seriously at the impacts of racism on society and religion. This dual book review will hone in on the racial Blackness1 of Cone’s theology in Black Theology and Black Power and in Cone’s posthumously published memoir, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian. This focus on racial Blackness is not to negate other usages of Blackness as a proxy for marginalized peoples, but to reinforce that Cone’s contextualized theology has relevance to the welfare of contemporary Black people. After providing an overview of both books, I will provide a short challenge to Cone’s work and a discussion of how Black liberation theology and Black power should transform Christian Higher Education.
Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody
In chapter 1 of Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Cone is introduced as a professor at Adrian College, a predominately White college in Detroit. It was 1967, and Detroit was embroiled in its rebellion known as the 12th Street Riot. The faculty and administration of Adrian were virtually silent about what was occurring in the Black community, and Cone became disillusioned with their indifference. Cone states he began to publicly use the phrase “Black theology” in an address at Colgate College in 1968. Later that year, Cone found himself angered at White liberal passivity after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. King’s assassination catalyzed Cone to flee the White academic establishment. He moved home to Arkansas, took physical solace in the Black community of his childhood, and immersed himself in Black music as a consolation. In this milieu, Cone was galvanized by Black culture and the historic and revolutionary ideals of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) tradition and its founders Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, who opposed racial subjugation within the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). The Black habitus2 of his home community nurtured Black Theology and Black Power into existence.
Cone followed this volume with A Black Theology of Liberation (Lippincott, 1970), which furthered his new theological perspective toward a systematic theology that was intentionally Black and drew more deeply from the works of Malcom X and an alignment with the liberative message of the Christian scriptures. While writing, Cone often retreated to his “blue room” (65) and meditated on the blues, jazz, spirituals, and other works elevating the “spirit of Blackness” (65). Cone’s doggedness in his explicit Blackness intended to make the point that White theologians implicitly drew from their culture and norms, but in not making that influence explicit they normalized their theology and thus retained power and control over a theological metanarrative that subjugated Black people.
Chapters 4 and 5 of Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody highlight Cone’s response to criticisms of his work by those in the Black intellectual community, particularly Black religion scholars, Black humanists, and Womanist theologians. Cone’s commitment to both Christianity and Black power is clear in his willingness to expand his perspective and defend the Christian faith. Chapter 6 focuses on the development of The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2011), the magnum opus of Cone’s work. Cone’s exegesis of the Black experience highlighted the psychological importance of Black people’s having a savior, from the perspective of a systemically oppressed group who overcame an instrument of oppression as spiritual fodder to fight against White supremacy.
Cone closes the book with a poignant reflection on James Baldwin. Baldwin provided Cone a marriage of the “fire of blackness like Malcom and the passion of love like Martin” (149). Baldwin did not acquiesce to White supremacy, yet his doggedness was done with an overwhelming compassion for society and a deep desire to live an authentically Christian life. This equipoise is what Cone valued about the melancholy of jazz, the blues, and the entire Black aesthetic. It is the paradox of the cross that is central to Cone’s theological work.
Black Theology and Black Power
With the context of Cone’s personal journey as a Black scholar that is provided in Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Black Theology and Black Power reads as a much more intimate theology. Cone views society as holistically and comprehensively active in the oppression of Black people, and thus articulations of Black power and Black theology are ways to stand in opposition to that oppression. Cone posits, “The task of theology [is] to show what the changeless gospel means in each new situation” (35). To Cone, the gospel is about liberation. Jesus identifies with and seeks to liberate the oppressed from principalities and powers, which in the context of the United States means liberating Black people from White supremacy.
In chapters 3 and 4, Cone delves more deeply into the relationship between the church (both Black and White) and Black power. Cone understands the relationship of the church as defined by the functions of “proclaiming the message of the gospel (kerygma) by rendering services of liberation (diakonia), and being itself a manifestation of the nature of the new society (koinonia)” (80). To Cone, the White church fails in all of these areas and is complicit with systems and structures that work in opposition to the gospel.
Cone is more sympathetic toward the Black church, but he is critical of their passivity toward Black oppression. He delineates between the pre- and post-Civil War Black church. While the pre-Civil War Black church had a teleology aimed toward liberation, the post-Civil War Black church developed performances, structures, and systems that were mimetic of White counterparts and thus lacking a theology of liberation for Black peoples.
Cone concludes Black Theology and Black Power by presenting the eschatological perspective of Black theology, which “mean[s] joining the world and making it what it ought to be. It means that the Christian man looks to the future not for reward or possible punishment of evildoers, but as a means of making him dissatisfied with the present” (142). While Cone believed White people may be sympathetic to the plight of Black people, he ultimately concluded that White people believed their plight was more important and therefore that their love of neighbor and willingness to change were limited by their desire to maintain power and the status quo. Cone’s eschatological vision for Black theology is a restoration of wholeness for Black peoples on their own terms and not according to the will or wishes of White people and Whiteness.
