The Gospel of the Penniless, Jobless, Marginalized and Despised January 9, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Poverty, Race, Racism, Religion.
Tags: African Americans, black power, chris hedges, Civil Rights, james baldwin, james cone, jim crow, lynching, poverty, Race, racism, reinhold niebuhr, religion, roger hollander, slavery, the cross, theology
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(Photo: Michael Kalus)
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree are separated by nearly two thousand years,” James Cone writes in his new book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” “One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.”
So begins James Cone, perhaps the most important contemporary theologian in America, who has spent a lifetime pointing out the hypocrisy and mendacity of the white church and white-dominated society while lifting up and exalting the voices of the oppressed. He writes out of his experience as an African-American growing up in segregated Arkansas and his close association with the Black Power movement. But what is more important is that he writes out of a deep religious conviction, one I share, that the true power of the Christian Gospel is its unambiguous call for liberation from forces of oppression and for a fierce and uncompromising condemnation of all who oppress.
Cone, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, writes on behalf of all those whom the Salvadoran theologian and martyr Ignacio Ellacuría called “the crucified peoples of history.” He writes for the forgotten and abused, the marginalized and the despised. He writes for those who are penniless, jobless, landless and without political or social power. He writes for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those who are transgender. He writes for undocumented farmworkers toiling in misery in the nation’s agricultural fields. He writes for Muslims who live under the terror of war and empire in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he writes for us. He understands that until white Americans can see the cross and the lynching tree together, “until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black-body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”
“In the deepest sense, I’ve been writing this book all my life,” he said of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” when we spoke recently. “I put my whole being into it. And did not hold anything back. I didn’t choose to write it. It chose me.”
“I started reading about lynching, and reading about the historical situation of the crosses in Rome in the time of Jesus, and then my question was how did African-Americans survive and resist the lynching terror. How did they do it?” [Nearly 5,000 African-American men, women and children were lynched in the United States between 1880 and 1940.] “To live every day under the terror of death. I grew up in Arkansas. I know something about that. I watched my mother and father deal with that. But the moment I read about it, historically, I had to ask how did they survive, how did they keep their sanity in the midst of that terror? And I discovered it was the cross. It was their faith in that cross, that if God was with Jesus, God must be with us, because we’re up on the cross too. And then the other question was, how could white Christians, who say they believe that Jesus died on the cross to save them, how could they then turn around and put blacks on crosses and crucify them just like the Romans crucified Jesus? That was an amazing paradox to me. Here African-Americans used faith to survive and resist, and fight, while whites used faith in order to terrorize black people. Two communities. Both Christian. Living in the same faith. Whites did lynchings on church grounds. How could they do it? That’s where [my] passion came from. That’s where the paradox came from. That’s where the wrestling came from.”
“Many Christians embrace the conviction that Jesus died on the cross to redeem humankind from sin,” he said. “Taking our place, they say, Jesus suffered on the cross and gave his life as a ransom for many. The cross is the great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation. Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, the symbol of salvation has been detached from the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings, the crucified people of history. The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the cost of discipleship, it has become a form of cheap grace, an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission.”
Cone’s chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr, the most important Christian social ethicist of the 20th century and a theologian whose work Cone teaches, exposes Niebuhr’s blindness to and tacit complicity in white oppression. Slavery, segregation and the terror of lynching have little or no place in the theological reflections of Niebuhr or any other white theologian. Niebuhr, as Cone points out, had little empathy for those subjugated by white colonialists. Niebuhr claimed that North America was a “virgin continent when the Anglo-Saxons came, with a few Indians in a primitive state of culture.” He saw America as being elected by God for the expansion of empire, and, as Cone points out, “he wrote about Arabs of Palestine and people of color in the Third World in a similar manner, offering moral justification for colonialism.”
Cone reprints a radio dialogue between Niebuhr and writer James Baldwin that took place after the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls. Niebuhr, who spoke in the language of moderation that infuriated figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Baldwin, was disarmed by Baldwin’s eloquence and fire.
The only people in this country at the moment who believe either in Christianity or in the country are the most despised minority in it. … It is ironical … the people who were slaves here, the most beaten and despised people here … should be at this moment … the only hope this country has. It doesn’t have any other. None of the descendants of Europe seem to be able to do, or have taken it on themselves to do, what Negros are now trying to do. And this is not a chauvinistic or racial outlook. It probably has something to do with the nature of life itself. It forces you, in any extremity, any extreme, to discover what you really live by, whereas most Americans have been for so long, so safe and so sleepy, that they don’t any longer have any real sense of what they live by. I think they really think it may be Coca-Cola.
