My Black Rage Sensibility

(This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”)

Albert Pero classifies blackness or the black experience as “a certain dark joy” that “celebrates the triumph of human beings over a social order which would degrade.” [1] This very same “dark joy” fuels my own Black Rage. My reaction of a lifelong struggle to be recognized; my Black Rage sensibility governs every facet of my life. I search daily to find sectors of safety.  My Black Rage sensibility carries the weight of waking up as the face of America’s perceived problem and waking up as a Christian with the “absurdity of a people who claimed to be Christian” but live in proverbial contradiction.[2]  When the black body is assumed as a prescribed conclusion of criminality and ungodliness, the quiet assent of racism profoundly sanctions the annihilation of the black body and safety is a major concern at all times. For others and myself, Black Rage, ultimately, becomes a strategic defense mechanism against human fears that have been weaponized by the media. In response, anyone who loves the black body becomes anti-American, which is merely, anti-white. This reaction results in further marginalization efforts and consent to remove the presence of black bodies.

Being a student at a Lutheran seminary and simultaneously being a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America prompts me to consider Black Rage in a context that is not filled visibly with black bodies. The constant need to reaffirm my blackness perpetually lives in the front of my mind. In this context, I did not have the ease of familiarity, but rather the brisk interplay of racism that goes undetected. I heard the quarantined compliments of how intelligent I am, and the over the top appreciation for my articulation, that are part of the complex-simplicity that monopolized many conversations. Black Rage cannot be expressed in my life without the awareness that the Black body was infiltrating a sacred space of the church, an official place that some may have seen as off limits; a place where fear of difference and diversity appear as negative quantifiers. I was becoming a candidate for Lutheran orders, in a denomination least integrated in the South and in the Midwest.

The impression of Black fear is not one that is placed in Black bodies, but a fear that it thrust upon Black bodies. This constant Black fear that in some fashion or form, Black bodies will enter into this designated white spaces. This is the fear of the “undesirable strangers” or “unloved strangers,” who enter into places their privilege has not been availed to them.[3] This ill-informed identifier, instantly places Black bodies in danger. James Baldwin’s use of the “unloved stranger” illuminates the hatred that is levied on the backs of Black bodies in America.[4] He believes that all Blacks experience this “paradoxical adjustment” where we must come to grips with the unalienable fact that we are dark, dangerous and unloved strangers –simply niggers.[5] For Blacks, this is not a personal identifier, but denotes his perception of what he believes white people perceive, when Black people enter into sacred white spaces. As these “undesirable strangers,” Blacks are brutalized at the hands of the very people who are charged to protect and serve citizens. Joy DeGruy explains that the impact of extreme racial systems have left a mark on the minds of Blacks as well as whites. She denotes that these racist power structures have constrained the life of Black folks with little “time to catch our collective breath.”[6] Categorically, an intrusion of the “undesirable stranger” in the sacred white space alerts fear both in the stranger and the entered communal space, that “makes for a dangerous situation because white people are compelled, by divine law nonetheless, to protect their space from intruders.” [7] Black fear is the direct result of a societal racial lens that equates Black with crime. Khalil Gibran Muhammed accentuates this point:

For white Americans of every ideological stripe—from radical southern racists to northern progressives—African American criminality became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public safety.[8]

Kelly Brown Douglas equates this criminalization of Blacks with a heighten sense of awareness that for the American whites, the Black body does not have the “presumption of innocence” that is afforded to whites. [9] Black fear is a learned and manufactured emotion that serves as another example of the numerous ways that the Black body is continually is danger.

 

[1] Albert Pero. “Black, Lutheran, and American,” Theology and the Black Experience: The Lutheran Heritage Interpreted by African and African-American Theologians, Edited by Alberto Pero and Ambrose Moyo, Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1988, 161.

[2] Otis Moss III, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair, Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2015.,23.

[3] See footnote 161

[4] Ibid., Baldwin, Notes of Native Son,42-43.

[5] Ibid.,42.

[6] Ibid., DeGruy , 107-108.

[7]In a previous paper, Reflective Thoughts On Kelly Brown Douglas’ “Stand Your Ground,” I go into more detail about this subject.  Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, New York: Orbis Books, 2015.

[8] Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.,4.

[9] Ibid., 86.

