For His People: James H. Cone and Black Theology

*This post is part of our online forum on the Life and Legacy of Dr. James H. Cone.

Dr. James H. Cone speaking at Yale Divinity School (Photo: Moriah Felder).

For many years now, I have recounted my intellectual journey to the field of African American religious history as originating in having read two texts in an undergraduate course on religion and race in the U.S. and South Africa offered at Barnard College in the mid-1980s. In Albert J. Raboteau’s 1978 Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South, I found an inspiring model of what could come from imaginative and sensitive attention to the archives of slavery and an empathetic ear for the religious lives of Black people in Africa and the African diaspora. Raboteau’s text recounts so powerfully Black people’s physical, mental, and spiritual resilience, as captured in the exclamation of former slave Minnie Fulkes in one of the book’s epigraphs: “Lord! Lord! Bab, I hope yo’ young fo’ks will never know what slavery is, an’ will never suffer as yo’ foreparents. O God! I’m livin’ to tel’ de tale to yo’, honey. Yes, Jesus, yo’ve spared me.” In Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, I found a captivating ethnographic account of religious dynamism and creativity fostered by life in northern cities like my own. Having grown up Roman Catholic by way of my Tobagonian mother, but with the cultural undertones of my father’s former Orthodox Judaism, I found the worlds outside of the mainstream of Black religious life Fauset’s book revealed fascinating. Something about this northern urban religious creativity is what I proposed in my applications for graduate school and fellowships.

I was fortunate to have had Al Raboteau as my advisor in graduate school and to be able to learn more from him about African American religious history and cultures and about how to tell the stories of people marginalized from power and its archives. Several topics diverted my attention from following up on the questions Fauset’s work stimulated in me as an undergraduate – African American Protestant women’s political activism in early twentieth-century New York City and representations of African American religion in early sound film—but I returned recently to some of the figures and groups from Fauset’s work, with the set of questions I brought to them expanded through engagement with critical race theory. Despite the unexpected detours, I have always seen Raboteau and Fauset as critical to the course I took in combining a commitment to history and culture with attention to sites and sources outside of the mainstream of African American religious history.

But the story I tell most often of the origins of my scholarly interests mutes the critical role reading James Cone’s 1969 Black Theology and Black Power played in drawing me to the study of African American religious history and cultures. My undergraduate senior thesis explored Black Theology in the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa at the same time that I was involved in the student movement calling on universities to divest from South Africa. Examining the connections between Cone’s work and religious activism in South Africa accelerated my interest in African American religious studies. I was energized by the transnational conversation about Christianity, colonialism, and white domination and by exploring the anti-Apartheid activists’ religious resources, some drawn from engagement with Cone’s work. Researching the influence of Cone’s work in global networks, particularly in Africa, made the burning urgency of Black theology in the world around me apparent. This was, of course, not a new development in Black religious history, but rather a continuation of a long and rich history made pressing in new ways. As Cone wrote in 1969,

On the American scene today, as yesterday, one problem stands out: the enslavement of black Americans. But as we examine what contemporary theologians are saying, we find that they are silent about the enslaved condition of black people. . . . There is, then, a desperate need for a black theology, a theology whose sole purpose is to apply the freeing power of the gospel to black people under white oppression.

Reading Cone as an undergraduate helped to bridge activism and research in ways that enabled me to imagine a meaningful life of scholarship and teaching.

The belated revision of my intellectual history surely was partly rooted in the masculinist language and perspective of Cone’s early work. In placing Black Power in conversation with Christian theology, Cone declared, “The call for Black Power is precisely the call to shoulder the burden of liberty in Christ, risking everything to live not as slaves but as free men.”1 And, men he meant. There is one woman listed in the index to Black Theology and Black Power, a text brimming with Black activists, scholars, theologians, and poets from Henry Highland Garnet, Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. DuBois, and Richard Allen to Benjamin Mays, Vincent Harding, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, LeRoi Jones, and more. Bessie Smith appears in the text, not in Cone’s words, but in a quotation from LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman.

Black feminist and Womanist theologians like Jacqueline Grant, Delores Williams, Katie Cannon (who we just lost on August 8, 2018), Renita Weems, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Kelly Brown, and others highlighted the implications of this privileging of manhood. In a 1979 essay, Grant wrote, “In examining black theology, it is necessary to make one of two assumptions: (1) either black women have no place in the enterprise, or (2) black men are capable of speaking for us. Both of these assumptions are false and need to be discarded.”2 As I have written elsewhere, much scholarship in African American religious history proceeds as if Black women do not exist and, in this way, Black Theology is not exceptional.3 Cone listened and heard these questions about Black Theology, writing in the preface to the 20th anniversary edition of Black Theology and Black Power about his own silence “about the oppression of women in the church and society.” He chose not to revise the text, he said, “as a reminder of how sexist I once was and also that I might be encouraged never to forget it. It is easy to change the language of oppression without changing the sociopolitical situation of its victims.” And he opened the way for many Black female theologians through mentorship and other forms of support.

My retroactive muting of Cone’s influence also has to do with broader questions in the field of Religious Studies about the relationship of normative work to historical scholarship. My scholarship does not emerge from questions about what religion or theology should be, nor has it been concerned with promoting right belief or practice. I have located myself among Religious Studies scholars who ask questions about how ideas of what constitutes religion have developed and the cultural, social, and political formations “religion” produces. My work is anchored in African American history, and I have aimed to expand knowledge about that history by insisting on the significance of Black religious actors, beliefs, practices, and cultural productions. For me, the work of speaking to and for African American religious people remains for clergy, theologians, and ethicists. While historians may be among the ranks of these religious actors, I have been committed to speaking about African American religious life in all its diversity, including those who challenge and refuse it. From this perspective, Cone’s work as a transformative theologian of liberation opens rich avenues for historical reflection. I have taught his work often in African American religious history courses, reading it with students who are animated by his insistent centering of Black experience, embrace of anger, and faith in Jesus and in Black people. Minnie Fulkes’s belief that Jesus had spared her to tell a tale about Black life, resonates throughout Cone’s work and links his theological commitments to mine as a historian.

Cone chose the title poem of Margaret Walker’s For My People as the title of a 1984 book in which he reflected on the past and future of Black Theology. Walker’s poem blends African American history, culture, joy, mobility, constraint, failure, hope, communal struggle, and collective power. Returning to it in the wake of his death highlights the capaciousness of his work for his people and his commitment to the Christian message as fundamentally focused on the liberation of the oppressed.

  1.  James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Harper and Row, 1969; 1989), 42-43.
  2.  Jacqueline Grant, “Black Theology and the Black Woman,” in Gayraud S. Wilmore and James Cone, eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979 (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979), 420.
  3.  Judith Weisenfeld, “Invisible Women: On Women and Gender in the Study of African American Religious History,” Journal of Africana Religions 1:1 (2013): 133-149.
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Judith Weisenfeld

Judith Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (University of California Press, 2007) and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Harvard University Press, 1997). Her most recent book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017) received the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions. Follow her on Twitter @JLWeisenfeld.