I remember where I was when I found out that theologian James Hal Cone had died. It wasn’t far from where, over 50 years earlier, Cone had received a bachelor of divinity degree from Garrett-Evangelical School of Theology and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Northwestern University in Chicago. I myself was in graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in theology at Wheaton College, in Illinois. In fact, I found out about Cone’s death while reading and writing about him for one of my classes. Upon hearing the news of his passing, I felt a combination of sadness, anger, and responsibility.
Why? Because his death forced me to face my earlier dismissals of him and his work; it forced me to face myself. What was I afraid of before? And, did he have to die now — just when I had gotten to him?
My early suspicion of Cone was reflexive. I had been formed in the intercessory prayer meetings of pious Afro-Caribbean Pentecostalism and naturalized in the halls of white evangelical academia during the so-called “post-racial” years of the Obama presidency. In those churches of my youth, racism was real, “but not nearly as bad as it had been in the past.”
In any case, I was taught that only Jesus’ return could ultimately right these wrongs; the world as we know it was headed to hell in a handbasket. Our work in the meantime was to cultivate the inner life — to be sanctified. What this sanctification ultimately amounted to, practically speaking, was a rigid system of personal piety aimed (often exclusively) at the management of individual sins.
During college, racism was a disposition and bore no explicit relationship to material circumstances. Racists were people who had ignorant ideas about people who didn’t look like them. Besides, hadn’t Jesus already torn down the dividing wall that separates “Jews and Greeks,” and “Blacks and whites”? Our work was to preach a universal message of redemption — to proclaim a gospel that would, eventually, remove ignorant ideas from people’s heads one by one — thereby solving the problem of racism. Ultimately, I had been taught by the white evangelical professors in my undergraduate program at Moody Bible Institute to believe that Cone’s unapologetically Black theology rang outdated at best and dangerously ethnocentric at worst.
Then came the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile. An avowed white supremacist murdered nine members of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church during a Wednesday night Bible study. And the United States was on the verge of electing a president who would later refer to Haiti and nations in Africa as “shithole countries.” The harsh realities of anti-blackness in the U.S. were increasingly impossible to ignore. These demons were everywhere, and they required something besides prayer and fasting. I was afraid, perhaps really for the first time, that being Black in the U.S. could cost me my life. I was angry at those who endangered my life by telling me to believe otherwise. But most of all, I was embarrassed that, for so long, I had believed them.
So, I turned to Cone to sit and to learn and maybe even to apologize. And then, on April 28, 2018, he died.
* * *
I remember how it felt when I found out about Cone’s death. It was unbelievable, though I wasn’t sure why it felt that way. Later, I realized that Cone’s death seemed impossible because he had made such a unique contribution to the theological world and his death now left a chasm. Cone is largely considered to be the “father” of Black theology because he explicitly took on the realities of racism and Black death in the U.S. as a serious problem for Christian theology. He refused to accept the lie that explicitly promoting Black life — particularly under conditions of anti-blackness — was somehow a distraction from the message of the gospel. Cone helped me see that, in a world marked by and built on Black death, the affirmation of Black life is nothing less than the work of God.
Cone had humble beginnings; a Black boy from Arkansas (a lynching state), he would eventually become the first Black person to receive a Ph.D. in theology from Northwestern. He would go on to teach at the historic Union Theological Seminary, holding a distinguished chair for more than 40 of his nearly 50 years at the institution. Credited as the “father of Black theology,” Cone explained in his book, God of the Oppressed (1975), that “[Jesus] is black because he was a Jew.” In other words, because the oppressed social existence of Black people in the United States is analogous to the oppressed social existence of Jews in first-century Palestine, if Jesus revealed himself as Jewish in the first century then he reveals himself as Black today.
Cone’s career was dedicated to the development of the idea that God unequivocally identifies with the oppressed and, indeed, that Jesus is Black. Therefore, according to Cone, the crucifixion testifies to the horrific violence perpetrated by the state against Black people. In his award-winning text, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011), Cone explains that the lynching tree reveals the horror of the cross as “a first-century lynching” and exposes the bloody realities of those lynched in contemporary U.S. society.
