“Writing is the way I fight”: Remembering James H. Cone

Robert Ellsberg and James H. Cone (photo courtesy of author).

“I have fought the good fight, run the race, kept the faith.”—2 Timothy 4:7

I worked with James Cone for over 30 years. For at least 20 of those years, I am not sure that he really trusted me.

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My predecessor as editor-in-chief at Orbis Books made what turned out to be an incredibly wise investment in reprinting several of James’s early books, includingA Black Theology of Liberation, and I inherited that legacy when I arrived at Orbis in 1987. We met and spoke frequently, planning new editions of his works as significant anniversaries rolled around and acquiring his other backlist titles as rights became available:The Spirituals and the Blues,Black Theology and Black Power, andGod of the Oppressed. In 1991, we published his breakthrough book,Martin & Malcolm & America. By that time, I think James was wondering whether he had outgrown Orbis.

There came a low point in our relationship when he told me that I was “the most difficult white man” he had ever worked with. If I recall that unhappy history, it is because it is important for understanding how much it meant to me, over time, to earn his trust and respect.

I worked with James Cone for over 30 years. For at least 20 of those years, I am not sure that he really trusted me.

After a lull of a couple of years, we warily resumed our regular meetings. He was working on a new book, though he was coy about whether he would offer it to Orbis. “We’ll see about that,” was all he would say. Finally, he showed me the first draft of“Strange Fruit,” which becameThe Cross and the Lynching Tree. I knew how important this book would be and wrote him with such enthusiasm, as well as critical editorial suggestions, that he was persuaded to entrust it to Orbis. But he said he wanted to send it to a black editor to work on. Was I O.K. with that? I said of course. As fate would have it, that editor was not available. I said I would be proud to work on it. I knew James was wary. But he said O.K.

I should say that for many years, James had been preparing me for this job. The topic of our conversations over a period of decades was largely focused on his educating me about where he came from, what was important to him, what were the sources and influences and experiences that had shaped him and his theology. It was a running seminar on the general theme of “the making of a black theologian.”

I learned about the influence of his parents and the confidence and courage they had instilled in him: “I always knew that I was loved.” The influence of teachers who had encouraged him and recognized his talents. The skeptics, often motivated by racism, who doubted him and thus pushed him to prove them wrong. The mentors along the way who appeared at critical times to offer affirmation: Benjamin Mays, C. Eric Lincoln, Howard Thurman. The impact of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—the principal voices who carried on a running debate within his soul. James Baldwin. The birth of black theology, an irresistible force that could not be contained, forged out of anger, sorrow and a pain too deep for words. His arrival at Union Theological Seminary, the influence of his students, the impact of his engagement with liberation theologians from around the world. The ways his theology had continued to evolve in response to criticism and the signs of the times. His satisfaction in the work of those who were carrying on the work of black and womanist theology—tempered by concern lest this become just another academic pursuit, detached from the real-life experience and ongoing struggles of people in the streets.

James Cone
James Cone delivering the Harris Franklin Rall lectures in 1970.

Before I started editing the manuscript that became The Cross and the Lynching Tree, we met many times for the purpose of his explaining to me “why I had to write this book.” He talked of Bearden, Ark., and the community and family that had nurtured him in the midst of a terrible time, his sense of accountability to his roots, to be a voice for those, like his parents, who had no voice. It was important for him to tell me that this was not just an academic project. I assured him that I got it.

It was also important for him to make sure I understood that his theology did not just come out of sorrow and anger. It also came out of love and celebration of the spirit of resistance and black pride, the music, the funk and soul of black religion and culture, the faith that asserted the sacredness of black lives in a culture that denied it, the faith that would not let violence and hatred have the last word. And it was important that I understood that his theology was heir to a long tradition of enslaved and oppressed black people who recognized the life-affirming and liberation-affirming message of the cross, even in the face of white “Christians” who ignored and desecrated its meaning.

James Cone's theology was heir to a long tradition of enslaved and oppressed black people who recognized the life-affirming and liberation-affirming message of the cross.

Many years of hearing these lessons had prepared me for my work on one of the most important books of my career.

