My Soul Looks Back | Sojourners

My Soul Looks Back

An excerpt from the memoirs of James H. Cone (1936-2018).

When people ask me about the decisive influences on my theological and political perspectives, my response always includes something about my mother and father, and what it meant for a black person to grow up in Bearden, Arkansas, during the 1940s and '50s. The more I reflect on who I am and what is important to me, the more the Bearden experience looms large in my consciousness.

Is it nostalgia? It may be that, but I do not think so. I am not homesick for Bearden or even for the Macedonia A.M.E. Church there. The importance of Bearden is the way it enters my thinking, controlling my theoretical analysis, almost forcing me to answer the questions about faith and life found in the experience of my early years. The people of Bearden are present around my desk as I think and write. Their voices are clear and insistent: "All right, James Hal, speak for your people."

Two things happened to me in Bearden: I encountered the harsh realities of white injustice that were inflicted daily upon the black community; and I was given a faith that sustained my personhood and dignity in spite of white people's brutality. The dual reality of white injustice and black faith, as a part of the structure of life, created a tension in my being that has not been resolved.

If God is good and also all powerful as black church folks say, why do blacks get treated so badly? That was the question that my brother Cecil and I asked at an early age, and it is still the question that creates the intellectual energy and passion for my writing today.

Because of the passion with which I write and speak about white people's oppression of blacks, people sometimes think that I have had personal experience of lynching, rape, police harassment, or some other blatant expression of white brutality common in many places in the South. But that is not the case. In fact, because of the absence of extreme forms of oppression, the white folks of Bearden did not think of themselves as being cruel or unjust to black people.

They regarded the social and political arrangements that they maintained to be an expression of the natural order of creation. White people took it for granted that blacks were supposed to address all white adults as "Mr." and "Mrs.," and they responded by calling all blacks "boy," "girl," or by their first names. If a black person was old enough and also possessed the proper deference, then he or she may have had the dubious honor of being called "uncle" or "auntie."

Other expressions of the black-white social arrangements involved blacks going to the back door, smiling in the presence of whites even when nothing was funny, "colored" and "white" water fountains, and separate waiting rooms at the doctor's office. As I reflect back on my early years in Bearden, there is not any specific manifestation of injustice that stands out, but rather the social ethos that whites created and controlled. It was an ethos that was inherently dehumanizing for black people.

Although the social and political arrangements seemed permanent and unchangeable, I could never reconcile myself to accept the social etiquette of black-white relations. In church, home, and school, I was always taught to resist oppression and injustice.

The person most responsible for my deep resentment against oppression was my father. The tenacity with which he defended his rights and spoke the truth, regardless of the risks, earned him much respect among some blacks and the label "crazy" among others.

My father prided himself in being able to out-think white people, to beat them at their own game. His sixth-grade education was no measure of his quick, substantial intelligence. That was why he walked and talked with much self-confidence, and why he managed to avoid much of the dehumanizing climate of the black-white social arrangements. For example, he refused to work at the sawmills and other factories in and around Bearden because he contended that a black person could not keep his or her dignity and also work for white people.

He also refused to allow my mother to work as a maid even in the hardest times. In extreme circumstances, my mother was willing to endure the humiliation for the sake of our survival, but my father always rejected her offer. He repeatedly told his sons that if he had anything to say about it, his wife and our mother would never be allowed to subject herself to such disgrace. In this context he explained why he always called my mother "Mrs. Cone" in the presence of whites. It was his way of forcing whites to address her with dignity and not by her first name.

Growing up with my father, working with him in the woods, and observing his dealings with whites and blacks had a profound effect upon my perspective about the world. He gave me the conviction that survival for black people requires constant struggle, and that no black should ever expect justice from whites.

Although my father seldom earned more than $1,000 per year and often much less, he refused to allow white politicians to place their stickers on any of his property during election time. He was sometimes offered $200 or $300 for his support, but he always angrily declined the money.

As a child, I was sometimes troubled about why my father refused the money from white politicians, especially when he did vote for some of them, and we did need the money badly. When I asked him about it, he replied quickly and firmly: "Don't ever let anybody buy your integrity, especially white people. Tell them that it is not for sale. Do what you do because it is right and not because of the money involved. And never let yourself be put in a position where you are dependent upon your enemies in order to survive. For God will make a way out of no way, and he will make your enemies your footstool."

