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Black Theology and Black Power

Black Theology and Black Power

by James H. Cone


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Black Theology and Black Power

First published in 1969, "Black Theology & Black Power" provided the first systematic presentation of black theology. Relating the militant struggle for liberation with the gospel message of salvation, James Cone laid the foundation for an original interpretation of Christianity that retains its urgency and challenge today. 184 pp.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781570751578
Publisher: Orbis Books
Publication date: 10/28/1997
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 295,101
Product dimensions: 5.14(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.39(d)

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Chapter One

Toward a Constructive
Definition of Black Power

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who
profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation,
are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They
want rain without thunder and lightning.... This struggle
may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be
both moral and physical; but there must be a struggle.

Frederick Douglass

What Is Black Power?

There has been and still is much debate among the critics of Black Power regarding the precise meaning of the words. The term "Black Power" was first used in the civil rights movement in the spring of 1966 by Stokely Carmichael to designate the only appropriate response to white racism. Since that time many critics have observed that there is no common agreement regarding its definition. In one sense this fact is not surprising, since every new phenomenon passes through stages of development, and the advocates of Black Power need time to define its many implications. But in another sense, this criticism is surprising, since every literate person knows that imprecision, the inability of a word to describe accurately the object of reality to which it points, is characteristic of all languages. The complexity of this problem is evident in the development of modern analytical philosophy. We are still in the process of definingsuch terms as "democracy," "good," "evil," and many others. In fact the ability to probe for deeper meanings of words as they relate to various manifestations of reality is what makes the intellectual pursuit interesting and worthwhile.

    But if communication is not to reach an impasse, there must be agreement on the general shape of the object to which a term points. Meaningful dialogue is possible because of man's ability to use words as symbols for the real. Without this, communication ceases to exist. For example, theologians and political scientists may disagree on what they would consider "fine points" regarding the precise meaning of Christianity and democracy, but there is an underlying agreement regarding their referents.

    The same is true of the words "Black Power." To what "object" does it point? What does it mean when used by its advocates? It means complete emancipation o[ black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary. The methods may include selective buying, boycotting, marching, or even rebellion. Black Power means black freedom, black self-determination, wherein black people no longer view themselves as without human dignity but as men, human beings with the ability to carve out their own destiny. In short, as Stokely Carmichael would say, Black Power means T.C.B., Take Care of Business—black folk taking care of black folks' business, not on the terms of the oppressor, but on those of the oppressed.

    Black Power is analogous to Albert Camus's understanding of the rebel. The rebel says No and Yes. He says No to conditions considered intolerable, and Yes to that "something within him which 'is worthwhile' ... and which must be taken into consideration." To say No means that the oppressor has overstepped his bounds, and that "there is a limit beyond which [he] shall not go." It means that oppression can be endured no longer in the style that the oppressor takes for granted. To say No is to reject categorically "the humiliating orders of the master" and by so doing to affirm that something which is placed above everything else, including life itself. To say No means that death is preferable to life, if the latter is devoid of freedom. "Better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees." This is what Black Power means.

    It is in this light that the slogan "Freedom Now" ought to be interpreted. Like Camus's phrase, "All or Nothing," Freedom Now means that the slave is willing to risk death because "he considers these rights more important than himself. Therefore he is acting in the name of certain values which ... he considers are common to himself and to all men." That is what Henry Garnet had in mind when he said "rather die freemen, than live to be slaves." This is what Black Power means.

    A further clarification of the meaning of Black Power may be found in Paul Tillich's analysis of "the courage to be," which is "the ethical act in which man affirms his being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation." Black Power, then, is a humanizing force because it is the black man's attempt to affirm his being, his attempt to be recognized as "Thou," in spite of the "other," the white power which dehumanizes him. The structure of white society attempts to make "black being" into "nonbeing" or "nothingness." In existential philosophy, nonbeing is usually identified as that which threatens being; it is that ever-present possibility of the inability to affirm one's existence. The courage to be, then, is the courage to affirm one's being by striking out at the dehumanizing forces which threaten being. And, as Tillich goes on to say, "He who is not capable of a powerful self-affirmation in spite of the anxiety of non-being is forced into a weak, reduced self-affirmation."

    The rebellion in the cities, far from being an expression of the inhumanity of blacks, is an affirmation of their being despite the ever-present possibility of death. For the Mack man to accept the white society's appeal to wait or to be orderly is to affirm "something which is less than essential ... being." The black man prefers to die rather than surrender to some other value. The cry for death is, as Rollo May has noted, the "most mature form of distinctly human behavior." In fact, many existentialists point out that physical life itself "is not fully satisfying and meaningful until one can consciously choose another value which he holds more dear than life itself." To be human is to find something worth dying for. When the black man rebels at the risk of death, he forces white society to look at him, to recognize him, to take his being into account, to admit that he is. And in a structure that regulates behavior, recognition by the other is indispensable to one's being. As Franz Fanon says: "Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another in order to be recognized by him." And "he who is reluctant to recognize me opposes me. In a savage struggle I am willing to accept convulsions of death, invincible dissolutions, but also the possibility of the impossible."