While reading his memoir, it is easy to forget that you are not having a verbal conversation with Cone. The ease of his language and honesty in his expressions evokes a grandfatherly feel. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody is not attempting to prove anything about Cone’s theology—if you are staunchly opposed to Black liberation theology you will probably remain so, but you will hopefully better understand its relevance. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody provides personal, and at times vulnerable, insight into the scholar whose life work, beginning with Black Theology and Black Power, was to engage in theology “as faith seeking understanding”3 within the context of Black dehumanization in the United States.
Throughout both texts, Cone posits that it is impossible to have a reconciled relationship with someone who believes you to be only partly human, even if that belief is unconscious. However, Cone’s position leaves one with the questions: When is reconciliation allowed to begin? Moreover, can reconciliation only begin after one is liberated? The Christian scriptures mention that God is “reconciling” God’s self to the world (II Corinthians 5:19). This does not suggest that creation is currently in right relationship with God, but that God is working to move the relationship in that direction. J. Deotis Roberts’s articulation of Black Liberation theology is more robust in this way.4 To Roberts, reconciliation occurs alongside liberation, not apart from it or afterward. Where Roberts, Cone, and I agree is that reconciliation between humans must occur among parties that are equal. Reconciliation cannot occur within a perpetually unjust milieu.
Cone’s theology does not advocate violence, but he is careful to not condemn Black uprisings. Cone argues that violence is and has been a reality for Black people throughout their history in the United States. Any response of violence from Black people must be understood in this preexisting context. Cone’s point is important to take seriously. As women and men who have not been fully part of the state (that is, chattel, 3/5 a person, subordinate, terrorists, and perpetual threats), racial Blackness has constantly been in a war against the state. During warfare, most (though not all) Christians justify violence as a method of preventing more violence or gaining freedom from oppression (for example, for White colonists, the Revolutionary War was considered an act of liberation from British oppression). In the context of a war against racial Blackness, there is credence in understanding Black violence as a method of just war (at least for those Christians who do not fully subscribe to non-violence).
At times, Cone’s reliance on German intellectual thought makes Black Theology and Black Power too theologically myopic. By contrast, Major Jones’s expression of Black liberation theology utilizes Christus Victor to support his arguments.5 Contextualized to Blackness, Jones interprets Christus Victor as Black victory over White supremacy. Cone’s lack of engagement with Christus Victor (apart from a quick reference to Gustaf Aulén) is unfortunate, because the defeat of sin via defeating the cross correlates with the defeat of White supremacy via defeating the lynching tree. An engagement with other Black liberation theologies that emerged alongside his would have made Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody and Cone’s theology more dynamic and complete.
A Black Power Challenge to the White Theology of Christian Higher Education
Cone’s works do not directly address higher education; however, he viewed religious colleges and universities as extensions of the church and therefore complicit with White supremacy. Cone’s articulation of Black theology and advocacy for Black power should serve as a contemporary challenge to the status of Christian Higher Education (CHE). Cone argues that to be Christian is to be anti-racist, because racism seeks to denigrate the worth of persons. I contextualize this perspective to contemporary CHE by arguing that CHE must be actively anti-racist and not simply honor diversity or have statements about diversity. CHE colleges and universities must excavate their cultures to expose the tacit White normativity and White supremacy, what Diane Lynn Gusa names as the White Institutional Presence that shapes them.6
Cone’s Black Theology is about Black people, but his framework is applicable to all marginalized persons. That said, while my comments about CHE will focus on Black peoples, I do not discount the experiences of other peoples of color as they relate to CHE. Rather, I am intentionally honing in on the particular relationship between CHE and Black students, faculty, staff, and the Black church.
Cone does not suggest either that the answer to racism is individual kindness or that justice for Black people requires injustice for White people. Rather, because White supremacy is sin and because the White church and White Christianity are rooted in White supremacy, Black dignity is liberating for Black people, White people, and society at large. Therefore, to be anti-racist, Christian higher education should intentionally and sacrificially create culturally relevant climates for Black students, staff, and faculty and commit resources to do so.
For CHE institutions, this can mean focused and strategic hiring practices that are race-conscious. It also means evaluating positive bias toward White-dominant journals and conferences and negative bias toward more racially diverse or racially-focused academic outlets in the tenure and promotion process. Curricularly, this means funding Black and Ethnic Studies programs with the same fervor that institutions fund Honors Programs, which are generally White-dominant and Eurocentric in student and faculty composition and content. Research in student success shows that empowering cultural relevance, including Blackness, has positive repercussions for all students.7
This intentional Blackness also means pointed efforts to add Black women and men on the boards of institutions. This cannot be symbolic. These board members need to know and use their influence to change and shape the future of CHE. Changes cannot be superficial, they must deeply affect the practices, policies, and culture of the institution. Moreover, it means examining the relationships which the institution sees as formative for their values and identity and making efforts to engage in equitable relationships and partnerships with predominately Black organizations such as expressions of the Black church. These relationships cannot be oriented toward student enrollment; they should seek to deepen the value of Blackness within the institution’s culture.
