Asserting Black Humanity: thoughts on and from James H. Cone's Black Theology and Black Power "Toward a Constructive Definition of Black Power"

Note: This is post 3 in my series based on reading through the work of James Cone. See the first post here where I share thoughts on the Preface to the 1989 ed. and here for the Introduction of Black Theology and Black Power, these are notes on the Introduction.

Ch1. Toward A Constructive Definition of Black Power

[Black Power] means complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary. (6)

The focus of this chapter is pretty well summed up in its title. Cone outlines what is meant, what is captured, what is sought by Black Power. It means black freedom, black self-determination, an affirmation of the essential worth of blackness. It means resisting and rebelling against a white oppressive society that would see and treat black people in any other way. It means the mode of resistance will be set by those doing the resisting, not those who are being resisted.

Black Power, for Cone, is the “affirmation of the humanity of the blacks in spite of white racism” (16). There are parallels here (which Cone points out) with Tillich’s Courage to Be; it is an affirmation of life in the face of death, being in the risk of non-being, it is the declaration, celebration, and emancipation of life.

Two challenges/takeaways (outside of the constructive definition itself)

1) I’m racist

Racism then is biologically analogous to pregnancy, either she is or she is not, or like the Christian doctrine of sin, one is or is not in sin. There are no meaningful ‘in-betweens’ relevant to the fact itself. And it should be said that racism is so embedded in the heart of American society that few, if any, whites can free themselves from it. So it is time for whites to recognise that fact for what it is and proceed from there. (23, 24)

To borrow a phrase from Paul, we live and move and have our being in a racist society, a racist climate. I cannot deny that which I have inherited, a racialised narratives that shapes the way I see the world, the gut reactions I have to stimuli, and the way it shapes how I turn observation into meaning. Drew Hart covers this well in his Trouble I’ve Seen (“Don’t Go With Your Gut”), and David Anderson Hooker explored this in a recent interview I did with him.

I cannot be tempted to look at others who “say racist things” or act prejudicially based on race and say well because I am not like them I am not racist. Racism occurs as much on the subconscious and the conscious and unless I acknowledge that I am guaranteed to perpetuate the racialised attitudes and beliefs that permeate the world around me.

Additionally, whether or not I “say racist things” or embrace a racist attitude and actions, I benefit from racist structures and systems as much as anyone else who shares my whiteness. I profit of the racist past of my country and the country from which it was colonised.

This point, as Cone points out, is not the end but the beginning – this isn’t where I put up my hands and say “oh, well, nothing to be done I guess” – rather it is the moment to begin to act for change, to follow the lead of those who suffer racism and work for all of our liberation. This is the wake up from which we proceed.

2) This challenge to the liberal

Now let's chase that section with this line from Cone,

The real menace in white intellectual arrogance is the dangerous assumption that the structure that enslaves is the structure that will also decide when and how this slavery will be abolished (21)

This argument reminded me of a line from Jesse Williams speech at the BET awards in 2016:

And let's get a couple things straight, just a little sidenote - the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That's not our job, alright - stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down. (full transcript here)

As someone who has been involved in and advocated non-violence civil disobedience this is something to remember and hold close – not to necessarily abandon that as my personal mode of operation, but to not prescribe that on others who are protesting not from a place of privileged allyship, but out of the desire and need to survive.



Song: Public Enemy – Fight the Power

Video: Jesse Williams full speech from the 2016 BETs

Reading: Biba Adams – In Defense of Black Women and Womanism

Reading: Drew Hart – Trouble I’ve Seen (ch: Don’t Go With Your Gut)