James H. Cone and the Mysteries of Black Social Life

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

Rev. Dr. James Cone. (Photo courtesy of the Christian Citizen)

I first encountered James Hal Cone’s theological work as a graduate student at the University of Virginia. My mentor Dr. Wende Marshall—community organizer, medical anthropologist, and Union Theological Seminary graduate—recommended I read Cone’s A Black Theology of LiberationI remain ever grateful to Marshall for the introduction to Cone as well as her own decolonizing scholarship and activism. Although I had attended Black Baptist and Presbyterian churches in the U.S. South all of my life, I was not prepared for what I found. Passages like the following seemed to leap off of the page: “God has chosen to make the black condition God’s condition! It is a continuation of the incarnation in twentieth-century America.” “The norm of all God-talk which seeks to be black-talk is the manifestation of Jesus as the black Christ who provides the necessary soul for black liberation.” “We must become black with God!” 

Receiving Cone’s ruminations on the ontological Blackness of God—God’s elective affiliation with Blackness as a foundational symbol of oppression—as well as his reflections on the utter, particular, and beautiful humanity of Black people was a revelation.1 It read as a personal invitation, an altar call of the heart that harmonized with voices of other elders, to find the God in myself. Cone’s Black liberation theology was also an intellectual instigation. Cone centered Blackness as a foundational revelation of the nature of God, Christ, and humanity. This differed from the cultural relativism (the emphasis of cultural particularism and the studying of cultures in their own terms) that I was being taught as a cultural anthropologist. Moreover, his transparency of writing from, about, and to Black people was starkly different than the universalistic enterprise that I, as an anthropologist, ascribed to Christian theology.

As anthropologists and theologians outline historical, methodological, and conceptual overlaps and map zones for potential interdisciplinary social engagement, we are left with questions about how those conversations will address the representational inequalities engendered by anti-Blackness and colonialism constitutive of North American society, its academy, anthropology, and Christian god-talk.2 There is a necessity to make sure that decolonizing “earthly theolog[ies],” “commonsense theolog[ies],” and Black community theolog[ies] like those authored and engaged by Cone are part of these conversations. And an attention to critical ethno-theologies like those authored by Cone can direct this new arena of collaboration in liberatory rather than merely descriptive directions.

As an ethnographer of Black religious sociality, I am inspired by Cone’s sustained attention to what he identifies as “the great mysteries of black social life” in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Illustrating the classical “communitarian view of the ultimate” characteristic of his theology, Cone’s contemplation of African American communal mystery emerges in the space between the immanent and the transcendent inhabited by “the Holy Spirit [as] black persons making decisions about their togetherness.” Additionally, the Black social mysteries outlined by Cone and their ancestraland existential qualities invite us to marvel at the multiplicative insights embedded in modes of African American religious sociality.

James Cone’s imagination of Black mysteries emerges from his familial and religious experiences in Bearden, Arkansas. As aptly expressed by Cornel West in his eulogy of Cone, “James Cone stands in a tradition of a people—a great people with a grand tradition…. He was already fortified before he got to Union Theological Seminary.” In My Soul Looks Back, Cone writes with a sense of wonder about his father, who was a proud and notorious dissident of white supremacy when Jim Crow often witnessed such stances end in violent death. He also writes of his profound admiration of his mother, a woman of faith who insisted on her father’s respect for the “mystery of God’s presence” among Black people even though he was predisposed to emphasize material concerns.

Additionally, Cone invokes the sacred humanizing work of his natal church community that experienced and affirmed each other as “brothers and sisters.” This work spilled past the boundaries of the congregation into Cone’s writing. He reveals, “It is as if the people of Bearden are present, around my desk as I think and write. Their voices are clear and insistent: ‘All right, James Hal, speak for your people.’” Cone’s inheritance of a materialist, respectful, and affirming orientation towards Black life generated an enduring solidarity—a love praxis—that shaped his commitment “to keep and to live the faith of the black church.”

For Cone, this meant honoring the beliefs of his mother, father, and extended family of faith amidst Marxist and Black nationalist denigrations of African American Christianity as otherworldly or assimilationist. It is not enough to trace Cone’s intellectual genealogy in terms of his deep engagement with Karl Barth. Rather, it is also vital to locate the ancestral peopling of Cone’s thinking and to imagine and author such methods of ancestral communication in our scholarly work by talking and hearing the dead through memory, song, and story that are a part of southern Black religious and spiritual landscape that gave rise to Cone and his thoughts.3

In addition to its ancestral moorings, the mysteries of Black social life are experiential. The endurance of Black people amidst the ravages of slavery and its myriad afterlives is a miracle. The aura of the mystery of Black existence is eloquently expressed by Alice Walker in the Foreword to Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston, “Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of fears.” That awe of/in Black existence in the New World is compounded from Cone’s perspective because of the habitation of the divine in the very midst of the beauty and brutality of Black existence.

For Cone, this mystery emerged from a God who chose Blackness and a Black Jesus whose (re)crucifixion merged with the Black experience. He writes, “The symbol of the cross spoke to the lives of blacks because the likeness between the cross and the lynching tree created an eerie feeling of mystery and the supernatural.” That the divine could be manifested in the wake of Black resistance and suffering, that it emerged in the co-existence of Black doubt and faith, that it provided meaning in the midst of the senseless suffering of Black people, that it dwelt amidst unresolved ironies and contradictions made it just as divine as human. Cone also proposes that those mysteries could also not be adequately accessed through exercises in rational thought that generated abstractions or critiques, rather than stories about God’s presence amongst Black people. While such a position might be described as a move to mute detractors, it is important to note that an emphasis of mystery as a conceptual framework for Black socio-religious life called for an intellectual humility, a disavowal of mastery.

For Cone, the pathway to a Black liberation meant naming the violence of white supremacist racial and representational dominance. It also called for a patient sitting-with Blackness and an excavation of its interior mysteries, not so much for the sake of essentialism or universalization but for an excavation of its unique witness, its thick and darkened revelations. We would all do well to continue to learn from ancestral and existential stories of Black life that are foundational to his intellectual legacy.

  1.  As Cone writes in A Black Theology of Liberation, “There is a transcendent value in blackness that makes us all human and to which blacks must appeal as ultimate” (Cone 2010, 82).
  2. See Derrick J. Lemons, J. Derrick, “Anthropology and Theology,” Oxford Bibliographies (2018).
  3.  LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant, Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
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Todne Thomas

Todne Thomas is Assistant Professor of African American Religions at Harvard Divinity School. Her work integrates critical race and kinship theories to understand the racial and moral scripts of evangelicalism and neoliberalism. She is co-editor of 'New Directions in Spiritual Kinship: Sacred Ties across the Abrahamic Religions' (2017). Follow her on Twitter @todnethomas.