 

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James Baldwin’s Black Rage in “The Fire Next Time”

(This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”

Throughout his writings, Baldwin wrestles with the essence of Black Rage: a rage that engulfs the life of black people, trapped in an endless cycle of injustice, pressing to survive the vicious trials of life. Baldwin’s statement “to be a Negro in this country and relatively conscious, is to be in rage all the time” serves as a defining epitaph for Black Rage.[1] Pamela Lightsey notes that Baldwin’s explication of Black Rage was not limited to erroneous slander, deemed as an “irrational outburst.”[2] His explication was a “passionate response to the evil of racism imposed” upon the black community.[3]  Baldwin’s “blackness” can be understood as an intertwining of how Black Rage influenced Baldwin’s relationship with God and humanity.[4]

 James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a transcending essay that captures in paralyzing clarity, the experience of a young black man navigating the racist terrain of America. Exploring black people’s fear, pain and rage in mesmerizing detail, Baldwin, relocates the reader into a foreign reality –the world of the Negro in America, past and present. Baldwin challenges white Americans with a first-hand perspective of black males in the ghetto and, simultaneously, celebrates the Black community. His quest was to find out what made Black males so attentive to the Nation of Islam.[5] While writing this essay, he discovered the topic was richer and deeper than he first imagined. He never turned it into the editor of the Jewish magazine, who had hired him to write the story.

The book starts with a compelling and thought provoking letter to his nephew, My Dungeon Shook, which gives poignant instruction to his nephew on how to negotiate through the streets of Harlem, as a Black male, in the midst of a people who present a false Christianity.[6] The penetrating critiques of America opined in almost every sentence phrased with preciseness and rage present a pedagogical protest for his nephew. Baldwin’s overarching theme resonates in his words to his nephew, “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”[7] Baldwin is very intentional about highlighting the texture and color of his nephew’s skin while giving him a preview of his temperament. [8] His nephew’s socially- constructed black body and political identity will serve as a stark indicator that his nephew “is” in danger. He cannot misplace his self-awareness in the white world, yet he cannot misplace his own true dignity. Baldwin’s insistence that his nephew identify with his blackness is utmost.  Theologian John Perkinson forms this experience as a radical rethinking of the black body. Purposely, he places all white bodies in the thralls of the lived history (a mythic fantasy) of white supremacy. He intentionally demarcates whiteness as a “structure of violence and a significance of injustice.”[9] Perkinson asserts that “the black body as a ‘possibility of theophany’ would place the white body as “a question of exorcism.”[10] He implies that the white body stands in need of divine healing or exorcism in order to be delivered from its own racism. In this assessment, the black body personifies God. Thus, confronting white people with a specificity of color and creed. The black body confronts white people with their sin before God.  For Baldwin, his own father’s lack of awareness of the black body politic, pushed him into wanting to be “so holy,” because Godliness provided a false invitation into whiteness.[11] Making holiness synonymous with whiteness was the fallacy Baldwin dismisses, while wrestling through life in the black experience. Ultimately, the commingling of whiteness with godly normatives would be Baldwin’s wrestling partners the rest of his life.

The Black Rage that Baldwin demonstrates to his nephew is one soaked in love with a governing sense of black pride, a pride that is timelessly connected to the black community. Baldwin’s unique perspective is guided by a strong principle of love.  A love that he describes:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. [12]

 

Baldwin may appear to link his father’s false sense of Christianity with a pseudo-pursuit of holiness. However, looking deeply, his understanding and pursuit of love is profoundly Christian. Professor Clarence Hardy supposes that Baldwin’s idea of love is the result of self-examination. Hardy posits that Baldwin’s self-awareness caused love to flourish and this love becomes “the principal site of transformation and the self-actualization.”[13] Could this self-affirming love be similar to the Christian process of discernment? Baldwin is clear with his nephew that his mere presence is a salvific happening; his life –a hope, which love must prevail. Baldwin admonishes,

There is no reason for you to be like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.  The really terrible thing…is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For those innocent people have no other hope.[14]

The assertion that hope, reconciliation, and love rest in the hands of the black community is a radical statement of purpose and identity. In Baldwin’s perspective, humanity is equipped with the responsibility for their own soul’s salvation. He states that humanity is responsible, “to expand and transform God’s nature.” [15] Baldwin is unapologetic about this particular affirming of the necessity of black people acting as the redeeming factor in the lives of whites. The impact of oppressed people’s presence and their being creates favorable opportunities for the oppressors to change. Baldwin is transparent with his nephew about the cruel treatment that he will endure but exudes a reconciliatory posture.[16] Though Baldwin does not proclaim that this is an authentic Christian value, his childish hope for/in humanity compels him to reluctantly trust in a governing love.

