Black Power and the American Christ

The following essay was published in 1967 by Vincent Harding, printed here from the volume, The Black Power Revolt – A Collection of Essays, Floyd B. Barbour editor [Extending Horizons Books].

The mood among many social-action-oriented Christians today suggests that it is only a line thin as a razor blade that divides sentimental yearning over the civil rights activities of the past from present bitter recrimination against “Black Power.” As is so often the case with reminiscences, the nostalgia may grow more out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness than out of any true appreciation of the meaning of the past. This at least is the impression one gets from those seemingly endless gatherings of old “true believers” which usually produce both the nostalgia and the recriminations. Generally the cast of characters at such meetings consists of well-dressed, well-fed Negroes and whites whose accents almost blend into a single voice as they recall the days “when we were all together, fighting for the same cause.“ The stories evoke again the heady atmosphere, mixed of smugness and self-sacrifice, that surrounded us in those heroic times when nonviolence was our watchword and integration our heavenly city. One can almost hear the strains of “our song” as men and women remember how they solemnly swayed in the aisles or around the charred remains of a church or in the dirty southern jails. Those were the days when Martin Luther King was the true prophet and when we were certain that the civil rights movement was God’s message to the churches-and part of our smugness grew out of the fact that we knew it while all the rest of God’s frozen people were asleep.

A Veil Between Then and Now

But as the reminiscences continue a veil seems to descend between then and now. The tellers of the old tales label the veil Black Power, and pronounce ritual curses on Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick and their followers.

The trouble with these meetings is that they are indeed becoming ritual, cultic acts of memory that blind us to creative possibilities. Because that “veil” may be a wall, not primarily for separating but for writing on-both sides of it. Or it may be a great sheet “let down from heaven”; or a curtain before the next act can begin. Most of us appear totally incapable of realizing that there may be more light in blackness than we have yet begun to glimpse.

Such possibilities should be pondered especially by those of us who combine the terrible privileges of blackness and Christian commitment within a single life. We are driven to see not only what was happening in our warm, genteel days of common black-white struggle, but to grasp clearly what is happening now. We have no choice but to hold Black Power in our black arms and examine it, convinced that Christ is Lord of this too. Anyone who is black and claims to be a part of the company of Christ’s people would be derelict if he failed to make such an examination and to proclaim with fear and trembling and intimations of great joy what he has discovered.

Perhaps the first and central discovery is also the most obvious: there is a strong and causative link between Black Power and American Christianity. Indeed one may say with confidence that whatever its other sources, the ideology of blackness surely grows out of the deep ambivalence of American Negroes to the Christ we have encountered here. This ambivalence is not new. It was ours from the beginning. For we first met the American Christ on slave ships. We heard his name sung in hymns of praise while we died in our thousands, chained in stinking holds beneath the decks, locked in with terror and disease and sad memories of our families and homes. When we leaped from the decks to be seized by sharks we saw his name carved on the ship’s solid sides. When our women were raped in the cabins they must have noticed the great and holy books on the shelves. Our introduction to this Christ was not propitious. And the horrors continued on America’s soil. So all through the nation’s history many black men have rejected this Christ- indeed the miracle is that so many accepted him. In past times our disdain often had to be stifled and sullen, our anger silent and self-destructive. But now we speak out. Our anger is no longer silent; it has leaped onto the public stage, and demands to be seen and dealt with- a far more healthy state of affairs for all concerned.

If the American Christ and his followers have indeed helped to mold the Black Power movement, then might it not be that the God whom many of us insist on keeping alive is not only alive but just? May he not be attempting to break through to us with at least as much urgency as we once sensed at the height of the good old “We Shall Overcome” days? Perhaps he is writing on the wall, saying that we Christians, black and white, must choose between death with the American Christ and life with the Suffering Servant of God. Who dares deny that God may have chosen once again the black sufferers for a new assault on the hard shell of indifference and fear that encases so many Americans?