“If Niebuhr could ignore it, there must be something defective in that faith itself,” Cone said. “If it weren’t defective then they wouldn’t put black people on crosses. Niebuhr wouldn’t have been silent about it. I look around and see the same thing happening today in the prison industrial complex. You can lynch people by more than just hanging them on the tree. You can incarcerate them. How long will this terror last? I’m Christian. Suffering gives rise to faith. It helps you deal with it. But at the same time suffering contradicts the faith that it gave rise to. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I can’t give up with the wrestling.”
Cone wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. But Barth, he admits, never moved him deeply. Cone found his inspiration in the black church, along with writers such as Baldwin, Albert Camus and Richard Wright, as well as the great blues artists of his youth. These artists and writers, not the white theologians, he said, gave him “a sense of awe.” He saw that “for most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance.” It was religion and the blues that “offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.” In the words of great poets and writers, in the verses of the great blues singers and in the thunderous services of the black church, not in the words of white theologians, Cone discovered those who were able to confront the bleak circumstances of their lives and yet defy fate and suffering to make the most of what little life had offered them. He had through these connections found his own voice, one that was powerfully expressed in his first work, the 1969 manifesto “Black Theology & Black Power.” Cone understood that “when people do not want to be themselves, but somebody else, that is utter despair.” And he knew that his faith “was the one thing white people could not control or take away.” He quotes the bluesman Robert Johnson:
I got to keep movinnnn’, I got to keep movinnnn’, Blues fallin’ like hail And the day keeps on worrin’ me, There’s a hellhound on my trail.
“I wanted to go back to study literature and get a Ph.D. in that at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and do it with Nathan Scott [who was then teaching theology and literature at the University of Chicago],” he said. “But the freedom movement was too urgent. I said to myself, ‘You have a Ph.D., if you ain’t got nothing to say now you ain’t never going to have anything to say.’ I’ve never taught a course on Barth.”
“I like people who talk about the real, concrete world,” he said. “And unless I can feel it in my gut, in my being, I can’t say it. The poor help me to say it. The literary people help me to say it—Baldwin is my favorite. Martin King is the next. Malcolm is the third element of my trinity. The poets give me energy. Theologians talk about things removed, way out there. They talk to each other. They give each other degrees. The real world is not there. So that is why I turn to the poets. They talk to the people.”
“Being Christian is like being black,” Cone said. “It’s a paradox. You grow up. You wonder why they treat you like that. And yet at the same time my mother and daddy told me ‘don’t hate like they hate. If you do, you will self-destruct. Hate only kills the hater, not the hated.’ It was their faith that gave them the resources to transcend the brutality and see the real beauty. It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery how African-Americans, after two and half centuries of slavery, another century of lynching and Jim Crow segregation, still come out loving white people. Now, most white people don’t think I love them, but I do. They always feel strange when I say that. You see, the deeper the love, the more the passion, especially when the one you love hurt you. Your brothers and sisters, and yet they treat you like the enemy. The paradox is, is that in spite of all that, African-Americans are the only people who’ve never organized to take down this nation. We have fought. We have given our lives. No matter what they do to us we still come out whole. Still searching for meaning. I think the resources for that are in the culture and in the religion that is associated with that. That faith and that culture, it was the blues of the spiritual, that faith and that culture gives African-Americans a sense that they are not what white people say they are.”
Cone sees the cross as “a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.” This idea, he points out, is absurd to the intellect, “yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk.” The crucified Christ, for those who are crucified themselves, manifests “God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the ‘troubles of the world,’ no matter how great and painful their suffering.” Cone elucidates this paradox, what he calls “this absurd claim of faith,” by pointing out that to cling to this absurdity was possible only when one was shorn of power, when one was unable to be proud and mighty, when one understood that he was not called by God to rule over others. “The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.”
“It’s like love,” he said. “It’s something you cannot articulate. It’s self-evident in its own living. And I’ve seen it among many black Christians who struggle, particularly in the civil rights movement. They know they’re going to die. They know they’re not going to win in the obvious way of winning. But they have to do what they gonna do because the reality that they encounter in that spiritual moment, that reality is more powerful than the opposition, than that which contradicts it. People respond to what empowers them inside. It makes them know they are somebody when the world treats them as nobody. When you can do that, when you can act out of that spirit, then you know there is a reality that is much bigger than you. And that’s, that’s what black religion bears witness to in all of its flaws. It bears witness to a reality that empowers people to do that which seems impossible. I grew up with that. I really don’t ever remember wishing I was white. I may have, but I really don’t remember. It’s because the reality of my own community was so strong, that that was more important than the material things I saw out there. Their [African-Americans’] music, their preaching, their loving, their dancing—everything was much more interesting.”