The message that Baldwin is trying to convey to his nephew is ultimately woven in throngs of suffering. Baldwin’s interest in suffering is connected to a belief that through such an act one would/could “discover what they really lived by,” indicating that “suffering holds purpose even if God does not.”[17] Baldwin is constructing an intricate theology of a redemptive suffering that, hopefully, forces the oppressors to change. In his critique of Anthony Pinn’s Why Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology, Dwight Hopkins suggest that redemptive suffering can never be positive or fruitful for African-Americans.[18] Hopkins furthermore confirms that redemptive suffering, directly or indirectly, “implies God sanctions suffering, relieving the oppressors from accountability…”[19] In the closing words to his nephew, Baldwin says, “…then we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”[20] Through Baldwin’s Black Rage, his interpretive lens perceives God differently than his father. God is an active presence, but only in the sense that humanity (in this case his nephew) can convey that presence. The “so holy” aspect of divinity that is sought by Baldwin’s father is not the same “so holy” that Baldwin is conveying to his nephew. The Black Rage that ignites Baldwin is displayed as he tries to “write” the wrongs that may have the probability of killing his nephew. Baldwin’s Black Rage has activated a new sense of God that relocates suffering as a godly imperative.

[1] James Baldwin, “The Negro Role in American Culture,” Negro Digest, March 1962.

[2]Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter, Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015.,56.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, First Vintage International: New York, 1962 The capitalization of G or lack thereof, is intentional throughout the paper. The thought is to try to convey the difference of expression in a god that is expressed in Baldwin’s concept versus a Christian example of God. The writer has tried to make the differences noticeable through the paper.

[5] The Nation of Islam was a Black Nationalist group that followed the teaching of Elijah Muhammad. The influence that Elijah Muhammed garnered from 1950 to the late 1960’s was unprecedented in the black community. Drawing from an early predecessor, he highlighted a separatist agenda that called for blacks to be given parts of America to live apart from whites.

[6] Ibid., Baldwin, Fire, 3-10.

[7].Ibid.,4.

[8] Ibid.,3.

[9] John Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity, New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2004.,150.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Baldwin accuses his father of trying to be “so holy” not as an attempt to be like God but as an alarming attempt to be white. Though his skin is dark like Baldwin and his nephew, Baldwin’s father is trying to escape the reality of being black in America. Baldwin is making a concerted effort to address this experience to his nephew. Ibid.,4. This person Baldwin references was Baldwin’s adoptive father. But, he lived his life trying to find the approval of his stepfather. Baldwin was born after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones left his biological father because of his drug abuse. Emma Jones, who never would tell her son the identity of his father. James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem Hospital. In James’s third year, his mother married the Reverend David Baldwin, a Pentecost preacher, who legally adopted James, and moved the family to Harlem.

[12] Ibid., Baldwin, Fire, 95.

[13] Clarence Hardy III, James Baldwin’s God: sex, hope and crisis in black holiness culture, Knoxville: Tennessee Press, 2003.,49

[14] Ibid.,8. This may be “innocent privilege” that Bruggemann asserts in his assessment of Coates. (See footnote 33)

[15] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, New York: St. Martin’s Marek,1985.,441. Clarence Hardy uses this exact quote to highlight the same frame of thought. Ibid.,Hardy.,13.

[16] Though Baldwin seeks such grand reconciliation he is not advocating for a complete surrendering or overhaul to whiteness. Baldwin poses a very stringent question: “Do I really want to be integrated in to a burning house?” Ibid., Baldwin, Fire,94. What he is proposing is that black folks consider whether it is feasible to be productive in an environment that does not even consider one’s self to be human.  He is trying to convey this message to his nephew in a wise manner, while getting his point across with assuredness. Baldwin is also trying to get his nephew to embrace his blackness unconditionally, yet safely. This is a strange dynamic that has to be worked out through the entirety of Baldwin’s writings. It is seen as Baldwin writes to his nephew. It is also visible in many other works as well. Baldwin presents a high, functional level of love. What is deemed the “Negro problem” is not moved by love but by white people’s resentment of being judged by those who they see on a lower status. Ibid., 95. Baldwin is walking a very slim, but necessary, tightrope with his nephew. On one hand he is insisting that he becomes a savior for white people by virtue of his social presence, but on the other he is making sure that he does not lose his identity with the black experience.

[17] Ibid., Hardy,48.