    Black Power, in short, is an attitude, an inward affirmation of the essential worth of blackness. It means that the black man will not be poisoned by the stereotypes that others have of him, but will affirm from the depth of his soul: "Get used to me, I am not getting used to anyone." And "if the white man challenges my humanity, I will impose my whole weight as a man on his life and show him that I am not that 'sho good eatin' that he persists in imagining." This is Black Power, the power of the black man to say Yes to his own "black being," and to make the other accept him or be prepared for a struggle.

I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other. One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices.

Black Power and Existential Absurdity

    Before one can really understand the mood of Black Power, it is necessary to describe a prior mood of the black man in a white society. When he first awakens to his place in America and feels sharply the absolute contradiction between what is and what ought to be or recognizes the inconsistency between his view of himself as a man and America's description of him as a thing, his immediate reaction is a feeling of absurdity: The absurd

is basically that which man recognizes as the disparity between what he hopes for and what seems in fact to be. He yearns for some measure of happiness in an orderly, a rational and a reasonably predictable world; when he finds misery in a disorderly, an irrational and unpredictable world, he is oppressed by the absurdity of the disparity between the universe as he wishes it to be and as he sees it.

This is what the black man feels in a white world.

    There is no place in America where the black man can go for escape. In every section of the country there is still the feeling expressed by Langston Hughes:

I swear to the Lord
I still can't see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.

    I can remember reading, as a child, the Declaration of Independence with a sense of identity with all men and with a sense of pride: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But I also read in the Dred Scott decision, not with pride or identity, but with a feeling of inexplicable absurdity, that blacks are not human.

But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind ... they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.

Thus the black man "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

    But many whites would reply: "The Negro is no longer bought and sold as chattel. We changed his status after the Civil War. Now he is free." Whatever may have been the motives of Abraham Lincoln and other white Americans for launching the war, it certainly was not on behalf of black people. Lincoln was clear on this:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

    If that quotation still leaves his motives unclear, here is another one which should remove all doubts regarding his thoughts about black people.

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

    And certainly the history of the black-white relations in this country from the Civil War to the present unmistakably shows that as a people, America has never intended for blacks to be free. To this day, in the eyes of most white Americans, the black man remains subhuman.

    Yet Americans continue to talk about brotherhood and equality. They say that this is "the land of the free and the home of the brave." They sing: My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty." But they do not mean blacks. This is the black man's paradox, the absurdity of living in a world with "no rights which the white man [is] bound to respect."

    It seems that white historians and political scientists have attempted, perhaps subconsciously, to camouflage the inhumanity of whites toward blacks. But the evidence is clear for those who care to examine it. All aspects of this society have participated in the act of enslaving blacks, extinguishing Indians, and annihilating all who question white society's right to decide who is human.

    I should point out here that most existentialists do not say that "man is absurd" or "the world is absurd." Rather, the absurdity arises as man confronts the world and looks for meaning. The same is true in regard to my analysis of the black man in a white society. It is not that the black man is absurd or that the white society as such is absurd. Absurdity arises as the black man seeks to understand his place in the white world. The black man does not view himself as absurd; he views himself as human. But as he meets the white world and its values, he is confronted with an almighty No and is defined as a thing. This produces the absurdity.

    The crucial question, then, for the black man is, "How should I respond to a world which defines me as a nonperson?" That he is a person is beyond question, not debatable. But when he attempts to relate as a person, the world demands that he respond as a thing. In this existential absurdity, what should he do? Should he respond as he knows himself to be, or as the world defines him?

    The response to this feeling of absurdity is determined by a man's ontological perspective. If one believes that this world is the extent of reality, he will either despair or rebel. According to Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide is the ultimate act of despair. Rebellion is epitomized in the person of Dr. Bernard Rieux in The Plague. Despite the overwhelming odds, Rieux fights against things as they are.

    If, perchance, a man believes in God, and views this world as merely a pilgrimage to another world, he is likely to regard suffering as a necessity for entrance to the next world. Unfortunately Christianity has more often than not responded to evil in this manner.

