ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
by James H. Cone
Books by James Cone
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Dialogue on Black Theology
An Interview with James Cone
By William Hordern
Hordern : From the point of view of the Christian church, one of the most significant things to come out of the racial situation is black theology. When that is mentioned, of course, we think of you, Jim. You have moved us, angered us, and illuminated us. However, many readers have problems with your work. They feel that, because they were born with skin of the wrong color, you have excluded them from dialogue. There seems to be some vagueness on your use of the terms white and black. On the one hand, in A Black Theology of Liberation, page 12, you say that blackness symbolizes the oppressors and enslavement. In that use a person with white skin may in fact be black, while a person with black skin may be white. This definition of terms is a healthy change from the usual symbolic meanings of white and black.
But do you always follow this definition? For example, you say on page 22 unfortunately, American white theology has not been involved in the struggle for black liberation. If you are following your first definition, this statement is true by definition because any theology which had been involved in the struggle for liberation would be black. Why then do you say unfortunately/ It would appear that you are using white theology here to describe theology as written by men whose skins are white. But, if that is so, is the statement universally correct?
Cone: The vagueness of the terms black and white is intentional and I think necessary. While I do not minimize the need for logical consistency, there are times when rationalistic logic breaks down. This is especially true when one is dealing with concrete historical experiences that are not universal. There is the situation of the oppressed as they reflect theologically upon the significance of their oppression and liberation. Because oppressors are the persons who devise the language tools for communication, their canons of logic do not include a form of the oppressed. meaningful discourse is always language which does not threaten the powers that be.
If the oppressed are to attain their freedom, they must begin to create a new style of communication which is consistent with their struggle for liberation. In part they must deny the accepted canons of logic, allowing the liberation struggle alone to be the logical test for meaningful discourse. Logical consistency, as defined by the oppressors, is irrelevant.
Hordern: What I hear you saying is that in A Black Theology of Liberation and in your earlier Black Theology and Black Power you found that, to be faithful to the black experience and to Christs gospel, you had to be both literal and symbolic in your use of black and white.
Cone: That is correct. I do not apologize for the apparently vague use of the terms. Rather I insist that the ambiguity is indispensable. In this regard, I contend that theological language must be paradoxical because of the necessity of affirming two dimensions of reality which appear to be contradictory. For example, my experience of being black-skinned means that I cannot de-emphasize the literal significance of blackness. My people were enslaved, lynched, and ghettoized in the name of God and country because of their color. No amount of theologizing can remove the reality of that experience from my consciousness. And because blacks were dehumanized by white-skinned people who created a cultural style based on black oppression, the literal importance of whiteness has historical referents.
But that is only one aspect of my experience. When I begin to investigate the particular experience of blackness and whiteness in America, I begin to see beyond it. Through my particular experience of blackness, I encounter the symbolic significance of black existence and how that existence is related to gods revelation in Jesus Christ.
In the divine-human encounter, the particular experience of oppression and liberation, as disclosed in black-skinned people, is affirmed as Gods own experience; and through that divine affirmation, I encounter the universal meaning of oppression and liberation that is not limited by skin color. The same is true for the literal and symbolic meaning of whiteness, which has the opposite meaning of blackness.
Hordern: In other words, you believe that your critics want to move too quickly from the particular to the universal. Once you have redefined the symbolic meaning of white and black, the white-skinned critic immediately wants to be called black.
Cone: That is correct. The universal has no meaning independent of the particular. When people move too rapidly to the universal, they minimize the every experience which defines the universal. Blackness then must, without qualification, refer to black-skinned people who bear the scars of oppression; and whiteness must refer to the people responsible for that oppression. That is an must remain the starting point for all talk about God and man in a society where color is the defining point of humiliation. When this reality of the gospel and historical experience is taken with utmost seriousness, then it is possible to visualize the symbolic significance of blackness and whiteness but not before. To guars against the easy, symbolic identification of white-skinned people with black-skinned people, it is necessary to stress that there can be no universal understanding of blackness without the particular experience of blackness.
Hordern: To paraphrase a question put to Jesus, who then can become black?
Cone: I contend that if a white-skinned person is authentically black, then there is no need to assure him of his authenticity. For to be black is to know the ambiguity of the black experience, and this is true for one who is literally black. The certainty of a persons affirmation of blackness is bound up with the struggle for liberation, and that experience has its own ambiguities. I find that the white-skinned person is worried too much about his own salvation, rather than about the liberation of the black community. I see no reason why I should spend time giving him personal counsel on how to be black.
Hordern: In using the term black to describe all oppressed people, do you really speak to the need of oppressed people whose skins are of other colors? For example, in North America today the Indian people are taking pride in their history and are speaking of Red Power. Is a black theology a help or a hindrance to communicating with such people?
Cone: Whether black theology is a help or hindrance to other persons of color who are not black will have to be decided by the victims who are red, brown, or whatever color. I cannot answer that, but I hope they are not excluded from my interpretation of the gospel. In my experience with persons of color who are not Afro-American, they have not raised difficulties with my choice of blackness.
