The Liberatory Potential of Black Theology

*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).

In the 1980s I was a tenant organizer in Central Harlem with an organization called Action for Community Empowerment. The intense religiosity of the women I organized, the experience of being mentored by the Revered Marilyn Adams Moore, and my growing interest in liberation theology led me to Union Theological Seminary in the fall of 1990. I remember my time at Union as two of the most joyful years of my life. Union professors and students were deeply engaged, and whether they were focused on Jesus or justice (or both), everyone was passionate, vibrant, and committed.

“There is only one thing I dread… not to be worthy of the life that my black ancestors made possible for me. I am a faithful witness to the redemptive meaning of their nearly 400 years of suffering…”

Although I come from a line of black church people, I did not grow up in the church.1 My great grandfather was Elias Camp Morris, a founder of the National Baptist Convention (NBC) in 1895, one of the first national black organizations in the U.S. My beloved grandmother, Adelaide Austin, was the First Lady of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. My step-grandfather was Junius C. Austin, Sr., the pastor of Pilgrim, an associate of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. He helped found the Progressive National Baptist Convention in a split which resulted from the NBC’s failure to embrace social justice and the Civil Rights Movement. But when I entered Union Theological Seminary in 1990 I was relatively alienated from my black church roots and little understood the important work of my ancestors.

“There was and still is a fire burning in the Black community and in me. Nobody can put it out.”

Then I met James Cone, a preacher and professor with a powerful message. He systematically queered2 black theology for me and led me to reinterpret my ancestors, the liberatory potential of black theology, the black church, and my own revolutionary path. Along with Delores Williams, Cone became my M.A. thesis advisor. I took his systematic theology course and was transfixed by many of his lectures. Drawing on Alice Walker’s insight that womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender I wrote an essay for Cone in which I said black theology is to white theology as Charlie Bird Parker is to Johann Sebastian Bach. Cone approved of my analogy and agreed to co-direct my thesis.

James Cone possessed the rare combination of internationally recognized scholarly excellence and a deep commitment to justice for black people. He was, at the same time, deeply intellectual, profoundly rooted in the suffering experience of our people, and unabashed in his fiery critique of Euro/American theology and the white church. As I would learn in subsequent years as a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, this combination of erudition and passion was rare indeed. Most of the professors, all white except for one, that I encountered in the Anthropology Department at Princeton were smart, but they were merely academic, unable to translate what they knew into lessons for liberation. That’s what Cone did. He bridged scholarship, activism, and the urgency of justice in all his work.

James Cone stoked my commitment and supported my journey towards fierceness as a scholar and a revolutionary. His impatient insistence on liberation inspired and normalized my own passionate commitment to getting my people free. Without his example, I might have become lost in the rigors of a doctoral program in anthropology. Without him I might have allowed the rigid structure of the secular academy to disarrange my focus on liberation, my commitment to socialism, and to the practice of community organizing. Cone taught that Euro/American theology was shaped by white supremacy. In the secular academy I could clearly see that the same was true of Euro/American anthropology. Cone helped to shape me into a revolutionary and scholar aware of my absolute duty to name and challenge the bloody hands of racialized capitalism and cisheteropatriarchy.

“I had to write to redeem myself for being in a seminary classroom … reading European theologians while black people were in the street risking their lives for my freedom.”

Early in the twenty-first century, I taught a graduate seminar at the University of Virginia called “White Supremacy.” I was urged by the registrar and by the faculty administrator of the African American studies program to rename my class something more “appropriate.” But I was James Cone’s student, and I named the source of our oppression without hesitation. Cone taught me to fearlessly and relentlessly name the evil of white supremacy. He did not toy with the anachronistic notion of “racism.” He named the problem and the source of the problem when he charged white theologians with blood on their hands. “Look at your hand,” he said, “drippin’ with the blood of your Black brothers and sisters. Look at your bloody hands.”

“…this is a theology that comes from slaves, sharecroppers, janitors, and maids.”

I learned from James Cone to center my being, my scholarship, and my activism in the joy, the suffering, and the wisdom of black people. For Cone and for me, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were ontological. They are the ground I stand on to understand and change the world. Because he centered justice in his work and, like Audre Lorde in poetry, modeled the fiery uses of anger in theology, he played a significant role in guiding my development into a fierce community organizer and anthropologist with theological undertones.

I left theology to study anthropology and when I was denied tenure and purged from the secular academy I returned to activism and organizing as my life’s work. In part because Cone validated my passion for freedom as ontology, I have never stopped speaking a fiery truth to power. I feel Cone’s influence in my relentless critique of the left’s reliance on the nonprofit industrial complex, in my focus on the white supremacy of western science and medicine, and especially in the ways in which I commit my life to the struggle for socialism and to the liberation of my people.

I am a queer, black, middle-aged woman scholar/activist. I organize in North Philly, adjunct at Temple, and practice community at the Church of the Advocate. I recognize the ways in which James Cone immersed me in the most powerful and liberatory parts of black theology and the black church. It is that theology and those traditions that I carry with me as I fight displacement, mass incarceration, forced migration and deportation, as I struggle to move us forward on the path to twenty-first century socialism, and as I renew my faith every day in the ability of my people to get free.

  1. In this post, I have opted not to capitalize Black as is the custom at Black Perspectives. Since I understand blackness as a relationship, especially to power and knowledge, I do not believe that it should be capitalized. All quotations in this post are from James H. Cone, “The Cry of Black Blood: The Rise of Liberation Theology” (2016).
  2. “Queering” as a verb is a technique developed in queer theory to textually challenge heteronormativity. Cone queered black theology for me by challenging the white supremacy of white theology and by firmly rooting black theology in the liberatory stream of black people’s struggle for justice and freedom.
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Wende Marshall

Wende Marshall is a community organizer based in Philadelphia. Her scholarly work centers on the study of race/class, medicine, science and social change. She is the author of 'Potent Mana: Lessons in Power and Healing' (SUNY Press, 2012), which explores the effects of colonialism on the physical, mental, and spiritual health of Native Hawaiians. She is currently a member of LeftRoots and the Circle of Revolutionary Nonviolence.