Thoughts on and from James H Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, Preface to the 1989 Ed.

Series Note: In this, the final year of my Masters, I'm writing a thesis based around the theology of James H. Cone, the father of Black Theology in the US - and one of my favourite theologians. Because of that I'm going to have to read a bunch of his books. This made me think, why not get a little synergystic and blog through the books of his that I'm reading. Cone is an undervalued theologian, and it is a shame how few people know him or his work. So if I happen, through this, to encourage people to check him out, then that's a win. Today is the first in this new series, beginning with the 1989 Preface to the 1969 work Black Theology and Black Power (Harper & Row, San Francisco). I'm also going to include companions (in forms of songs, readings, films, etc. along the way)...  

“The book was my initial attempt to identify liberation as the heart of the Christian gospel and blackness as the primary mode of God’s presence” vii

The preface hits on this key attempt in its very first paragraph, acknowledged by Cone as one of the strengths of his work in its 1969 context. It would need little tweaking to be applicable as a general statement for the oeuvre of Cone’s body of work. Though it would need some tweaking, as Cone himself acknowledges in this preface (more on that below). Regardless what I see coming to this (having previously read God of the Oppressed and The Cross and the Lynching Tree) is that Cone has committed to arguing for a particular concrete expression of the gospel for nearly 50 years. He may have developed it, honed it, deepened and expanded it, he may shift the superficial focus of the text (such as in The Spirituals and the Blues or Martin and Malcolm) but the kernel of truth that “the poor were created for freedom and not for poverty” (xiv), that God is not the God of white oppressors but of the oppressed, that the Gospel of the Lord is liberation both cosmically and concretely has carried through. It is one of the traits of his work to be most admired, Cone was seized by the truth and the need to set things straight, and he has devoted his energies to doing so time and time again – because time and time again has still yet to be enough.

The preface continues, delving deeper into the context, the challenge of Malcolm X that “Christianity is the white man’s religion”, the racism of white churches and the imitation of their theology and form by so many Black churches. All these forces pique in the question “how can I reconcile Christianity with Black Power”? And within that, another thread that remerges throughout Cone’s work – reconciling both Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea of non-violence and Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’ philosophy. Cone’s acknowledgment in this preface of his attempts to ignore Malcolm X’s critique (due to his allegiance MLK) and his subsequent attempts to perhaps restore Malcolm’s legacy – or at least force Christians (and Americans generally) to take a second look at the most maligned and dismissed Malcolm – is something to be thankful for. It is too easy to, from a cursory understanding of history (as told from above) to create a binary of “oh, King was the good advocate/protestor/Christian and Malcolm was the bad one”. This would be a good moment to introduce the first “suggested companions” that I want to do throughout this series… this is less about the preface and more about the work combined – but Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (which came out the same year as this re-release/preface, 1989) is a good companion to this theme in Cone’s work – along with his work on violence amidst the resistance (which we will come to on a later time).

Huge sidebar here, the relationship between Professor X and Magneto in the X-Men stories always strikes me as a great MLK and Malcolm X parallel, however one which has never been fully explored in the films (don’t come at me if its in the comics I haven’t read them) – also weird that Prof X – who is the MLK ‘type’ is the one with X in the name… ok, this sidebar has gone on way too long…

From here Cone recognises the shift in times and the need for language appropriate to the new situation (always good), however, and this is key, “insofar as racism is still found in the churches and society, theologians and preachers of the Christian gospel must make it unquestionably clear that the God of Moses and of Jesus makes an unqualified solidarity with the victims, empowering them to fight against injustice.” (ix) By the way, in 1989, as Cone acknowledges, the situation has only changed so much and this prophetic word is still needed… by the way, in 2017 the situation has only changed so much and this prophetic word is still needed.

The rest of the preface is Cone’s confession.