I sent my work to James, and he was very happy. And for the first time I felt that we had become true partners. I will not repeat his kind and generous words, but I have pinned them to my heart.

James did not easily let people into his personal life. Our meetings continued to be marked by certain professional boundaries: usually a meeting in his apartment to discuss business, followed by a walk to his favorite restaurant for informal conversation over lunch, which often concluded with a piece of his favorite coconut cake.

James was incredibly moved by the reception toThe Cross and the Lynching Tree. In many talks he would say that this was his favorite among all his books—truly the culmination of his career. Through it, he found a new audience in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, and a new hashtag circulated: #JamesConeWasRight. (This spring, in one of his last public appearances, he was awarded theGrawemeyer Award for Religion and learned that he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.) But he had more to say.

A couple of years ago we began talking about what he felt—even then—would be his last book. He delivered it to me early this year. It was obvious from his appearance that something was the matter. “Are you O.K.?” I asked. “Well, I have cancer,” he said matter-of-factly. At that time, it was unclear just how serious this would be. But it added a sense of urgency—and sacredness—to this project. I commenced work and sent him edited chapters as fast as I could. “I am a very happy man,” he wrote after looking at one of these chapters. “I trust you with my book.”

Through the privilege of working with this great soul, I had been enabled, as a white man, to do more than anything else I could imagine to fight white supremacy.

Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody will be published this fall. My last note from James, the week before he went into the hospital, was to say how much he lovedthe cover, which features a picture he had found from his triumphant return to his alma mater, Garrett Seminary, to deliver the Harris Franklin Rall lectures in 1970. There he is in all his prophetic audacity, with his afro hairstyle, finger pointed emphatically, standing in the pulpit, proclaiming the gospel of black liberation. The photo is somewhat blurry, but it captures the energy and fire in his message.

The last piece he sent me was the conclusion. It was obviously written with his last ounce of blood, sweat and tears. I tried to read it aloud but couldn’t get through it for my own tears. He had said: “This is the last thing I will write.” He had left it all on the page. There was nothing left to say.

He wrote: “I write because writing is the way I fight. Teaching is the way I resist, doing what I can to subvert white supremacy.” And I felt the satisfaction of knowing that editing and publishing is the way I resist and that through the privilege of working with this great soul, I had been enabled, as a white man, to do more than anything else I could imagine to fight white supremacy, to affirm the sacredness of black lives and to contribute to the beloved community that remains ever on the horizon.

But there was more to it than that. I told him, “Because of you I am a better editor and a better man.”

God bless you, James: author, teacher, wrestling partner, spiritual godfather, beloved friend.

I had recently finished working with my father on his own final memoir, an act of “filial piety” as much as anything else. And I realized that I felt the same way about James Cone. I poured my heart into his book not just because I thought it had an important message for the world but because it was important to him, and there was no better way that I could express my love for him. And I had the satisfaction of knowing that he knew that.

He didn’t exactly use those words. As we parted for the last time, he said, “I’ve enjoyed our conversations, Robert.”

God bless you, James: author, teacher, wrestling partner, spiritual godfather, beloved friend.

It has been a privilege to work with you and to know you. The books you have written and the words you have spoken will carry on the struggle for a better world.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
3 weeks ago

White supremacy is a buzz word today that has no real meaning in the world we live in.

Orlando Patterson, a black sociologist at Harvard, said about 20 years ago concerning the United States

America, while still flawed in its race relations ... is now the least racist white- majority society in the world; has a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, white or black; offers more opportunities to a greater number of black persons than any other society, including all those of Africa .

Blacks, mostly males, face difficult challenges in the United States but it is not due to white supremacy.

People might be interested in a book to be published next week. It is several months long interviews with one of the last slaves brought to America. It has been unpublished for over 85 years.

From Amazon

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo

illuminates the horror and injustices of slavery as it tells the true story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade—abducted from Africa on the last "Black Cargo" ship to arrive in the United States.

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past—memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

Beth Cioffoletti
3 weeks ago

I must read this book.

Bill McGarvey
3 weeks ago

This is a really beautiful tribute. Honesty, respect and love really shine through.

Jason Douglas
1 week 4 days ago

Those books will carry on the struggle for a better world...
Spanish dictionary

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