Love and a Theology of Blackness: A Meditation on James H. Cone

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

James H. Cone at the Marquand Chapel, 19 April 2017 (Photo: Timothy Cahill, Yale Divinity School).

Let us begin not with “the noxious game of reason, saying, ‘No, No, you cannot feel,’ like my dead lecturer lamenting thru gipsies his fast suicide.”1 But let us begin at that moment of beginning which “emerges from the topos of the Deep.” Of a “double necessity between an indefinite series of opposites, such as presence and absence, genesis and structure, form and content, law and arbitrariness, thought and unthought, empirical and transcendental, origin and retreat, foundation and founded, and so on.”

And if this beginning reminds us of an/other beginning, let it begin then in Blackness for that is the challenge. “[W]e believe blackness is a total challenge, and because of the fact that at a certain level, basic conflicts of interests express themselves as conflicts of rationalities. We see the rationality of blackness as a total challenge to the world.” Blackness because “their categories are not participating in what we call the ‘slash,’ you see. That arena in which things are changed and moved around. That transcultural meaning of things.” If Blackness provokes a remembrance of that enigmatic statement by Derrida, then we know that he reminds himself that within the philosophy of France he is the “Uprooted African I am.”

If Blackness is the challenge than love is the im/possibility. Love. An im/possibility.  “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead).” But the “Ambassador of Love” made sure that we would have a chance to revisit such a love. A love not isolated and enclosed within a sentimental economy of affection or sutured to some form of affective and authoritative guarantee. That is, love not uniquely understood to operate as a warrant that secures a whole host of correlates which are in turn understood in and through an economy of désêtre. A tautology often unremarked and unexamined as it seemingly passes for what rightly constitutes a love especially in relation to Blackness. The challenge remains. Love norms and prescribes, conditions and describes. Love and the order of Blackness – “There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called ‘the power of blackness’ especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated.”

Love and the order of Blackness is the overlooked opportunity to creatively think an open discourse of theology on a terrain of life and new possibilities of a new world and a new humanity. No rehearsal of love within the dominant moral and religious languages. No love in the T/theology of the West inherited from the maelstrom of the modernity stalked by the trinity that travel on the seas – Christianity, capitalism, and colonialism. Out of the long shadow of its invocations, love and the order of Blackness is different within a panoply of a differing theo/logic. Black theology. A chaos that is a cosmos of new knowledges and new forms of collective life.

In this instance, Cone is the architect, Blackness is the platform. Cone. That proper name that exceeds the proper and theology proper. A history without a past to a future without a history. Barth. Camus. Sartre. Tillich. Martin. Malcolm. Spirituals. Blues. Black. What is it about this Cone that speaks to us of love and the order of Blackness? A repetition is in order. We concern ourselves with love and the order of Blackness. The challenge of Blackness and the im/possibility of love. To repeat is not the same. It is an Infinite Rehearsal. In the words of James H. Cone:

This work, then, is written with a definite attitude, the attitude of an angry black man, disgusted with the oppression of black people in America and with the scholarly demand to be ‘objective’ about it. Too many people have died, and too many are on the edge of death. . . . The prophets certainly spoke in anger, and there is some evidence that Jesus got angry. It may be that the importance of any study in the area of morality or religion is determined in part by the emotion expressed. It seems that one weakness of most theological works is their ‘coolness’ in the investigation of an idea. Is it not time for theologians to get upset?”

How do scholars, yet alone theologians, Black scholars and Black theologians, write with/out anger? A theology with/out anger? A Black theology? Love and Blackness thus involves a transvaluation of how we see, feel, experience, and think. It is a moral activism that tests the cognitive and political content of the dominant geo/theo/political order. In other words, it contemplates a title that is a question: “The Horror of Tradition, or How to Burn Babylon and Build Benin While Reading A Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.”

I remember Bearden because it is the place where I first discovered myself – as black and Christian.” So begins a journey of love. In a town of 1200 Black people forging a life/love/living of Blackness. Black people loving Black people in community. In and through love, Black people and freedom are joined. The relation is (not) new and cannot be contained in the old. It is not just a tradition, but a culture of Blackness. Talking with Jesus. Walking with the Spirit. Knowingthe lily of the valley and the bright and morning star,” the “Rose of Sharon and the Lord of life,” a “very present help in time of trouble.” “What, indeed would be payment for giving up your self-determination?” Let us realize a new self in and through love and a theology of Blackness. A prelude to a history of Blackness as we gather in churches, open fields, and city centers for a new dawn of freedom.

