Sankofa: [*] Black Theologies.
The Civil Rights Movement was lauded by my parents: Negroes were making progress. As a teenager, I was more impressed by the development of Motown Records: now Negroes were making real progress. Differences in our thinking crystallized in the summer of 1967, when the city of Detroit seemed to explode.
The Rebellion, which is referred to as "riots" by some, including my parents, was a moment when shifts in strands of meanings are marked in my mind. I remember one confrontation with my mother. Our family did not live too far from the epicenter of the Rebellion. I understood what was occurring on the city's streets on a naive, idealistic level. Words like "Freedom" and "The People" ran through my mind. I wanted to go out and see, but my mother angrily refused to allow me out of the house, stating: "Those people out there get what they deserve." My mother was, in 1967, one of the few black policewomen on the force in Detroit. I knew that she experienced racial and gender discrimination on the job. "How could she take it?," my teenage brain raged. Just working as one of the lonely-only African Americans in an organization, like the police department, seemed a wasted effort. Because she seemed physically fine that 1967 summer, my teen mind could not understand the enormity of what had happened to her just days before. While on duty during this Rebellion, she had been shot by a sniper; neither her race or gender had removed her from the line of fire.
Thinking of the stand-off with my mother, I realize that several questions constructed the ground on which she and I stood for a number of years. Who are Black people? What is important? What do we believe? How did we get here? Where are we going? Civil Rights or Black Power? By peaceful or any means? These are important questions for any people, but the 1960s intensified the need for answers in black communities. Black studies programs started, and some of us began to call ourselves "Black" instead of "Negro." I let my hair go natural, with a huge Afro a la Angela Davis; my mother did not speak to me for a year.
After the 1960s, I struggled with questions of self- and community-understanding. I did not raise these questions alone. When I began to study theology, I found, as have others, that many of the classical North Atlantic theological constructions were inadequate to incorporate the experiences of black people, often because a nonexistent objectivity denied or minimized cultural meaning.
Black theologies, as used here, are inclusive of pastoral and academic efforts to define or construct the religious meanings of Africans in the Americas and elsewhere. The discipline began a focused development during the '60s. Inquiries and contentions, mirroring those between my mother and me, flowed through the discipline's evolvement. Examination of black religious life and meaning was just as personal and sometimes created just as much upheaval as a mother-daughter confrontation.
Throughout the 1960s, political challenges pushed changes in religious meanings. Community activism and political action led to a sharp skepticism about religious liberation, and change in the parameters of religious meaning was bound to come. Historically, there had been strands of the "new" thinking within the intellectual life of the black community since the time of enslavement of Africans. Certainly, there had been indications of new realities with the twentieth-century growth of the Nation of Islam; Elijah Muhammad's Message to a Blackman in America (1965) was a liberation song to many black men and some women. Efforts to name the religious meanings of black people sometimes splintered communities into a range of pro- and con- camps. To come to fruition, these individual efforts awaited the political climate of the late 1960s -- and James Cone's first book, Block Theology and Black Power (1969), which he wrote as a young college professor a few miles from Detroit's Rebellion. In this groundbreaking tex t, Cone defined the compatibility of the Seemingly incongruous concepts of Black Power and Christianity, drawing from histories by oppressed people in the United States, and divorcing the concept of Christian love from any form of submission to oppression. Something new happened in the United States' theological world, as certainly as Detroit's political power base shifted after the '67 Rebellion.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, intense discussions of ethical dilemmas posed by racism shifted centers of theological thought. Rather than divine revelation, the human experiences of black people became a significant starting point for theological construction. This model became an important contribution to theological methodologies as it posed a series of existential questions. How can we talk about God without including the realities of the human condition? If black people were oppressed, what are the implications of a life of faith? Should a believer accept or contest situations of oppression? Did God create black people as less intelligent, less ambitious, less human than other races, as some Christian theologies asserted?
Besides Cone, other theologians began to offer different, sometimes contrasting, visions of the theological dimensions of black religious life. J. Deotis Roberts penned Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology (1971). Henry Mitchell celebrated the unique theological vision contained within Black Preaching (1970). Major Jones wrote Black Awareness: A Theology of Hope (1971). The differences in visions generated energy.
All the excitement was not confined to Christianity or to the academy. Black Muslims worked to remythologize religious meaning for black people. For example, a new origin story was the myth of Yakub, a brilliant but evil, black scientist who created white people. Such ideas might not have made the rounds in scholarly circles, but during the 70s, such popular, vindicating images caught the imaginations of black folk.
A discourse of authenticity ran parallel with vindicationist patterns. Who were the real black people? What defined blackness? A kind of litmus test of blackness began to be applied to religious affiliation in some places. For example, black Catholics were viewed with suspicion (this never applied to black Catholics in Louisiana). Irrefutable black religion was found in Baptist or A.M.E. or other traditionally black churches; therefore, authentic black theology could only come from those sources, some said. Religious affiliation and ecumenism became one level of contention and analysis to which black theologies attended, sometimes painfully, over the years.