    From this standpoint the response of Black Power is like Camus's view of the rebel. One who embraces Black Power does not despair and take suicide as an out, nor does he appeal to another world in order to relieve the pains of this one. Rather, he fights back with the whole of his being. Black Power believes that blacks are not really human beings in white eyes, that they never have been and never will be, until blacks recognize the unsavory behavior of whites for what it is. Once this recognition takes place, they can make whites see them as humans. The man of Black Power will not rest until the oppressor recognizes him for what he is—man. He further knows that in this campaign for human dignity, freedom is not a gift but a right worth dying for.

Is Black Power a Form of Black Racism?

    One of the most serious charges leveled against the advocates of Black Power is that they are black racists. Many well-intentioned persons have insisted that there must be another approach, one which will not cause so much hostility, not to mention rebellion. Therefore appeal is made to the patience of black people to keep their "cool" and not get too carried away by their feelings. These men argue that if any progress is to be made, it will be through a careful, rational approach to the subject. These people are deeply offended when black people refuse to listen and place such white liberals in the same category as the most adamant segregationists. They simply do not see that such reasoned appeals merely support the perpetuation of the ravaging of the black community. Black Power, in this respect, is by nature irrational, i.e., does not deny the role of rational reflection, but insists that human existence cannot be mechanized or put into neat boxes according to reason. Human reason though valuable is not absolute, because moral decisions—those decisions which deal with human dignity—cannot be made by using the abstract methods of science. Human emotions must be reckoned with. Consequently, black people must say No to all do-gooders who insist that they need more time. If such persons really knew oppression—knew it existentially in their guts—they would join black people in their fight for freedom and dignity. It is interesting that most people do understand why Jews can hate Germans. Why can they not understand why black people, who have been deliberately and systematically dehumanized or murdered by the structure of this society, hate white people? The general failure of Americans to make this connection suggests that the primary difficulty is their inability to see black men as men.

    When Black Power advocates refuse to listen to their would-be liberators, they are charged with creating hatred among black people, thus making significant personal relationship between blacks and whites impossible. It should be obvious that the hate which black people feel toward whites is not due to the creation of the term "Black Power." Rather, it is a result of the deliberate and systematic ordering of society on the basis of racism, making black alienation not only possible but inevitable. For over three hundred years black people have been enslaved by the tentacles of American white power, tentacles that worm their way into the guts of their being and "invade the gray cells of their cortex." For three hundred years they have cried, waited, voted, marched, picketed, and boycotted, but whites still refuse to recognize their humanity. In light of this, attributing black anger to the call for Black Power is ridiculous, if not obscene. "To be a Negro in this country," says James Baldwin, "and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage almost all the time."

    In spite of this it is misleading to suggest that hatred is essential to the definition of Black Power. As Camus says, "One envies what he does not have, while the rebel's aim is to defend what he is. He does not merely claim some good that he does not possess or of which he is deprived. His aim is to claim recognition for something which he has." Therefore it is not the intention of the black man to repudiate his master's human dignity, but only his status as master. The rebellion in the cities, it would seem, should not be interpreted as a few blacks who want something for nothing but as an assertion of the dignity of all black people. The black man is assuming that there is a common value which is recognizable by all as existing in all people, and he is testifying to that something in his rebellion. He is expressing his solidarity with the human race. With this in view, Camus's reinterpretation of the Cartesian formula, "I think, therefore I am," seems quite appropriate: "I rebel, therefore we exist."

    It is important to make a further distinction here among black hatred, black racism, and Black Power. Black hatred is the black man's strong aversion to white society. No black man living in white America can escape it. Even a sensitive white man can say: "It is hard to imagine how any Negro American, no matter how well born or placed, can escape a deep sense of anger and a burning hatred of things white." And another nonblack, Arnold Rose, is even more perceptive:

Negro hatred of white people is not pathological—far from it. It is a healthy human reaction to oppression, insult, and terror. White people are often surprised at the Negro's hatred of them, but it should not be surprising.

    The whole world knows the Nazis murdered millions of Jews and can suspect that the remaining Jews are having some emotional reaction to that fact. Negroes, on the other hand, are either ignored or thought to be so subhuman that they have no feelings when one of their number is killed because he was a Negro. Probably no week goes by in the United States that some Negro is not severely beaten, and the news is reported in the Negro press. Every week or maybe twice a week almost the entire Negro population of the United States suffers an emotional recoil from some insult coming from the voice or pen of a leading white man. The surviving Jews had one, big, soul-wracking "incident" that wrenched them back to group identification. The surviving Negroes experience constant jolts that almost never let them forget for even an hour that they are Negroes. In this situation, hatred of whites and group identification are natural reactions.

    And James Baldwin was certainly expressing the spirit of black hatred when he said:

The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning—and neither can this be overstated—a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not know what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him—for that is what it is—is utterly gratuitious, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.


Excerpted from BLACK THEOLOGY AND BLACK POWER by James H. Cone. Copyright © 1997 by James H. Cone. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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