U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Strange Fruit of American Religion

Editor's Note

The themes touched on in this guest post by intellectual and gender historian Lilian Calles Barger are further explored in her new book, The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology, Oxford University Press, 2018. Barger is currently researching the history of feminist thought and the gender revolution.

— Anthony Chaney

Langston Hughes wrote his poem “Christ in Alabama” in 1931, in response to the Scottsboro Boys trial. In forty-seven words and thirteen pared-down lines, the poem captures two hundred years of racist injustice. It depicts Christ as a black Jew, the bastard son of a black “mammy” and a white father “God.” The black Christ has been a constant theme of African American religion, along with the motif of the Exodus and final overcoming. It’s a familiar one, too, in black political thought, from Countee Cullen’s 1922 poem “Christ Recrucified” to Albert Cleage’s The Black Messiah (1968). Hughes’ poem is in this tradition and portrays a religion that legitimizes white power and teaches African Americans to loathe themselves. It is a stark depiction of the racism in which American religion is embroiled.[i]

Many white Christians found Hughes’ poem troubling. His reading of it at the University of North Carolina to a mostly white audience nearly incited a riot. For one audience member, it was “bad enough to call Christ a bastard but to call Him a nigger—that’s too much.” For theologian James Cone, however, confronting religion’s role in perpetuating American racism was precisely what was necessary. One might say “Christ in Alabama” presents a capsule statement of Cone’s theological project. As did Hughes’ poem, the black theology of James Cone brought the issues of race, gender, and politics to religion as a way to imagine new forms of solidarity among Americans.[ii]

In the late 1960s, Cone felt compelled to respond to two interrelated matters. One was Black Power’s rejection of African American churches. The other was the nation’s rejection of Black Power, which Cone, in contrast, regarded as “God’s central message to twentieth-century America.” After all, he argued, African American churches had kept hope for freedom alive and black labor power had built the nation.[iii]

As Cone saw it, racism had been enshrined under a sacred canopy, and he intervened theologically to bring it down. He began with Black Theology and Black Power (1969) and continued in many subsequent books. But first he had to go through his own existential crisis of faith. That included a critical assessment of the modern and rarefied theology he had received at Garrett Seminary. That theology, Cone concluded, ignored not only the sin of racism but also black people–as though hundreds of years of subjugation under masters who claimed to be Christians had never happened. Theological themes of sin and salvation, obedience to God, and universal brotherhood took on a racist cast that had been obscured by abstraction. (Feminists would make the same point about sexism, but that is for another day.) The result was a biblical hermeneutic producing an image of a white God as the ultimate legitimizing prop for a racist society. White liberationist Frederick Herzog called this the problem of a “honkified” Christ. To remedy the problem, James Cone exchanged theological abstraction for a theology “from below.”[iv]

Undoing white supremacy and responding to the militant rejection of religion by Black Power required deconstructing a white racist God and discovering one in solidarity with the suffering of black people. Finding a God in solidarity meant exploring black historical experience and listening to the content of sermons, speeches, prayers, poetry, and songs in which the rumbling sounds of divine movement could be heard.

Cone engaged in a more thorough exploration of black expression in his book The Spirituals and the Blues (1972). There he demonstrates the historical presence of a distinct black theology that ran as a parallel stream to white religious thought. The antiphonal structure, the pathos, and the hope expressed in slave and freedmen’s songs offered Cone a path for redefining God as partial to black people and for declaring “God is Black.” From slaves who cried “My Lord delivered Daniel/Why can’t he deliver me?” to the freedman’s plea “Our father, who is in heaven/White man owe me eleven and pay me seven,” black 5people appealed to God for freedom and justice. Cone rejected the argument that black religion had been one of escape from a wretched world to a promise of heaven above. Rather than having a privatized religion or following the abstraction of white theologians, black people had a theology based in their stories of daily struggle. The meaning of freedom was in a holistic struggle for liberation.[v]

After decades of building a black theological movement, Cone (who died on April 28, 2018) published his last book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011). The book engages with Abel Meeropol’s haunting poem “Strange Fruit” (1937) made famous by Billie Holiday. In a moving lament, Cone reaffirms, “Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we learn to identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no … deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.” It was this image, he argued to the end of his life, that had “sustained and empowered black people to resist the forces that would destroy the dignity of their souls and bodies.” Black religion and theology born in the crucible of oppression offered the necessary vitalism for political freedom. Without it, black people were doomed to serve a “White Master above.”[vi]

Christ in Alabama
by Langston Hughes

Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black–
Oh, bare your back.

Mary is His mother
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.

God is His father–
White Master above
Grant Him your love.

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth,
Nigger Christ
On the cross of the South

[i] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011, 93.

[ii] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 114.

[iii] James H. Cone, “Christianity and Black Power,” in Is Anybody Listening to Black America, ed. Eric Lincoln (New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1968), 4–7.

[iv] Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey have written a magnificent history of the white God and African American response in The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

[v] James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1972, 41, 62.

[vi] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, xv.

[vii] Langston Hughes, “Christ in Alabama,” Contempo (December 1, 1931), 1.