I respect the extent of Cone’s acknowledgment throughout this section. I can’t think of lots of other later editions where authors go this deep and broad when it comes to admitting their mistakes. He begins with owning the critique of his “sexist language and patriarchal perspective” (x) and bemoans his blindness to the role of women in the struggle for liberation. His approach to this is interesting though. He has with other works altered sexist and exclusive language, yet here he decides to leave it “as a reminder of how sexist I once was and also that I might be encouraged never to forget it”. This allows him to make an important observation on the way language of oppression can change while the sociopolitical situation of victims can remain. This brought two thoughts to my mind. First, in a to be released interview I did with David Anderson Hooker, he spoke about the issue that can sometimes emerge in the push for reconciliation. The problem is when the process is designed so that we can begin to use the language of “equal”, that we as a society are beginning again as reconciled – which means that past harms and their present consequences can be ignored or brushed over (and so things like reparations or affirmative action can be dismissed, because the language is that of a new reconciled society of equals). The second thing I thought of was the 'alt-right'. Cone writes that “whites have learned how to use less offensive language, but they have not changed the power relations between blacks and whites in the society”. What first came to mind here was the adoption of language and terms such as ‘thug’ or ‘urban’ to replace more “dated” racial slurs – or even the way black and white athletes are described differently, as lampooned in this Key and Peele sketch. However then I remembered the 'alt-right'… and I have to start to wonder, from 1989 to 2017, the care shown to use “less offensive language” has seemingly being abandoned. I guess that care has shifted to appearance, as the Atlantic cover photo shoot shows.

As Cone writes, “amnesia is the enemy of justice. We must never forget what we once were lest we repeat our evil deeds in new forms” (xi). Cone is applying this to himself and his silence on the oppression of women, and it needs to be something I apply to myself, to my own past (and present) misdeeds, shortcomings, mistakes, silence, and perpetuation of oppressive systems and structures against all those who are striving for justice (Indigenous Australians, women, the LGBTIQ community, migrants and refugees). It also needs to be something we remember as a community, about our past… and this makes me think about Australia Day…

I am in full support of both the idea changing the date (away from the arrival of the First Fleet) and/or changing the title of the day to Invasion or Survival day – as led by the Indigenous people of Australia. Whatever we do decide however, we must remember not only the past that the day commemorates (and the subsequent displacement, violence, genocide that accompanied the arrival of white settlers), but that we commemorated that past with BBQs, flag towls, and gleeful ignorance for so long. Even after we change the day or the name or both, we have to be confronted with this past embarrassment so that we can’t now think ‘job done’ and neglect the need for justice, liberation, structural change – neglect the need for treaty, self-determination, reparations…

Cone also confesses to how his work remained too Western in its approach – too limited by the neo-orthodox, Barthian perspective into which he was educated. He acknowledges the exclusion of other religious perspectives, while retaining the chief focus of Jesus for his perspective on God. He admits he did not link the struggle for liberation in the US to the struggle in the Third World (particularly those struggling against the neo-colonialism of the US) – a link that both MLK and Malcolm made. And finally he addresses his failure to deal with class.

This again he ties to the work of Malcolm and MLK, the need they identified to “develop a struggle for freedom that moves beyond race to include all oppressed peoples of the world” (xiv). This, of all the points seems most prescient in the wake of the US election. Once again it seems white folk from the poorer classes sought their salvation in someone that looked like them (though shared no similarity in living condition) rather that sought solidarity with those who looked different (but shared more of their lived experience). This is not to diminish the factor of race in the pursuit of freedom, justice and liberation, or the specificities of racial oppression and persecution. This is to say that in a world where 8 men have as much wealth as half the population of the entire fucking world, there is a problem with our system of economics – there is a class problem, and this needs to be at the heart of movements for liberation, this needs to be the context we preach in, this needs to be on the agenda of the revolution. The growing (rapidly growing) rate of inequality needs to be addressed across the racial divide, an inter-cultural movement that seeks to address the oppression of late-stage capitalism.

I’ll end the recap with the final paragraph of the preface:

“Despite its limitations, I hope that Black Theology and Black Power will remind all who read it that good theology is not abstract but concrete, not neutral but committed. Why? Because the poor were created for freedom and not for poverty.” (xiv)

I look forward to the next installment, chapter 1 “Toward a Constructive Definition of Clack Power”

Companions for the Preface to the 1989 Edition

Reading: Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ, Ch4 “A Critical Assessment of the Black Christ” (1994) 78-96.

Song: Common, Black America Again ft. Stevie Wonder, 2016.