“How do a people know that they are not what the world says they are when they have so few social, economic and political reasons in order to claim that humanity?” he asked. “So few political resources. So few economic, educational resources to articulate the humanity. How do they still claim, and be able to see something more than what the world says about them? I think it’s in that culture and it’s in the faith that is inseparable from that culture. That’s why I call the blues secular spirituals. They are a kind of resource, a cultural and mysterious resource that enables a people to express their humanity even though they don’t have many resources intellectually and otherwise to express it. Baldwin only finished high school. Wright only the ninth grade. But he still had his say. And B.B. King never got out of grade school. And Louis Armstrong hardly went to school at all. Now, I said to myself, if Louis could blow a trumpet like that, forget it, I’m gonna write theology the way Louis Armstrong blows that trumpet. I want to reach down for those resources that enable people to express themselves when the world says that you have nothing to say.”
“People who resist create hope and love of humanity,” he said. “The civil rights was a mass movement, but a movement defined by love. You always have both sides. You have bad faith and good faith. I like to write about the good faith. I like to write about faith that resists. I like to write about faith that empowers. I like to write about faith that enables people to look another in the eye and tell ’em what you think. I remember growing up in Arkansas. There were a lot of masks. I wore a mask in Arkansas as a child, not in my own community but when I went down to the white people’s town. I knew what they could do to you. But I kept saying to myself ‘one of these days I’m gonna say what I think to white people and make up for lost time,’ and so the last 40-something years that’s what I been doing. I write to encourage African-Americans to have that inner resource in order to have your say and to say it as clearly, as forcefully, and as truthfully as you can. Not all would be able to do that ’cause white people have a lot of power.”
“Now white churches are empty Christ churches,” he said. “They ain’t the real thing. They just lovin’ each other. That’s all, that’s all that is: socializin’ with each other, that’s what they do most of the time. You seldom go to a church that has any diversity to it. Now how can that be Christian? God was in Christ reconciling the world unto God’s self. Well, it’s in white churches that God and Christ separated us from white people. That’s what they say. And I’m sayin’ as long as you are silent and say nothin’ about it, as Reinhold Niebuhr did, say nothin’, you are just as guilty as the one who hung him on the tree because you were silent just like Peter. Now if you are silent, you are guilty. If you are gonna worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy. It will make you end up on that tree. And so in this sense, I just want to say that we have to take seriously the faith or else we will be the opposite of what it means.”
“My momma and daddy did not have my opportunity, so when I write and speak I try to write and speak for them,” he said. “They not here. They never had a chance to stand before white people and tell ’em what they think. I gotta do it somehow. I try to do that all over the world. I think of Lucy Cone and Charlie Cone, and of all the other Lucy Cones and Charlie Cones that’s out there who cannot speak. I think of them, I don’t think of myself, I think of them. It deepens my spirituality. It gives me something to hold on to, that I can feel and touch. It’s a very spiritual experience, because you are doin’ something for people you love who cannot and will never have a chance to speak in a context like this. So, why do I need to speak for myself? I need to speak for them. If you feel passion in my voice, you feel energy in this text, that’s because I was thinkin’ of Lucy and Charlie, my daddy, and my mama. And as long as I do that, I’ll stay on the right track.”
Tags: 1960s, anglea davis, asha bandele, black panther, black panther party, black power, Criminal Justice, history, jericho movement, laura whitehorn, mumia abu jamal, political prisoners, revolution, roger hollander, safiya bukhari, wonda jones
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It is 1990 and I am the newly elected student government president at Hunter College of the City University of New York. My political worldview, largely shaped heretofore by my active opposition to apartheid, Ronald Reagan and nuclear proliferation, is about to make a mighty leap forward. I know, then, that racism is a vise still choking Black people, even those of us born post the Civil Rights movement. I know the philosophy of Martin Luther King. I love Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and have even traveled Zimbabwe in the wake of its liberation struggle. I know some feminist theory, some feminist history. But for all the knowledge I have gathered at this point, I do not know enough to predict the learning curve I am about to embark upon, in large part because it is in this period that I meet Safiya Bukhari.