Focusing on human experience required constructive, crossdiciplinary tools. Black theologies were multidisciplinary, particularly drawing from history and sociology in the 60s and 70s. The methodological processes continued to experiment with a variety of disciplines: anthropology, ethnography, oral history, process philosophy, and psychology. Such human-centered theological work aimed for application rather than remaining in the classroom as exercises in abstraction. Cone's writing, in one instance, was instrumental in the development of the statement on Black Theology by the National Committee of Black Churchmen in June 1969. Black church leaders, most of whom were pastors and men, developed a statement which connected the concepts of liberation, black communities, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. From its inception, black theology has tended toward activism and intentionally sought to impact American communities' religious meanings.
The determination that the quality of ecclesial life should reflect the realities of the membership was an important related development. Questions of assimilation, integration, accommodation, and separation were raised anew in congregational protocol and polity discussions. Albert Cleage was an activist pastor in Detroit who challenged any belief system that participated in oppression of black people. In 1968, he published Black Messiah, which was a collection of his sermons, and in 1972 Black Christian Nationalism, a more definitive pastoral theology. His statements became the basis of a new denomination. Cleage and three hundred church members walked out of their United Church of Christ and founded the Shrine of the Black Madonna. They identified themselves as inheritors of the 1920s African Orthodox Church of Marcus Garvey.
Even as pastoral applications were attempted, the theoretical explorations of black theology continued. Gayraud Wilmore set forth a new paradigm of understanding African American religious history with his classic text Black Religion and Black Radicalism (1973). While some of his conclusions are contested today, he contributed to understandings of the connections with African religious meaning, and of embedded sociopolitical realities in African Americans' faith lives.
With the climate of scholarly interest in black history during the 1970s, and the influences of Cone and Wilmore, among others, the religious history of black people was a topic of great interest. Milton Sernett wrote Black Religion and American Evangelism in 1975. Wyatt Tee Walker's "Somebody's Calling My Name": Black Sacred Music and Social Change (1979) is considered a classic text in its historiographical analysis of meanings involved in black sacred music, from the spirituals to gospel.
Increasing sophistication in the use of black liberative methodologies grew over the years. As part of that growth, there were two shifts which added complexity and texture to the early studies that must be noted here.
Critically important to the development of black theologies was the growth of womanist theologies and ethics. The one common factor in the early statements of black theology was that they were all by men, speaking for all black people. Black women began to assert ideas of black feminism. Gender became a specific focus for the black theological community. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a sociologist, surfaced roles of women in black churches for scholarly consideration, and was instrumental in beginning the womanist focus in religious studies. A few specific contributions to the development of womanist theology and ethics will offer greater definition of this focus.
Delores Williams sharply defined the distinctiveness of the experiences of black women experiences in an article entitled "The Color of Feminism, or Speaking the Black Woman's Tongue" (1986). The term womanist began to be used to name the uniqueness of black women's theoethical explorations. Since Katie G. Cannon's groundbreaking work, Block Worn anist Ethics (1988), Renita Weems' Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women's Relationships in the Bible (1988), and Jacquelyn Grant's signal work, Black Women's Jesus, White Women's Christ (1989), energetic explorations by womanists and black feminists were brought to theoethical disciplines. Race, with gender, with class, require the attention of the theorist; the issue is no less than justice. Womanist explorations continue.
Another defining moment occurred as the connections between black people in the African Diaspora, and the continent of Africa was considered in greater depth. Cheikh Ante Diop's The African Origins of Civilizations, Myth or Reality was published in the United States in 1974, and the world, for black people, was recentered. The idea of the necessity of an Afrocentric approach grew: this entailed a greater reliance on black-derived and generated sources as logical proofs. This approach was related to the growth of black studies in universities, activism by college students, and the media frenzy inspired by Alex Haley's Roots. Kwanzaa and adolescent rites of passage celebrations were developed, new ritual expressions of Afrocentric values and spirituality that were not connected to specific denominations. Black people began to name ourselves "African American."
Connected with this broader vision, black theologians of the United States were challenged in usage of the word "black," as representative of all black people. Noel Leo Erskine, for example, wrote Decolonizing Black Theology: A Caribbean Perspective in 1981, and took U.S. black theorists to task. Afro-Caribbean religious experience, Erskine and others demonstrated, had unique contributions to make to "black" religious dialogue. Such pan-African consciousness inspired more research among black theologians. Important development of specifically African theologies had already begun in the 1970s within the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. South Africa and the theological analysis of apartheid gave impetus to recognition of African perspectives. One example of such work is an edited volume by Itumeleng J. Mosala and Buti Tlhagale, The Unquestionable Right to Be Free: Black Theology from South Africa (1986). Today, traditional religions and the effects of patriarchy and colonialism continue to be voiced in distinctly African theological perspectives. Related to this theme, there were efforts to identify African connections and remnants in communities of enslaved Africans that have continued in contemporary black religious lives. One example of such study is Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives (1991), edited by Dwight Hopkins and George Cummings.
