Review: James Cone, the father of black theology
“The blood of black people is crying out to God and to white people from the ground in the United States of America.” -James H. Cone
The Rev. Dr. James Cone’s posthumous final book, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, chronicles the author’s intellectual and spiritual journey as a theologian. Cone’s autobiography is the memoir of a lifetime spent trying to come to terms with his blackness amid the crucible of racism and prejudice in the United States. It is also, in an understated way, a history not only of black theology but of the liberation theologies that arose from the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.
Cone’s autobiography speaks to one of the most pressing issues of our time, racism, through the pain of his experience and the strength of his writing. For Catholics today, it holds one other important truth: Theology does not arrive out of a sterile doctrinal laboratory but from the pains, sufferings and triumphs of the people of God.
Cone’s story begins with a foreword by Cornel West, who declares that Cone, who died in 2018, would want us to view him through “the lens of the cross and the blood at the foot of that cross.” Having lived through some of the most tumultuous times in U.S. history, Cone tells a story that will be familiar to other black intellectuals who were confronted with racism in the classroom. One can feel Cone’s anger—from blurting out to his professor in grad school, “You are a racist!” to struggling with the dichotomy of white theologians who wrote about the Gospel without considering the state of the civil rights movement and violence in the United States—rising in the cadence of his writing.
That anger already appears fully in Chapter One, “Taking Off the Mask,” which chronicles Cone’s struggle to strip away the identity white colleagues attempted to foist upon him. From the time he was told he did not have the grades to get into a doctoral program to challenges about who he truly was as a theologian and scholar, Cone leaned on both his family and the black community of educators who nurtured and continued to support him.
Having lived through some of the most tumultuous times in U.S. history, Cone tells a story that will be familiar to other black intellectuals who were confronted with racism in the classroom.
Several moments stand out in his autobiography for their importance to his career and the future of theological studies. First, Cone’s questioning of the established canon and the racism that both undergirded and perpetuated these Protestant theologies resulted in his first book, Black Theology and Black Power. Cone describes his feelings while writing the book as the spirit of blackness consuming him, fueled by the cultural production of Aretha Franklin, as well as by the works of young black poets like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni.
The richness of black culture undergirded his theological mien, and it is the first important lesson of the book: Theology does not exist in a doctrinal vacuum. It is culled from the culture of the people and the times in which they live, as well as from Christian doctrine and the life of Christ. It does not ignore the signs of the times. That was Cone’s major critique of his colleagues, who could see the history of Protestants but not the history of what Protestantism has done to black people in the United States.
Cone’s critics also play a role in this book, and it is here that the story offers more than simply a triumphal encounter with Cone’s intellectual work. Black religious historians and philosophers, like Charles Long, Gayraud Wilmore and William Jones, challenged Cone’s theology, and although he says, “I did not bow to them,” his subsequent books, The Spirituals and the Blues and God of the Oppressed, were influenced by their challenges and questions. By including his critics, Cone shows a very important fault line not only in black theology but in all theologies that challenge the norm: The Christian tradition is up for change and argument, but one should expect pushback before acceptance.
It is a salient exercise to remind ourselves that at the time when Cone was writing Black Theology and Black Power, the Catholic Church was also experiencing a theological renaissance.
It would be remiss, however, not to consider Cone’s intellectual trajectory alongside the Catholic ferment of the 1960s and beyond. As a historian, I still wonder how the Second Vatican Council ever happened, given the current battles between Catholics in today’s church. It is, however, a salient exercise to remind ourselves that at the time when Cone was writing Black Theology and Black Power, the Catholic Church was also experiencing a theological renaissance. Vatican II had concluded three years prior in 1965. The Episcopal Conference of Latin America in 1968, better known as CELAM, where Gustavo Gutiérrez introduced the term “liberation theology,” would change the Latin American church; and Pedro Arrupe, the superior general of the Jesuits, would first use the term “the preferential option for the poor” in his letter to the order. The work of these and many Catholic theologians of that era would change the church and open the door to freedom for many. It would also eventually end in the silencing of others.
While Cone challenged racism, Catholic theologians challenged capitalism and societal and political oppression. Change was in the wind that would shape both the Catholic church and black Protestants and Protestantism for some time to come.
All this leads to a pressing question: Have these theologies brought freedom and liberation for those for whom they were written? To some extent, historically, yes. Cone’s last book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is a searing look at black suffering and the Christian Gospel. Cone describes how, as he was writing the book, nooses were showing up all over the country. They still are. Cone’s point, however, is that the redemptive significance of black resistance is that we are still resisting—that resistance redeems the lynching tree. Yet the pain of racism and the ongoing fight against white supremacy and racism in the United States still goes on.
Theology does not exist in a doctrinal vacuum. It is culled from the culture of the people and the times in which they live, as well as from Christian doctrine and the life of Christ. It does not ignore the signs of the times.
On the other hand, it is appropriate to remember that many black Christians in the United States shun black theology or do not know what it is. Prosperity gospel churches and moral conservatism in black churches can cause them to look askance at Cone’s legacy. Cone may have been a famous theologian and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, but while he enjoyed a place of prominence, many black churches never invited him to speak.
As a historian, I came to Cone’s book knowing his intellectual history and understanding his place as the father of black theology. The problems and structures of racism that Cone confronted in his many books are still with us today. Cone, unlike many Catholic theologians, was able to take his message to the masses without censure from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or an overzealous pope equating liberation theology with communism. He may have had his critics, but they could not silence him.
One line in this book that struck a chord for me encapsulates where we are today: “The ever-present violence of white supremacy—psychic, physical and spiritual—in the black community should be the chief concern of white Americans. Reconciliation is a white responsibility.”
If there is any message to be found in this book, Cone’s final testament to his rich, engaging life, the above is a final word for those who knew and revered him and an introduction for the people who did not know of him or his work but need to know, especially now in the age of nationalistic and racist ideology in the United States.