Under her mentorship I will come to have not only an intimate understanding of which political prisoners are in the U.S., but I will learn how to organize and run a defense campaign for them. Under her mentorship and because she led by example, I will learn never to downplay my leadership as a nod to the patriarchy that shapes, both silently and loud, the role of women in too many of our movements and organizations. Under her leadership, I will learn the power of human touch, the holding of hand of a man or woman who is about to enter their second generation locked down. I will learn patience; the first political prisoner case I worked on was for the New York 3 and it was 1991 and we were fighting to get them an evidentiary hearing; we did. But to get there, Safiya and I worked for months, including one long night where we stood for hours in a downtown New York law school and copied non-feedable onion skin page of transcript after another until all the thousands of them were done and we could get them to the attorneys who were volunteering their time. We lost that hearing but because we came within a hair’s breadth of winning, and because we were just off the victories of Mandela on one side of the planet and Dhoruba on another, and mostly because I had come to deeply love Herman Bell, Jalil Muntaquim and Albert Nuh Washington, the loss shook me in all my naivité to the core. But at the moment when I could have given up, perhaps would have given up, I learned from Safiya Bukhari that we do indeed soldier on, that we come from a long-line of women and men who were kicked down, beaten down, shut down, shut up but got up and got up and got up again. She got up again and made me get up and went on to forge the New York Chapter of Mumia abu Jamal’s support committee and organize the Jericho Movement, a call for the liberation of all U.S. political prisoners and prisoners of war.
The organization exists still today and is known nationally and internationally despite her death in 2003, a loss that put many of us, both behind the wall and not, on our collective knees. I was a pallbearer that mean August day we buried her and I remember feeling so profoundly as we carried her coffin up the stairs of the House of the Lord Church, what many of us feel when someone important to us dies: please God, can have just one more day, one more hour, one more hug or touch or kiss or moment in silence or laugh or cry or anything. Anything.
My call out to the Universe didn’t come to pass that day, but on this day it has because I have my Safiya back with me when every time I pick up this important, this urgent new collection, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, & Fighting for Those Left Behind (The Feminist Press, 2010).
Edited by former political prisoner and former Weatherman Laura Whitehorn, this book which includes a forward by Angela Y. Davis, and an afterword by Mumia abu Jamal, has pulled together the political writings of woman who lived the sprit of transformation and with the unshakeable belief that a new world was possible. After her untimely death, Laura and Safiya’s daughter, Wonda Jones, undertook the work of collecting and collating the organizer’s writings and interviews into a comprehensive volume that is now this book, The WarBefore. Here I sit down with Laura to discuss who Safiya was and what we can learn from the vision of a woman, a wise and committed, loving and giving worker woman.
asha: What was your relationship to Safiya Bukhari?
I first met Safiya in the late 1990s, when I was in prison in California and she came to visit. She came in to see all the women political prisoners who were there at the time — the Puerto Rican Independentistas Carmen Valentin, Alicia and Lucy Rodriguez, and Dylcia Pagan; my sister anti-imperialists (and my co-defendants) Marilyn Buck and Linda Evans; and me. It was one of many visits she made to prisoners during the organizing for a 1998 Jericho rally at the White House demanding recognition and amnesty for U.S. political prisoners. After my release in 1999, Safiya and I talked together at conferences and events, but I was not permitted to see her much because I was on parole. She died in 2003 while I was still on parole.
What was one of the most important things Safiya taught you?
From Safiya I drew a model of how to be serious about the work of supporting political prisoners. She knew from her own years behind bars the danger of promising prisoners you’ll do things you can’t deliver. She knew the critical importance of outside support. In her writings she says that while she was serving her eight-plus years in Goochland, Virginia, her biggest challenge was maintaining her sense of her own identity as a political person–as someone committed to fighting for justice. That is so opposite to what prisons are, it sometimes can feel like you are in a dream world. Her hard work in support of political prisoners, and the energy and joy–the sense of optimism–she brought to all of us was something I felt in my bones to be critical.
Again and again as I do this work, I remember what she said at a party when I got out of prison: When you leave prison, and you leave those others behind, it’s like you leave part of you inside the institution. So you have to continue to do the work, because as long as there’s a political prisoner — any prisoner — inside this country, that means that you’re not truly free.
Given that this book was published posthumously, would you please talk a little bit about the process of gathering her papers and putting them into one collection?
Safiya had left a small manuscript of essays, including her own autobiographical narrative and a paper on sexism in the Black Panther Party, among other articles. Once those were all put into the computer and edited, though, it became clear that a huge part of Safiya’s work was missing — years of speeches, articles, and interviews reviewing the history of the Panthers and arguing that the people still doing time from those years should be supported and freed. We found some little-known pieces, such as a debate over whether the U.S. should grant amnesty to political prisoners — the opposing team included some high-power government attorneys. We also found an article Safiya wrote describing post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the government attack on the Panthers.