This look back at the past has begun to edge into the present. There are three current trends in scholarship which I believe will have an impact on future developments. There are two general areas developing which I believe will yield greater riches in black theologies.
Among trends, black theologies reflect an imperative that people of color participate, if not lead, studies about themselves. This trend is fueled by postmodernist and postcolonialist scholarship but is a form of liberation that can enable discussions of identity. The questions asked at the beginning of this essay continue to resonate deeply. Who are African Americans? What is important? What do we believe? How did we get here? Where are we going? Ethnography is even more important as a research tool. Theologian Linda E. Thomas is on the cutting edge of this type of research. This first trend, fueled by womanist theology, can be identified as an internal analysis among black people about the diversity of black life. Gender, age, ability, and class require much more historical research and contemporary framing.
Second, black theology is impacted by the shifting parameters of the concept of race. Who is really black today? Should "mulatto" or "mixed race" become officially designated categories? Critical race theory is also beginning to make an impact on black theologies. Victor Anderson's Beyond Ontological Blackness (1995), reflects the complexities of sliding categories. Anderson contends that black theologians need to get over the myth of "ontological" blackness, which categorizes and confines representations of black people. This myth may have been part of the black "genius" of the past, but Anderson contends that these are contradictory of contemporary realities of cultural politics.
Shifting racial categories are part of the third trend, which is the impact of the "new" politics. As the United States generally rushes to the political and religious right, being too black or too poor in speech or behavior is, at least, a social liability. Workfare, anti-homelessness campaigns, brutal immigration policies, not-so-subtle disenfranchisement of black voters, and union busting are all touted as methods of maintaining economic good times. There are some African Americans who believe that the new politics are liberation themes, and it is not unusual to find some black person speaking against affirmative action or promoting the prison industry in black communities.
From these general trends, I can identify two important areas that are in development among black theologians and ethicists. The first is a continued discussion of spirituality, as experienced by African Americans, and as connected through the African Diaspora. Peter J. Paris's The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (1995) and Emilie M. Townes's In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (1995) are part of longer conversations about the lived spiritualities of black people. The analysis of diversity among black people, including gender and class, continues to be important when considering spiritualities. The Millions' Marches (Men, Women, Youth) in recent years give new indications of ecumenical and religious meaning in United States' black communities.
The second development must entail responses to global living. What will result when Latino/as become the largest group of "minorities" in the U.S.? The Los Angeles race rebellions sear images into my consciousness of African Americans claiming authentic citizenship, in the midst of their own oppressions. African Americans (most of us) remain significantly underemployed. Industries are lifted from underdeveloped black communities, and sometimes exported to nonunion laborers in underdeveloped countries. Urban public school systems are too often failing, and penalized in ways that will ensure continued failure. ("Not enough students passed that test in your city, therefore the state legislature votes to shut down your school board.") Yet students are expected to compete in a global economy, sometimes without access to current technology. Even as this unequal distribution exists, more intense dialogue among Africans throughout the globe is facilitated by technology, particularly the Internet. Black theologies a nd ethics are bound to craft liberative responses to much that is yet developing in the world while analyzing the strands of meanings binding black people.
I recently attended a conference where James Cone was honored for his contributions to theology. He stated that when he began writing, many people in the academy saw the new theological view as a fad. The work has grown and expanded, but there are still some who think black theologies will be gone tomorrow. When I arrived at seminary in the early 1980s, I remember asking my professors: "But how does intellectual abstraction of a proof relate to black people?" I was told that I was learning the real way theology was done and if I wanted more information on my own time, they had heard that someone named Cone had written a book. In the late 1980s as I considered doctoral programs, I specifically requested courses of studies that explored black theologies. Some schools informed me that they specialized in objective and critical theologies, and I was certainly welcome to read a book by James Cone on my own time. A few months ago, I was discussing some of my ongoing research with another woman theologian. My work necessitates doing the historical and cultural studies in order to begin the constructive theology. The woman abruptly ended the discussion: "You aren't doing real theology." Looking back, I am reminded that the development of black theologies is not that old, and continues to develop. Some of the questions about who Africans in America are seem to have been answered, others have been raised, including the need to build coalitions with other oppressed people.
I have learned a few things about rebellion from my mother who is now retired. A few years ago, she and the other college educated women of the Detroit Police Department Women's Division won a class action lawsuit against the city for gender discrimination. Her collaborative, rebellious action inspires words like "Freedom" and "The People" to run through my still idealistic, no longer naive, mind. Sankofa: not a single event, but long-term struggle will be required to shift structures, even in the world of theology.
STEPHANIE MITCHEM is a contributing editor for Cross Currents.
(*.) Sankofa, an Andikra symbol from Ghana, names the objective of this essay. Sankofa is sometimes drawn like a long necked bird, and means, "look to the past to inform the future."