The truth of my father's saying became evident in his life. I do not remember ever worrying about our physical survival. In difficult times, when constant rain and cold or some misfortune with the truck prevented him from going into the woods to cut and haul billets, he always responded with a sense of humor: "If the Lord just help me over this little hump, then I will scale the mountain by myself."

The struggle to survive with dignity was not easy for any of the 400 blacks of Bearden. My father filed a law suit against the Bearden school board in the early 1950s on the grounds that the white and black schools were not equal. After the Supreme Court decision of 1954, my father's suit became a case for the integration of the schools. Absolute madness seemed to enter the minds and hearts of the white folks in Bearden at the very idea of blacks and whites going to the same schools. For the first time to my knowledge, Bearden whites began to talk about lynching Charlie Cone because he refused to take his name off the law suit. Fortunately, the lynch mob never came. Legal complications prevented the Bearden schools from being integrated until the 1960s.

In the context of Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church, resistance to white injustice was joined with faith in God's righteousness. My mother was one of the pillars of Macedonia, and a firm believer in God's justice. The spirituality which she embodied was typical of black Christians in Bearden, especially Macedonia. I do not remember any black church person in Bearden ever using religion to cover up oppression or as an escape from the harsh realities of life. Religion was rather the source of identity and survival, on the one hand, and the source of empowerment in the struggle for freedom on the other.

As a source of identity and survival, the faith of the church was what sustained the people when everything else failed. After being treated as things for six days of the week, black folks went to church on Sunday in order to affirm and experience their humanity. In the eyes of the Almighty, they were children of God whose future was not defined by the white structures that humiliated them. The value structures in the society were completely reversed in the church. The last became first, the janitor became the chairman of the Steward Board, and the maid became the president of Stewardess Board Number One. Everybody became somebody, and there were no second-class people at Macedonia.

The black church was the source, not only of identity and survival, but of the socio-political struggle for liberation. During my childhood, every fight for justice and civil rights was initiated in and led by the church. Because there were very few black people who were not dependent upon whites for a livelihood, the burden of leadership fell upon the preacher whose salary was paid by his congregation or upon some other self-employed black person. Seeing so many courageous ministers leading the struggle for justice in the name of the gospel undoubtedly had much to do with why I chose liberation as the central theme of my perspective in black theology.

In 1954, I graduated from high school and entered Shorter, a small two-year unaccredited college of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Later I transferred to Philander Smith, a slightly larger but accredited United Methodist College in Little Rock.

Leaving Bearden and going 80 miles to the "big city" of Little Rock was like going to another country. The problem of the relation between faith and justice could be viewed from a larger perspective. I began to read and hear about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott, and I experienced firsthand the 1957 integration crisis at Central High School.

Those were very rough and tense days. Once again the true nature of American democracy and white religion was revealed, and no amount of clever theological analysis could make black people think that the whites who harassed those nine black children were also Christians. Because white church people seemed not to know the obvious (that justice was God's will), many blacks thought that they were ignorant regarding spiritual and biblical matters and thus needed to be converted.

I must admit that I often made similar assumptions. But I also thought that white people's wrongdoings toward blacks were due to a lack of actual knowledge of what the Bible said and the absence of black confrontation of them with the truth of the gospel. I really wanted to believe that whites desired to do the right, because it was the Christian thing to do. How could anyone claim an identity with Jesus and not be for justice? Because the behavior of whites blatantly contradicted the gospel, and because I thought that whites did such cruel things out of ignorance, I decided that I would inform them when the next appropriate occasion occurred.

One day, while riding the public bus, I sat down next to an elderly, churchly looking white woman who seemed serious and pious. (The buses were legally segregated, but my brother and I never observed that rule.) She quickly got up, uttering angry expletives at me. I went over to her with a smile on my face to calm her down. I said, "Madam, you look like a Christian, and that was why I sat down by you. How could you say the things you said to me when Jesus said that what you do to the least you do to him?"

"You are not Jesus," she replied with hate and violence in her eyes, "Get the hell out of my face, you nigger!'" I began to realize that even if people know the truth, they will not necessarily do it. And religion does not automatically make people sensitive to human pain and suffering.

The existential need to analyze the contradictions in the black experience created in me a ceaseless intellectual curiosity. I wanted to read everything related to human problems that I could get my hands on. Shorter and Philander Smith provided an excellent educational context for the pursuit of my concerns.