Black Theology must take seriously the reality of black people – their life of suffering and humiliation. This must be the point of departure of all God-talk which seeks to be black-talk.” This is the new that erupts in 1969. A questing for new forms and a theology to house these love inspired visions of a theology of Blackness. Not to keep it contained, managed, and disciplined. But to harness the energy to unleash love and a beautiful violence on a world of normative and affirmative whiteness. “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). A sword that divides, multiplies, particularizes in the quest for a new human. “In spite of some public images to the contrary, it is likely that no element is so constant in the gospel of Blackness – at least as it is encountered in its native communities – as the necessity of self-love. One writer tells much that is crucial to the story when she refers to ‘the inner power that comes with self-esteem, the power to develop to full stature as human beings.’”2

If Elvis Presley is King Who is James Brown, God?” And James H. Cone is the Prophet. The forms we choose in/form what we choose. “Your form failed you.” Theology. Black Theology. Christianity. Jesus. Why do we choose one form over another? Why this form and not love? “Exactly – Why did you choose that form? – that’s what I’m saying. That’s the ideological portent, or the ideological coloring of form. . . The shaping itself is a choice, and that choice is ideological. In other words, it’s not just form. The form itself carries. . . .” But what form of love for these opaque ones of modernity? If it is to be a new love? “People often ask me whether I am still angry as when I wrote Black Theology and Black Power. When I hear that question I smile to contain my rage: I remain just as angry because America, when viewed from the perspective of the black poor, is no closer to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a just society than when he was killed.” “What became clear to me is that, if you adopt a certain form, then form is going to push you into certain content because the form is not just the form, the form itself is content. There is content in form and in your choice of form.”

Let’s see how this works. Not theology. Black Theology. Not disciplines. Black Studies. Not seminary. Black Seminary.3 Not university. Black University.

But the form is the content. “Risks of Faith represents thirty years of searching for the truth of the gospel. I do not claim to have found the whole truth. I am still searching, for I know, as Paul knew, ‘we see in a mirror, dimly’ and thus ‘know only in part,’ not fully. The partial truths we see can be enlarged if we have the humility to open ourselves to the verity of other peoples’ experiences. Let us hope that we will recognize our common humanity so that together we can create a world that is truly the ‘beloved community’ of life.”4 Black theology as a theological movement registering a new sensibility of the politics, principles, and practices of being, belonging, and becoming. The breath of a/the S/spirit that gives life to the human. Black Theology, Theology in the Americas. Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. Society for the Study of Black Religion. Yes, forums but more so new forms. In other words, a poetics of love and a theology of Blackness that is a “practice of an excluded community that transformed the walls of its prison into the boundaries of its free city.” “Don’t let your people down.” And don’t let them down with bad thinking. And don’t let them down with bad theology.

But what about love? After all the King of Love is dead.

Black Theology was part of the efflorescence of that complex we call the Black freedom struggle. In its mid-twentieth century phase, we learn something. “One lesson to learn from a history of the Black Power era is that creative experimentation with organizations, programs, and institutions is a way forward. Another lesson from that period is that African Americans have a great storehouse of creative energy and that urban youth have tremendous untapped potential that is essential to the regeneration of Black America.” And we all love in the order Blackness.

Love and a theology of Blackness, please. We re/turn to the word of James H. Cone:

And yet another type of imagination is necessary – the imagination to relate the message of the cross to one’s own social reality to see that ‘They are crucifying again the Son of God’ (Heb 6:6). Both Jesus and blacks were ‘strange fruit.’ Theologically speaking Jesus was the ‘first lynchee,’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. . . . Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.”

And the people said, “Amen.”

  1.  Imamu Amiri Baraka, “Political Poem,” in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (New York:  Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991), 73.
  2.  Vincent Harding, “The Religion of Black Power,” in James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Theology A Documentary History Volume One: 1966-1979 (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993), 41.
  3.  See Miles J. Jones, “Why a Black Seminary?” The Christian Century, February 2, 1972.
  4.  James H. Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998, xxvi.
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Corey D. B. Walker

Corey D. B. Walker is a scholar of African American social, political, and religious thought. He is currently Vice President of Virginia Union University, Dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, and Professor of Religion and Society. He is the author of 'A Noble Fight: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in American' (University of Illinois Press, 2008), editor of a special journal issue on “Theology and Democratic Futures,” and associate editor of the award-winning 'SAGE Encyclopedia of Identity.' Follow him on Twitter @STVUDeanWalker.