By now, Pastor Jeremiah Wright and his thoughts about America and her people and culture are well known. Excerpts from sermons have been repeated over and over, both in context and by themselves. He has been interviewed and given an opportunity to explain how the more pejorative statements have been misinterpreted only to stand by them and claim any criticism of his words as “an attack on the Black church.” His most recent speech, opening a multi-day seminar, expanded his victimhood and in the the question and answer session that followed, he was given an opportunity to step back from ideas such as the government created AIDS epidemic but refused to do so. Such is the mind of Jeremiah Wright.
Pastor Wright’s words sound out of place here in the year 2008 since we are to exercise a fair amount of historical reflection and see exactly how much things have changed. The Black Power sentiments echo the demands of a pre Civil rights legislation era and the visions he projects of a corrupt nation run solely by the White Man harken back even further to a time in which those in power might have been rightfully called oppressors. The anger and hatred of America that colors the Reverend’s sermons demands that we stop for a moment to analyze the woes and struggles that have befallen him so that, even if we do not sympathize with him, we are able to have empathy. The trouble is, the more we look at his life, we find that he has led a rather idyllic life growing up unmolested and unable to recount a struggle in the inner city or the hatred of whites.
The media have correctly attributed Pastor Wright’s roots in Black Liberation Theology but have provided little context as to what this might mean. We could turn to Wikipedia as most Googlers will do but to gain a more in-depth foundation we can turn to one of the seminal works on the topic, Black Theology and Black Power by James M. Cone. Published in 1969, this book practically screams with the anger of the times as it looks at an America on the verge of monumental changes in race relations but with many of her citizens still clinging to old hierarchical notions and a history of attributing second class status to its people of color. It is a difficult book to read, not only because of the humility that non-black readers must bring to the words, but because buried in the paragraphs in the message that in order to restore the image of God within them, Blacks must fundamentally separate themselves from White Americans. Rather than integrate with the ‘oppressor’, they must segregate and do for each other.
It is not easy to come to this message as Cone never writes in one paragraph what he can take ten to do (similar to reading more modern works by Cornel West). He comes immediately to terms with a definition of Black Power which will lay the cornerstone of his theology to follow. He says that Black Power means “black people taking the dominant role in determining the black-white relationship in American society.” Cone warns against seeing black theology as antithetical to the Gospel insisting that it is, in fact, “Christ’s central message to twentieth-century America.” This, he asserts, comes from Jesus’ total identification with the poor and oppressed peoples against the ruling authorities.
Coined by Stokely Carmichael, Black Power is in essence a direct response to White racism which negatively created in the Black population an inconsistency in their image of themselves as men and women and the society’s insistence that they were nothing but ‘things’. This disconnection as it was culturally embedded and passed forward through succeeding generations of black citizens, regardless of their free status, creates the chasm that runs through Cone’s vision of Black-White relations (and possibility). Black Power holds to a position that sees the White vision of the Black man as never changing; he (the black man) will forever be but a thing in the eyes of the White (oppressor). The Black man must fight back against this with all of will and power and insist that the White man see him as he is, as a man. It is this key tenet that often draws the mistaken label of black racism. Advocates are careful to distinguish between racism ( the assumption of differences between racial groups and the inherent superiority of one over the other), the hatred of whites by blacks fueled by the previous years of oppression, slavery, and domination, and Black Power, which is the insistence that Blacks be restored in their fundamental humanity in the eyes of whites.
What makes Black Power and the theology that supports it so difficult for whites to accept is that it is anathematic to the pursuit of integration. Black power insists that there be no integration if the terms of such are defined by the dominant white culture and values. It insists instead on a restoration of the relationship defined by the Kingdom of God where all men of all races approach one another cognizant of the divine image within each and on equal footing. Though there is verbal assent to this concept, the challenge to see the inherent beauty and strength in Blackness is a challenge that Cone says whites are unwilling to meet. Only when whites are willing to see and treat the Black man for who and what he is as a man can there be a further discussion. The response to accusations that this is simply black racism and is therefore an inappropriate response to the endemic white racism that Cone sees is rebuffed by the statement “It is time for whites to realize that the oppressor is in no position whatever to define the proper response to enslavement.” This reasoned supposition is rooted in the fact that Whites in America cannot know the extent of black suffering, they can only speak from their perspective.
Finally, Black power draws no differentiation between the white liberal do-gooder who seeks to assuage his guilt by trying to integrate the black and white experience and George Wallaces of this older era. Cone states bluntly that all whites are responsible for white oppression. He makes this statement based on his furtherance of Carmichael’s notion of institutional racism wherein every aspect of society with which black men, women, and children must interact is wholly infected with white racism. Until the society changes, Cone states that Black Power is the only way in which a positive image can be restored in a people unfairly oppressed for a good part of their history.
(Next: Black Theology)