I was introduced to a world of scholarship with philosophers, historians, and theologians. I began to read about Socrates and Plato, Aquinas and Luther, Kant and Hegel. The most interesting of all my subjects was "Negro history," as it was called in those days.

The more I read about black history, the more I became proud that I was black. Growing up with proud parents, attending black schools, and becoming a minister in a black church did much to make me proud of my blackness. But such things cannot sustain one's sense of worth in a racist society without a knowledge of one's past. A person without a past is a person without an identity. And the absence of an identity is very serious, because without self-knowledge others can make you become what they desire.

As I reflected on this issue, the more complex it became. I needed more help with the actual content of black history. For the first time, I began to read Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Carter G. Woodson. Reading black thinkers, mostly historians, I encountered the various ways that black people have struggled against white racism. I learned that black people have never been as passive as whites had suggested in their history books. Therefore my contemporary rebellious spirit had its roots in earlier black generations. This knowledge was quite liberating.

When I left Little Rock for Evanston, Illinois, to attend Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) in 1958, I was hardly ready for the emotional and intellectual challenge that awaited me. My brother land I went to Evanston to attend Garrett together, and we mistakenly believed that blacks were really free "up north."

My first awakening occurred when I decided to go for a haircut at a white barber shop. When I walked in, I thought that I noticed expressions of surprise on the white faces inside. As soon as I sat down, one of the barbers came over to me and said, "We don't cut niggers' hair in this place."

"Excuse me," I replied, "but I am not a nigger. It appears that you and your customers are the niggers." I quickly departed, not knowing emotionally how to assimilate the experience. I have never really quite gotten over it.

The problem was my naivete. Garrett was not only "up north," but was a Christian institution. One would think that having experienced the contradiction of faith and justice in the white churches of Arkansas, I would have been ready for a few contradictions at Garrett as well.

My expectation of fairness while at Garrett raises the larger question of why many black people continue to believe that they will receive justice from whites when there is so little in our history to warrant it. Even a casual reading of black history in the United States shows that many black people really expected freedom after the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II. In fact, this spirit of black optimism was partly the philosophical foundation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The dominant theme in black life appears to be the belief that one day whites will do right.

Regardless of my expectation to find justice at Garrett, very little was found there. Many professors treated black students as if they were dumb. One professor was well-known for the racist jokes that he told regularly in his classes. Ironically, he taught Christian ethics.

Within the context of Garrett's hostile, strange, and white environment, I barely made all C's my first quarter. The drop from an A student in college to a C student in seminary was very humiliating. When I went to talk to my professors about my grades, they looked at me with amazement. All contended that I deserved less, and that it was out of their Christian spirit that I received the grades I did. All said in their own way that they did not expect blacks to do any better than average and tried to encourage me to be content with my "black inferiority."

I was determined to make liars of my professors regarding my intellectual ability. During the second quarter, I decided to take only two courses, the minimum for registration as a full-time student.

My chief difficulty was with writing term papers. I purchased a ninth-grade English text and began an independent program of learning how to write. I was embarrassed, but my pride in proving my professors wrong was more important than the embarrassment of studying a ninth-grade text. I began to realize that if I were going to achieve any degree of success as a writer in graduate school, I would have to consider the people to whom I was writing, and the form in which they expected good writing to appear.

Although I was still struggling with my writing, I had become a straight A student by the time I reached my senior year. When I took the Comprehensive Exams for the Bachelor of Divinity (now Master of Divinity) degree, I passed with distinction. Later I was awarded the systematic theology prize for being the best student in that area.

During my senior year I decided to apply for the program leading to the Ph.D. degree.

Garrett had never had a black Ph.D. student. When I went to inquire about the M.A. and Ph.D. program at Garrett-Northwestern, the acting graduate advisor at Garrett, the professor of Christian ethics, looked at me as if I were insane. "You are not going to apply for the M.A. and Ph.D. program, are you? Well, I will inform you now that you will not be accepted. You don't have a chance. In fact, there are several straight A white students from Yale and Harvard whom we are rejecting. Now what chance do you think you have?"

I realized later that the graduate advisor was acting on his own prejudice and was not implementing stated academic policy. His comments about Yale and Harvard students were meant to intimidate me and actually were not true. Many Garrett students with averages much lower than mine were accepted for the M.A. and Ph.D. program.