The first round of challenges was to choose amongst all these materials. At first I tended to want to include everything, because finding the items was sort of a process of discovery, and so many of them are historic. But it was clear that what was needed was not a recapitulation of every word Safiya had written or spoken, but rather a selection, to reflect the development of her thinking and, more importantly, the history of the movements she was part of. For example, Safiya considered at various points the nature of divisions within Left organizations, and how those allowed the government to use provocateurs and informants to divide groups and ultimately destroy them. She returned several times to that theme, and to the question of how individual weaknesses played a role. She tied those themes, again and again, to the overriding theme of how Black people and other oppressed people can struggle for justice in this country. No small task.
At each point, Wonda and I tried to be objective and yet faithful to what Safiya might have wanted. She did not set out to write a book; she was an organizer. We hope that the book will not only be educational but also agitational–that, as Angela Davis writes in the foreword, “readers of The War Before will commit themselves to the campaign to bring Assata Shakur home, and to freeing Mumia, Leonard Peltier, and every one of the human beings for whom Safiya Bukhari so passionately gave her life.”
What makes this book different than other books written by Black Panthers?
This book is unique precisely because Safiya did not try to write a book. The War Before consists of primary source material–Safiya’s accounts of life in the Black Panther Party as it was happening; her thoughts and reflections at several points during her history — rather than a retrospective summing up of the history and her conclusions about it. Safiya’s writings about the Panthers have an in-the-moment quality that I think is similar only to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s book, We Want Freedom. Safiya allows the reader to participate in the conclusions she is suggesting, rather than presenting a summary of those conclusions.
The War Before is also not a polemic. Safiya considers various points of view about the history of the liberation movements. She is above all self-aware, self-critical, honest. She is not protecting her own decisions and role, she is questioning those, looking for answers rather than asserting them. Unlike many books about the 60s and 70s, Safiya’s writings assert again and again that the history of that era is not frozen in the past. She talks intimately about the members of the Black Panther Party who remain in prison, and how that reality belies any sense that the battles the Panthers fought are over and done, relics of the past. One of the most moving sections of the book involves a discussion between Safiya and a former Panther who was then dying in prison, Albert Nuh Washington. In the discussion, only a few months before his death, Nuh talks about their shared history and its significance. He, too, is re-evaluating, considering the past as living history that continues to exert influence on what we do now and how we see the world.
What do we learn as women about the Panthers and the Black Power movement from this book?
In addition to a thoughtful essay on sexism and the Black Panther Party, Safiya writes and speaks frequently about the role of women. From those specific writings, we glean a sense of how women influenced the Party toward programs dealing with the basic needs of the Black community. But her writings elucidate a much deeper importance of the role of women in the Black Power movement: She shows that militancy is much more than standing up to U.S. state power in demonstrations, or with guns. By the end of “The War Before” I think readers will understand that true militancy does not exist in how we act, but in what we struggle for–and in how consistently we struggle. Safiya’s power lay very much in her willingness to keep fighting. She kept fighting for political prisoners when many others had given up. As Cleo Silvers, another former Black Panther, put it, Safiya showed not only how to be a revolutionary woman during a revolutionary period but, more important, how to be a revolutionary woman during a very non-revolutionary time. The other thing I think Safiya teaches us about the role of women concerns the nature of solidarity. The way Safiya writes about political ideals is not abstract. What we are fighting for, she shows us, is an extension of the best in human beings who rise out of oppression and construct liberation. She shows us her feelings, too, and reflects a depth of collectivity very different from what we see in other histories of the second half of the twentieth century.
What do you think Safiya would say the most urgent issue for people to be working on today is?
For Safiya, the continued incarceration of people like Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Russell Maroon Shoatz and Eddie Conway — former Black Panthers who remain behind bars for up to 40 years and more–demanded urgent attention and action. I think she would say that many struggles are critical, but that if we do not fight to release our comrades then our movements will suffer. But from Safiya’s writings you get a sense of an ongoing struggle. And I think you get a picture of a struggle that has not been won, but has not been lost. That is a very different sense of the history of the Black Panther Party than you get from many other sources. So I think that really Safiya would say, if you are fighting for justice, you are doing the most urgent work there is to be done.
asha bandele is an award-winning author and journalist whose most recent book is Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Journey (HarperCollins, 2009)