If these things are difficult to believe perhaps we need to look more closely both at the American Christ and the black movement he has helped to create. From the outset, almost everywhere we blacks have met him in this land, this Christ was painted white and pink, blond and blue-eyed-and not only in white churches but in black churches as well. Millions of black children had the picture of this pseudo-Nazarene burned into their memory. The books, the windows, the paintings, the film-strips all affirmed the same message-a message of shame. This Christ shamed us by his pigmentation, so obviously not our own. He condemned us for our blackness, for our fiat noses, for our kinky hair, for our power, our strange power of expressing emotion in singing and shouting and dancing. He was sedate, so genteel, so white. And as soon as we were able, many of us tried to be like him.

Glad to Be Black

For a growing edge of bold young black people all that is past. They fling out their declaration: “No white Christ shall shame us again. We are glad to be black. We rejoice in the darkness of our skin, we celebrate the natural texture of our hair we extol the rhythm and vigor of our songs and shouts and dances. And if your American Christ doesn’t like that, you know what you can do with him.” That is Black Power: a repudiation of the American culture-religion that helped to create it and a quest for a religious reality more faithful to our own experience.

These young people say to America: “We know your Christ and his attitude toward Africa. We remember how his white missionaries warned against Africa’s darkness and heathenism, against its savagery and naked jungle heart. We are tired of all that. This Africa that you love and hate, but mostly fear-this is our homeland. We saw you exchange your Bibles for our land. We watched you pass out tracts and take in gold. We heard you teach hymns to get our diamonds, and you control them still. If this is what your Christ taught you, he is sharp, baby, he is shrewd; but he’s no savior of ours. We affirm our homeland and its great black past, a past that was filled with wonder before your white scourge came. You can keep your Christ. We’ll take our home.” That is Black Power: a search for roots in a land that has denied us both a past and a future. And the American Christ who has blessed the denial earns nothing but scorn.

The advocates of Black Power know this Christ well. They see his people running breathlessly, cursing silently, exiting double-time from the cities with all their suffering people. They see this white throng fleeing before the strangled movement of the blacks out of the ghettos, leaving their stained-glass mausoleums behind them. This very exodus of the Christians from the places where the weak and powerless live has been one of the primary motivating forces of Black Power.

The seekers of Black Power, seeing their poorest, most miserable people deserted by the white American Christians, have come to stand with the forlorn in these very places of abandonment. Now they speak of Black Unity, and the old Christian buildings are filled with Negroes young and old studying African history. The new leaders in the ghettos tell them: “Whites now talk about joining forces, but who has ever wanted to join forces with you? They only want to use you-especially those white American Christian liars. They love you in theory only. They love only your middle-class incarnations. But they are afraid of you-you who are black and poor and filled with rage and despair. They talk about ‘progress’ for the Negro, but they don’t mean you.”

These young people whose names we old ” true believers” intone in our nightly litanies of frustrated wrath have listened with the perception born of alienation to white Christians speaking to Negroes of “our people and your people, our churches and your churches our community and your community, our schools and your schools.” And they hear this hypocrisy crowned with the next words from bleeding Christian hearts: “Of course some of your most spiritual (and quiet) people may come to our churches, and your wealthiest (and cleanest) people may move into our communities, and your brightest children may come to our schools. But never forget : we expect regular hymns of gratitude for our condescension. Always remember that they are still ours and not yours-people and communities and schools and churches.” And as an afterthought: “But of course we all love the same Christ.”

Sensitized by Apprehension

To this the angry children of Malcolm X shout fiercely: “To hell with you and your Christ! If you cannot live where we live, if your children cannot grow where we grow, if you cannot suffer what we suffer, if you cannot learn what we learn, we have no use for you or your cringing Christ. If we must come to where you are to find quality and life, then this nation is no good and integration is irrelevant.”

Then Black Power leaders turn to the people of the ghettos. “Let us use the separateness that the white Christians have imposed upon us,” they say to the black brothers. “Let us together find our own dignity and our own power, so that one day we may stand and face even those who have rejected us, no longer begging to be accepted into their dying world, but showing them a world transformed, a world where we have shaped our own destiny. We shall build communities of our own, where men are truly brothers and goods are really shared. The American Christ is a Christ of separation and selfishness and relentless competition for an empty hole. We want no part of him.”