But at the time I was depressed. I went to William Hordern, a professor of systematic theology who had encouraged me to apply to the program, and told him what had been told to me. He became angry, and his response was emphatic: "Jim, you go right ahead and apply, and if you're not accepted, I'll quit." That was the first time that any white person had ever put himself on the line for me. I relaxed, because I knew that Garrett would not let one of its best and most respected scholars depart over a matter such as this.

Even though all Ph.D. students were automatically given major scholarships, I never received any form of financial assistance from Garrett, except a permission for me to borrow about $1,000 from the federal government. I had to work part time as a janitor and painter, labor 12 hours per week for a white family who owned the garage apartment where I lived, and also serve as an assistant pastor at Woodlawn A.M.E. Church in Chicago. Working many hours, however, was not my major difficulty.

My most difficult problem in graduate school was learning how to stay in school during the peak of the civil rights movement. Many of my black classmates, including my brother, were deeply engaged in the civil rights struggle. Some blacks asked me how I could stay in the library reading ancient documents about Nicea and Chalcedon, while blacks were fighting for their freedom in the streets. All I knew then was that I had an intellectual craving to do theology and to relate it to black people's struggle for justice.

Equally problematic for my stay at Garrett was the absence of the discussion of racism as a theological problem. For a black person who was born in the South and whose church had come into being because of racism, the failure to discuss racism as a central problem in theology appeared strange and racist to me.

Even though the civil rights movement was the hottest news item in America and had been identified by most as the critical problem facing the churches of the 1960s, no theologians defined the problem as a central issue in theology. Most North American theologians identified their task as keeping up with the problems defined by European theologians.

Before completing my doctoral dissertation, I accepted a teaching position at Philander Smith College in January, 1964. I completed my dissertation during the summer, defended it successfully in the fall, and participated in the graduation exercises in the spring of 1965.

There were five students receiving the Ph.D. degree in religion at Garrett-Northwestern that year, and I stood in the middle, two others on each side, and with a sense of pride in my achievement. I waited for the Garrett professor who told racist jokes and who said that I would never be accepted into the Ph.D. program. He congratulated the first two doctoral students, shaking their hands; then he skipped me as I extended my hand, and went to the next two, congratulating them for their outstanding achievement. I could not believe that he could continue to be so obvious with his racism. But I smiled. Getting a Ph.D. degree was a milestone.

I returned to Philander Smith with enthusiasm. But what did Barth, Tillich, and Brunner have to do with young black girls and boys coming from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi seeking to make a new future for themselves? This was the major question for me. And it was further intensified by the civil rights struggle.

I experienced the contradiction between theology as a discipline and the struggle for black freedom in the streets at the deepest level of my being. How was I going to resolve it? I had spent six years studying theology and now found it irrelevant to the things that mattered most to me.

I tried my hand at writing articles about Barth, Feuerbach, and the death of God theology for publication. They were rejected, and rightly so, because my heart was not in them. I was in an intellectual quandary. On the one hand, I was involved existentially with the civil rights movement, but on the other, I did not know how to relate theology to the black struggle for justice.

In 1966 I left Philander because the administration made it clear to me that my departure would be welcome. It appeared that I was not properly submissive to the white people who controlled the board of trustees. These people were unquestionably committed to keeping Philander mediocre so that it would not in any way compete with another (white) United Methodist institution, Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas, only about 30 miles from Little Rock. Therefore many young black professors were urged to leave, and some administrators were dismissed when they became too interested in the best education for black students.

I went to teach at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. It was not until I moved to Adrian that a clear outline of a black theology began to emerge in my theological consciousness.

Adrian provided me with time for reflection which I had never had before. I felt alone and isolated there. My salvation was found in black music (spirituals, gospels, blues, and jazz) combined with a disciplined program of reading black literature and other writers concerned about human suffering. I immersed myself in the writings of Baldwin, Wright, Fanon, Camus, Sartre, and Ellison as well as the new black writers emerging from the context of the black power movement.

When I compared these writers with Barth, Tillich, Brunner, and Niebuhr, I concluded that I was in the wrong field. How could I continue to allow my intellectual life to be consumed by the theological problems defined by people who had enslaved my grandparents?

The challenge to say something about God and the black liberation struggle was enhanced as I read and heard the comments of white theologians and preachers who condemned black violence but said nothing about the structural white violence that created it. They quoted Jesus' sayings to blacks about "love your enemy" and "turn the other cheek" but ignored any application to themselves. I could hardly contain my rage.