Cone argues that the cross is a symbol for those who have been crucified on the lynching tree. On the one hand, the cross, like the lynching tree, signals utter despair and nihilism. On the other hand, the cross also points “in the direction of hope.” And the hope is this: In the face of the crucifixion, in the face of death’s “no,” the resurrection represents God’s “yes” to Black life.
Cone gestures toward this “yes” in his remembering Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who was brave enough to wonder aloud why it was that God would allow such a horrible thing as lynching. Her Job-like lament lit a fire in Black communities and helped inspire the civil rights movement. Cone is careful not to instrumentalize Black suffering, writing that it “always poses the deepest test of faith, radically challenging its authenticity and meaning.”
“No rational explanation,” Cone continues, “can soothe the pain of an aching heart and troubled mind.” And yet, like Mamie Till-Mobley relating her son’s lynching to the crucifixion of Jesus, “black Christians could only reach into the depth of their religious imagination for a transcendent meaning that could take them through despair to a hope ‘beyond tragedy,’” writes Cone.
The point, for Cone, was not to provide an objective interpretation or theory of “redemptive suffering.” It was, at least in part, to recognize the ways that our particular experiences and our interpretations of those experiences are crucial to the theological task of making meaning. Black theology exposes the reality that standards of theological “objectivity” and “detachment” are not only impossible (because every theologian writes from a particular perspective, whether or not they acknowledge it), but that these standards also sustain the status quo, constraining Black life.
Cone wrote that his first text, Black Theology and Black Power (1969), was “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.” How could the Christian theologian be neutral, detached, and dispassionate about the forces that continue to extinguish Black life? Cone recognized that this, too, was an act of control, an exercise of political-theological power, and a tool of white supremacy.
Given his emphasis on Black life and his rejection of theological neutrality, it is no surprise that Cone’s final text about Black theology, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody (2018), was written in the form of an autobiography — “a medium African Americans have chosen to speak [through] from the slave narratives to the present,” Cone explained.
The book’s title is drawn from a traditional Black gospel hymn, “I Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” and each chapter title is drawn from a line in the song. Cone uses these lyrics as themes to be developed in the narration of his relationship with the Black freedom struggle and his development of Black liberation theology. Cone’s final text demonstrates that the interpretation and narration of one’s own story is a profoundly theological act because this process encourages us to ask questions about the shape and direction of our own lives.
Reading Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody pushed me to confront my own story. In reflecting on his kowtowing to the status quo, Cone remembered feeling like he was “wearing a mask” in order “not to show [his] real self, for fear of offending white people.” Unlike Cone, I did not grow up in the South during the lynching era, but I had my own concerns and fears that were born out of the Pentecostal prayer meetings and white evangelical classrooms, and I wore my own mask.
But thanks to Cone, I was able to take off my mask and realize that socio-political neutrality was no longer an option and that if the world was headed to hell in a handbasket, I had a responsibility to push back against the status quo. Taking off my mask helped me to be able to distinguish between the white professors and pastors who encouraged my work because they saw gifts and those who simply thought I would be a Black body with white words.
Since Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody was published in 2018, we have mourned the deaths of Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many other Black lives. We have marched and we have cried. Even now, we hope for Ralph Yarl’s full recovery. Cone’s concluding words from Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody are as relevant as ever: “I can’t stop thinking about black blood,” he wrote, “the cry of black blood that I heard in Detroit (1967) more than fifty years ago is still crying out all over America today.”
Ultimately, it was Cone who helped me realize that, in a world that has grown accustomed to Black death, the affirmation of Black life is theological and telling one’s story, in spite of the circumstances which constrain one’s ability to do so, is nothing less than the work of God. Social and political forces of anti-blackness, along with standards of theological objectivity that conceal power, conspired to keep James Hal Cone silent. But I, for one, am grateful that he lived, and that he couldn’t keep his story to himself.
* * *
I never got to apologize to Cone. Though, I suspect he wouldn’t want an apology so much as he would want me to interpret and tell my story. So, what does that mean for me, a second-generation Afro-Caribbean immigrant born at the twilight of the 20th century, formed by Pentecostalism, and tried by white evangelicalism? I’m not sure just yet. Said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody anyway.