[18] Dwight Hopkins, “Reviewed Work: Why Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology. by Anthony B. Pinn.” Review by: Dwight N. Hopkins. African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 514-516, Indiana State University. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3042581

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., Baldwin Fire, 10

 

 

Black Rage

This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”

I came into a STM (Master of Sacred Theology) program at a Lutheran seminary in that crucible where the disparity between Black America and the America posited by white folks. I came, again, into the dialogue around hatred and race as the seminary struggled to adequately face the death of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and the Charleston Nine. The reflections of this thesis is tattooed on the backs of black bodies in every town in “these yet to be united states of america.”[1] Here begins my fresh perspective of addressing hatred in the face of the Cross.

Imagine being one of seven black students, at a major university, with a current student body of over 40,000 students.  Furthermore, envision attending a philosophy class, where your professor asks all the students to bring in a picture of Jesus to the next class. Finally, on the day of the class, all of the pictures are gathered, and discussed from the perspective of the professor. Most of the pictures are of a nicely manicured white, Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes made popular by Warner Sallman.[2] This Jesus is striking a pose with a full set of beautiful teeth and a look of perfection. But, within the stack of pictures there arises a photo of the mangled black face of Emmitt Till. A face that looks as if all of hell has been unleashed upon it; a face so distorted that it would be hard to notice that it was the face of a human – (head swollen five times its size, tongue out of his mouth from being choked so hard, eyes out of socket, skull split in two from the blade of an axe.)[3] After viewing the picture, the professor asked, “What the hell is this?” The black student responds, “This is what God looks like when he dares to offend white folk!”[4] This narrative isolates, while pinpointing, the vast differences in the ways Jesus is viewed across the black community. When such evil is perpetrated against black bodies, Jesus cannot be viewed through a lens of whiteness.

The need for a Jesus that embodies the pain of an oppressed people is warranted. Albert Cleage expressed this view in the book The Black Messiah, which depicted Jesus as a black revolutionary leader that critically engaged oppressed black people.[5] The by-product of such pain and torture is beheld in Black Rage. Black Rage is distinct from simple rage. Simple rage is compounded by the experience of being black and therefore, the socially acceptable target of enacted hatred. The full possession of one’s blackness thickens the impact of the experience of rage. Even so, blackness simultaneously critiques and identifies the distinguishing factors of trauma. James Cone expresses the need to emphasize the black component of one’s experience in his naming of Black Theology of Liberation.[6] Cone states that he was black before he was a theologian.[7] Cone asserts, “My identity with blackness…controls the investigation.”[8] The reality of Cone’s and others’ black experience augments the overall perception of any emotive concept. Black is not just a color or racial construct. Black is a rigid identity of faith where an embodied rage seeks to understand and interpret God. This identification is similar to Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation where he deliberately focuses on a one-sided view of Jesus. He theologizes upon the injustice done to the black community equating the suffering of blacks with the suffering of Jesus.

Cone’s and Dr. Carter’s depiction of Jesus reinforces a stagnated hope that has plagued the lives of black folks.[9] Even in the midst of massive social chaos, black folks were able to persist in their faith in God. Nonetheless, a history of heinous acts perpetuated upon the black community impacted their faith –Black people endured such hate and still remained able to say there is a loving God. How does a loving God allow such evil to dismantle a particular group of people? These are questions and thoughts that many black Christians and theologians have wrestled with for years.

Black Rage emerged as a social strategy for progress. Black Rage is a catalytic force that helped produce a creative response to terror without reciprocating the level of hatred that was perpetrated upon their bodies. Black Rage, the outcry of people rendered legally and socially invisible, searching for peace in a nation that designated them as the “other.” As the culture of the black community developed over the years from enslavement, to Emancipation, to reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights Movement and the backlash of shootings of Boyd, Rice, Martin, Scott, etc., so did the Black community’s understanding and articulation of God. Within those decades and decades of growth and development, the impact of Black Rage surfaced in the black body in many ways: church, jobs, education and imprisonment. The concern of this work is to describe and analyze how Black Rage has shaped how the black community sees God.[10] The thesis of this study is that Black Rage, embodies people who have endured heinous crimes on a continuous basis therefore manufacturing a Black Rage. Black Rage opened the black community to experience God through narratives that detailed their generations of struggle. As a people that respond to God from the experience of pain instead of being the people who are the purveyors of pain, where their Black Rage shaped their hermeneutic for understanding God.