It seemed that both my Christian and black identity were at stake. My first priority was my black identity, and I was not going to sacrifice it for the sake of a white interpretation of the gospel that I had learned at Garrett. If Christ were not to be found in black people's struggle for freedom, if he were not found in the ghettos with rat-bitten children, if he were in rich white churches and their seminaries, then I wanted no part of him.

The issue for me was not whether black power could be adjusted to meet the terms of a white Christ, but whether the biblical Christ was to be limited to the prejudiced interpretations of white scholars. I was determined to set down on paper what I felt in my heart.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968, marked a turning point in the political consciousness of many black Americans regarding nonviolence as a method for social change and as an expression of Christian love. Although I had embraced black power before King's murder, that event intensified my conviction and made me more determined to write an extended essay equating black power with the Christian gospel.

By the summer of that year, I had so much anger pent up in me that I had to let it out or be destroyed by it. The cause of my anger was not merely my reaction to the murder of Martin King. Neither was it due simply to the death of Malcolm X or the killing of so many blacks in the cities. My anger stretched back to the slave ships, the auction block, and the lynchings. But even more important were my personal encounters with racism in Bearden, Little Rock, Evanston, and Adrian. From these experiences, I promised myself that I would never again make a political or theological compromise with racism.

The writing of Black Theology and Black Power that summer was a therapeutic and liberating experience for me. It is an understatement to say that I did not attempt to write a "balanced" and "objective" view regarding black-white relations in theology, church, and society. I knew whose side I was on, and I was not going to allow my training in white academic scholarship to camouflage my feelings.

When it became clear to me that my intellectual consciousness should be defined and controlled by black history and culture and not by standards set in white seminaries and universities, I could feel in the depth of my being a liberation that began to manifest itself in the energy and passion of my writing. Writing for the first time seemed as natural as talking and preaching.

The writing of Black Theology and Black Power was also a conversion experience. It was like experiencing the death of white theology and being born again into the theology of the black experience.

I now realized why it had been so difficult for me to make the connection between the black experience and theology. Racists do not define theology in a way that challenges their racism. To expect white theologians to voluntarily make theology relevant to black people's struggle for justice is like expecting Pharoah in Egypt to voluntarily liberate Israelites from slavery. It is the victims and those who identify with them that must make the connection between their struggle and the gospel.

What then was and is the relationship between my training as a theologian and the black struggle for freedom? For what reason had God allowed a poor black boy from Bearden to become a professional systematic theologian? As I struggled with these questions and the ambiguity involved in my vocation, I could not escape the overwhelming conviction that God's Spirit was calling me to do what I could for the enhancement of justice in the world, especially on behalf of my people. It seemed obvious to me that the best contribution I could make was to uncover the hypocrisy of the white church and its theology.

I had been studying and teaching white theology for more than 10 years and had achieved the highest professional degree possible. Not many blacks had my technical training in theology, and no one, not even white theologians, could question my academic credentials. I felt that God must have been preparing me for this vocation, that is, the task of leveling the most devastating black critique possible against the white church and its theology.

As I wrote, I kept thinking about my slave grandparents in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, and of the silence of white theologians about their struggle to survive the whip and the pistol. I also thought about the auction block and the Underground Railroad, and what both meant for the realities of slavery and black people's struggle to liberate themselves in an extreme situation of oppression.

I could not avoid thinking of my mother and father, who were still living in Bearden at the time, and their struggle to create a humane and Christian environment for their children. Lucy and Charlie Cone had worked hard and endured much white abuse in Bearden so that I could have a sense of worth and self-confidence, thereby enabling me to become a teacher and writer of Christian theology. I had to say something that would represent the truth of their lives.

The universal manifestation of courage and resistance that I saw in my father's life continues to make anything that I might achieve seem modest and sometimes insignificant. At most, what I say and do are just dim reflections of what my parents taught and lived. If they, risking livelihood and life, could make a stand against the white folks of Bearden, cannot I, protected by tenure and doctorate, at least say a few words and do a few things that represent the truth of black life?

James Cone was professor of systematic theology at Union Seminary and the author of several books, including Black Theology (with Gayrand Wilmore) and God of the Oppressed, when this article appeared.

From My Soul Looks Back by James H. Cone. Copyright © 1982 by Abingdon. Published October, 1982. Used by permission.

This appears in the September 1982 issue of Sojourners
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