Bonhoeffer's Harlem Renaissance

During his 1930-31 fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined his African American classmate Albert Fisher as a regular attendee at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

WHEN BONHOEFFER entered Harlem with Fisher, he met a counternarrative to the white racist fiction of black subhumanity. The New Negro movement radically redefined the public and private characterization of black people. A seminal moment in African American history had arrived, and all of Bonhoeffer’s descriptions of his involvement in African American life during his Sloane Fellowship year occurred during this critical movement. He turned 25 that February. Bonhoeffer was experiencing that critical moment in African American history while he was still young and impressionable.

The New Negro, a book containing a collection of essays, was edited by one of the leading intellectual architects of the movement, Alain Locke. The New Negro, as Locke and his authors appropriated the term, described the embrace of a contradictory, assertive black self-image in Harlem to deflect the negative, dehumanizing historical depictions of black people. The New Negro made demands, not concessions: “demands for a new social order, demands that blacks fight back against terror and violence, demands that blacks reconsider new notions of beauty, demands that Africa be freed from the bonds of imperialism.” Bonhoeffer knew the movement by the descriptor New Negro, but James Weldon Johnson preferred to describe the movement as the Harlem Renaissance ... as a rebirth of black people rather than something completely new. ...

 Bonhoeffer entered Harlem and connected with new friends and ministry partners. He shared their disdain for the injustices leveled against their people, and he could empathize with their demands for dignity, as Germany hoped for a rebirth of their own dignity after the international humiliation associated with World War I. But in America, when Bonhoeffer entered Harlem, he crossed a color line that was meant to endow him with social esteem, access, and privileges that Fisher and every other person of color in the world did not have. In America, Bonhoeffer was white, and in his native Germany he would later recognize and translate his American experience of whiteness as the National Socialist references to die Herrenvolk, the master race.

Harlem Renaissance culture and theology were born from the experiences that African Americans had with white racist terrorism. Bonhoeffer immersed himself in Harlem and saw white America from the perspective of black “American outcasts.” ... He witnessed a white American accommodation of religion and domination in the form of a white Christ. But with African Americans in Harlem, he did not find Christianity striving to accommodate itself to white supremacist civilized society, nor did he find the liberal Christian expression of the Berlin school of theology that trained him in Germany. In Harlem, Bonhoeffer finally heard something different. He encountered a black Christ as the subject of worship in a Christian dialogue about sin, grace, the love of God, and ultimate hope “in a form different from that to which we [Germans] are accustomed.” ...

The “real point” of church and Christianity was apparent to Bonhoeffer in the church of the outcasts, where he heard about Jesus as the center of Christian devotion and where Jesus was celebrated “with captivating passion and vividness.”

From Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, by Reggie L. Williams. Copyright © 2014 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.

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