 

 

[1] These Yet to be United States of America is a poem written my Maya Angelou. The use of lower case are mine which are used as a form of protest for brutality levied against the black body.

[2] Warner Sallman was a Christian painter from Chicago. He is most associated with his portrait, “Head of Christ,” of which more than 500 million copies have been sold. In 1994, the New York Times wrote he is likely to be voted the “best-known artist of the century”. Obery Hendricks writes about Sallman’s white Jesus: Then there was the famous blue-eyed Jesus…the most popular and most fanciful image of him (which I, like most folks I knew, thought to be the exact likeness of the Lord). The Scandinavian features and the clipped beard and carefully coiffed blond curls –not to mention the piercing blue eyes –gave Sallman’s Jesus a nobility that assured all who gazed upon him that the last thing he would do was cause trouble or upset anyone’s day.” Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teaching and How They Have Been Corrupted, New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006., 2.

[3] These are words and details that were provided by Mamie Till when she had the opportunity to see her son. Mamie Till, “The Untold Story of Emmitt Louis Till,”TV1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAemBpFM1NI, April 28, 2011. (accessed April 28, 2016)

[4] This is the true story of Dr. Mack King Carter during his undergrad years at Florida State University. He was a major part of the integration of that campus in 1972 and became one of the country’s foremost black preachers. He died in October of 2013.

[5] Albert Cleage Jr., The Black Messiah, Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, Inc., 1989.

[6] James Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, New York: Lippincott, 1970.

[7] Ibid.

[8] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, New York: Orbis Books, 1969.,33.

[9] Black people, black community or black folks will be used at different times to indicate the black experience.

[10] I am inserting that to “see God” is to experience the love or lack thereof of the same God one claims. Seeing, then, is just not a visual exercise but a tangible experience of the believer that leaves a permanent pathway to transformation. “Seeing” God is the primordial hope that God enters into the struggle with black people.

 

Excerpt from Gary Younge’s Farewell to America

This is a quote from Gary Younge’s article published in The Guardian

“Terror,” the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai writes in his book Fear of Small Numbers, “is first of all the terror of the next attack.” The terrorism resides not just in the fact that it happens, but that one is braced for the possibility that it could happen to you at any moment. Seven children and teenagers are shot on an average day in the US. I have just finished writing a book in which I take a random day and interview the families and friends of those who perished. Ten young people died the day I chose. Eight were black. All of the black parents said they had assumed this could happen to their son.

As one bereaved dad told me: “You wouldn’t be doing your job as a father if you didn’t.”

Black Rage in a yet to be united state…

Rage cannot be hidden, it can only be dissembled. This dissembling deludes the thoughtless, and strengthens rage and adds, to rage, contempt.- James Baldwin

When you are niggerized you’re unsafe, unprotected and subject random violence and hated for who you are. You become so scared that you defer to the powers that be and you are willing to consent to your own domination.- Cornel West

The fleeting moments of life often bring me to rage. Some would prefer despair but that is such odd word with such drudgery attached to it. Despair is the place where all hope appears to be gone and life has placed the proverbial noose around your next. Despair is hope soaked in blood left in shark infested waters. To live with such a feeling is an inner turmoil. The great essayist James Baldwin replies,

“I have never been in despair…, but I am in rage…I can’t afford despair.”

Despair relocates itself in the naiveté of a misunderstood faith that makes demands upon God. Despair is more representative of the misunderstanding of faith rather than a hopelessness in God. God will answer the prayers of the righteous; what is called into question –“Who is the righteous?”

If I am then the righteous (or the called) and my prayers are not answered, then is rage viable. Can my rage be the invisible voice of the imago dei (the image of God)? Baldwin would say no because in his estimation,

“Rage cannot be hidden.”

Rage as a viable, tangible characteristic of God is hard to digest for some. Drawing upon a bell hooks’ thought I define rage, theologically, as a black theological discourse in response to a racist power structure.

The greatest fear for many people may very well be the moment when they say, “I don’t give a damn.” That is a moment when life becomes an instantaneous reality beckoning upon mishap –we begin to make decisions that will have lifelong implications out of temporary circumstances. Or, maybe, that is the very issue in and of itself. The things that we thought were temporary circumstances were actually systems that have been put in place to keep us subjugated and fitted for marginalization.

We have learned how to “transcend our tiredness”-(bell hooks) in the face of the constant disregard of our sacred lives as they are overlooked with blatant disrespect. My black rage becomes an ode of beauty in the face of terror.