I chose blackness because of my experience and what that means in white America. I do not contend that blackness is the appropriate term for all historical situations of oppression and liberation. I only contend that theology must be particular and thus indigenous with the oppressed community so that universal affirmations about liberation are relevant to the historical experiences of the wretched of the land. Red Power, Brown Power and the like do not conflict with Black Power. They enhance the authenticity of black self-determination and affirm that the black struggle for freedom is not an isolated, discontinuous activity of God. That is why I said in A Black Theology of Liberation: The focus on blackness does not mean that only blacks suffer as victims in a racist society, but that blackness is an ontological symbol and a visible reality which best describes what oppression means in America (p. 27). Therefore, I do not insist that the concreteness of oppression is always and everywhere black; but I do think that it is a distortion of historical reality if one speaks of oppression in America that ignores black people.
Hordern: In recent years wide publicity has been given to an article titled The Student as Nigger. This year a French Canadian wrote a book in which he describes his people as white niggers. When such groups, feeling oppressed, take the term nigger to describe their oppression, do you feel that this is a verification of your thesis that blackness is the ontological symbol that best describes oppression in America? Or do you feel there is something hypocritical about such groups referring to themselves as niggers?
Cone: Authentic identification with the oppressed involves more than adopting the symbols of oppression. It means adopting their historical experience, realizing that we cannot be unless oppression ceases to be.
My difficulty with white students is that they appropriate black symbols without encountering the concrete experiences which gave rise to them. They have not paid the dues which entitle them to use our symbols. This is not to deny that white students are oppressed. But they have not been enslaved legally and neither have they undergone that peculiar experience that is called blackness. How then can they say that they are niggers when that word has definite historical referents about which they nothing? If white students are to be niggers, the meaning of that term must be conferred upon them by the black community. And I do not think that we blacks are ready to do that.
Hordern: Your theology has made a vital contribution by forcing us to recognize that theology cannot be Christian unless it is identified with the liberation of the oppressed. Hopefully, never again will Christians be able to do theology without remembering that Jesus himself put the release of captives high on the list of his goals. But, in making this point, are you not in danger of compressing the whole gospel into this one theme? On page 23 of A Black Theology of Liberation you say, There can be no theology of the Gospel that does not arise from an oppressed community. And on page 91 you affirm that without a condition of oppression there is no revelation and you conclude: His revelation is only for the paradoxical conclusion that it is a good thing to have oppression because without it there would be no revelation?
Cone: I am aware of the problem of reductionism, the danger of compressing the gospel into one theme. But that is the danger that must be risked if I am to remain faithful to my understanding of the Bible and the struggle of the oppressed for liberation. Indeed, other theologies have taken similar risks. It could be said that martin Luther compressed the gospel into the them of justification by faith because of grace, and that in our time Karl Barth reduced theology to Christology. Every theology must take what he believes to be the central theme of the biblical message and relate that theme to his historical situation.
This does not mean that the gospel changes every time a few theological emphasis appears. It only means that Christian theology cannot be written once and for all. There will always be the necessity to interpret the meaning of the gospel in the light of changing situations with new themes and emphases.
When a new theme appears it does not mean that the old emphases are discarded, but that the new datum enhances their significance. Black liberation is the new datum. Theology must now ask, What is the essence of the gospel in view of the oppressed of the land? What is good news for the oppressed and humiliated, the weak and the downtrodden? I contend that it is the good news of liberation.
The assertion that the gospel is liberation is not an arbitrary statement. It is an assertion of faith based on Gods revelation in history as made known in the Exodus and the appearance of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is a distortion of the gospel and heretical if it is said that Christians should place liberation high on the list of goals. The concept of liberation is not one among many themes in the biblical tradition; it is rather the essence of Gods revelation in history, and other emphases should be interpreted in light of liberation.
But you asked, Does not the statement His revelation is only for the oppressed of the land lead to the paradoxical conclusion that it is a good thing to have oppression? I deny that conclusion. For this is like saying that it is a good thing that Judas betrayed Jesus, since the latters death was the only means of our redemption; Judas therefore should be a saint.
To draw that conclusion is equivalent to reducing divine revelation to logical abstractions, which may be interesting to debate in a seminar on philosophical logic but has nothing to do with human oppression and liberation. God does not will that people should be oppressed, and that was why he came in Jesus and why he is present as Holy Spirit today. Gods stand against oppression is his affirmation that all men have a common humanity in freedom.
This means that I cannot be free until all men are free. And if in some distant future I am no longer oppressed because of blackness, then I must take upon myself whatever form of human oppression exists in the society, affirming my identity with the victims. The identity must be made with the victims not because of sympathy, but because my own humanity is involved in my brothers degradation.
Source: The Christian Century (15 September 1971)
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James H. Cone
Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. His many books include A Black Theology of Liberation; God of the Oppressed; Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare and My Soul Looks Back
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By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, Im proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, globalized entity.
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple. We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.
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By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama . . .
The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism. Recalling some of the criticisms of Americas past made by Mr. Obamas former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved. His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him boy, and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedys father relished Muhammad Alis quip that the Vietcong had never called him nigger. The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 28 July 2008