Key questions still remain, supported by Cone’s own scholarly development through the Black church tradition, the Black cultural aesthetic, and his relationships with Black academic mentors such as C. Eric Lincoln. First, can there be substantial Black habitus—spaces that bolster Black identity—in the midst of the White institutional presence expressed by CHE institutions? In regard to the composition, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) institutions, for example, are abysmally unequipped to cultivate a Black habitus. In 2015, 3.57% of CCCU faculty identified as Black or African American. In contrast, 11.37% of students identified as Black or African American.8 Second, what milieu is CCCU higher education bringing Black students into? Are Black students truly able to thrive and experience a robust community without a critical mass of Black scholars? As the numbers stand, at some CCCU institutions a Black undergraduate student will likely graduate without having class with a Black professor. Dominantly White institutions take for granted that a community of White scholars that constantly reinforces the community of White students.9 It is not that race does not matter for White students or White faculty members, it is that their privilege allows them to not consider why and how it matters. While CHE is broader than the CCCU, as an example these numbers should be disturbing.
Another key question: Is CHE necessarily White? Leaders in CHE look to Nicholas Wolterstorff, Mark Noll, George Marsden, Arthur Holmes, and other White male scholars to define and shape the meaning and purpose of CHE, but rarely does CHE explore Black scholars and higher education leaders such as Benjamin Mays, Charles Godwin Carter, Cornel West, or Cain Hope Felder.10 There is nothing substantively wrong about the former group of White male scholars, but their framework and subject matter is contextualized to White Christianity and historically White higher education. Their voices are important and should remain influential, but not in absence of Black scholars (and other scholars of color, both women and men) who have insight into the mission and purpose of CHE.
Finally, organizations that gather religious higher education institutions rarely include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). While the small Lutheran college in rural mid-America is considered an important expression of religious higher education, tacitly the small AME college in rural South Carolina is not. We must reflexively ask if the current understanding of CHE is only inclusive of historically and contemporarily White colleges and universities.11 I hope many would shudder at that suggestion, but unfortunately the status of CHE institutions and the conversations among them lend evidence that this suggestion is true. Some CHE institutions have the desire to be more diverse and inclusive, but I question whether they have made the effort to expand their network or explore the elements of their culture that are exclusive. To be anti-racist academic communities, CHE institutions (and the collectives to which they belong) must deconstruct the existing power structures, change their faculty and leadership composition, reassess cultural norms, and expand ideologies to be unashamedly pro-Black.
James H. Cone was, is, and will remain a towering figure in academic theology. Even those who do not fully subscribe to his Black theological perspective have been shaped by his ushering in a deeper level of contextual theology. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody is a testimony to why this theology is important. Cone was not participating in intellectual intrigue. His academic work intended to open new paradigms of hope for Christians and Christian theology. Racism and White supremacy are utterly incompatible with the Christian faith, yet racism is deeply interwoven in the fabric of the United States. Cone’s Black liberation theology is not exultant or an easily digestible theology, yet it is hopeful because it is an attempt to deracinate racism and White supremacy from the roots of Christianity in the United States. For Christian Higher Education, this liberation must be of paramount concern.
Cite this article
- Cone did not use “racial” as a preface before Blackness, but for clarity in this review I will use “racial Blackness” when discussing Black identity and “Blackness” when speaking to the oppressed status that Black people operate under but that is proxy for marginalization of any group.
- Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
- Anselm of Canterbury, “Proslogion,” trans. M. J. Charlesworth, in The Major Works, eds. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87.
- See James Deotis Roberts, Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971).
- Major J. Jones, Christian Ethics for Black Theology: The Politics of Liberation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974).
- Diane Lynn Gusa, “White Institutional Presence: The Impact of Whiteness on Campus Climate,” Harvard Educational Review 80 (2010): 464–490.
- See Laurie A. Schreiner, “The ‘Thriving Quotient’: A New Vision for Student Success,” About Campus 15 (2010): 2–10; Kristin Paredes-Collins, “The Intersection of Race and Spirituality at Faith-based Colleges: Campus Climate as a Predictor of Spiritual Development,” Ph.D. diss., Azusa Pacific University, 2011; Samuel D. Museus, Varaxy Yi, and Natasha Saelua, “The Impact of Culturally Engaging Campus Environments on Sense of Belonging,” The Review of Higher Education 40 (2017): 187–215; and Daryl G. Smith, Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).
- Nita Stemmler, personal communication and unpublished raw data, March 24, 2018.
- Christopher S. Collins and Alexander Jun, White Out: Understanding White Privilege and Dominance in the Modern Age (New York: Peter Lang, 2017).
- I recognize my own limitation in that these are all male references.
- By “CHE” I do not only mean members or affiliates of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, but rather that larger group of institutions that hold to a Christian identity.