Let there be no mistake. These evangels of a new movement are not deaf. They hear all the American words. They listen when good Christians ask: “Why should we pay our taxes to support those lazy deadbeats, those winos, those A.D.C. whores? Our money doesn’t belong to them. Our money … our money. . .” Sensitized by long years of apprehension, the blacks need only look into the mirror to know who those “deadbeats” and “winos” are and what the “A.D.C. whores” look like. At the same time they wonder why the same white Christians sing no sad songs about tax rebates for General Motors’ investments in South Africa’s apartheid, and why they raise no complaints about the tax money given to farmers for planting nothing.

Groveling No More

They open that American family magazine the Saturday Evening Post and find an enlightened northern editor saying to rebellious blacks that all whites are Mississippians at heart. He adds: “We will do our best, in a half-hearted way, to correct old wrongs. [Our] hand may be extended grudgingly and patronizingly, but anyone who rejects that hand rejects his own best interests.” To those who live in the realm of Black Consciousness this snarling voice is the voice of the people of the American Christ. Out of their anguished indignation the black rebels reply: “We reject your limp, bloodied hand and your half-hearted help. We shall use our own black hands and lives to build power. We shall love our own people. We shall lead them to a new justice, based on the kind of power that America respects-not nonviolence and forgiveness, but votes and money and violent retaliation. We shall beg no more. You shall define our best interests no longer. Take your Mississippi hand and your Cicero Christ and may both of them be damned.” That is Black Power.

As black men they have long seen into the heart of American darkness. They have no patriotic illusions about this nation’s benevolent intentions toward the oppressed nonwhite people of the world, no matter how often the name and compassion of divinity are invoked. With eyes cleared by pain they discern the arrogance beneath the pious protestations. The American Christ leads the Hiroshima-bound bomber, blesses the Mannes on their way to another in the long series of Latin American invasions, and blasphemously calls it peace when America destroys an entire Asian peninsula. And as black men they know from their own hard experience that these things can happen because this nation, led by an elder of the church, is determined to have its way in the world at any cost-to others. How often have the white-robed elders led the mob thirsting for the black man’s blood!

Black people are not fooled by the churchly vestments of humility. They hear arrogant white pastors loudly counting dollars and members, and committees smugly announcing the cost of their new modern churches-hollow tombs for Christ. They hear the voices: “Negroes, oh Negroes, you must be humble, like Christ. You must be patient and long-suffering. Negroes, don’t push so hard. Look at all we’ve given you so far.” And the voices trail of[: “Negroes, dear Negroes, remember our Lord taught how good it is to be meek and lowly.” And then a whisper : ”’Cause if you don’t, niggers, if you don’t, we’ll crush you.”

So the Black Power advocates sanely shout, “Go to hell, you whited sepulchers, hypocrites. All you want is to cripple our will and prolong our agony, and you use your white Christ to do it. “To the black people they say: “Don’t grovel, don’t scrape. Whether you are 1 per cent or 50 per cent or 100 per cent black, you are men, and you must affirm this in the face of all the pious threats. You must proclaim your manhood just as the white Christians do-in arrogance, in strength and in power. But the arrogance must be black, and the strength must be black, and black must be the color of our power.”

Christian Blasphemers

Then comes the sharpest of all moments of truth, when Christian voices are raised in hostility and fear, directing their missionary chorus to the young men drained of hope by the ghetto. “Black boys,” they say, “rampaging, screaming, laughing black boys, you must love-like Christ and Doctor King. Black boys, please drop your firebombs. Violence never solved anything. You must love your enemies-if they’re white and American and represent law and order. You must love them for your rotting houses and for your warped education. You must love them for your nonexistent jobs. Above all, you must love them for their riot guns, their billy clubs, their hatred and their white, white skin.”

It would be terrifying enough if the voices stopped on that emasculating note. But they go on: “Just the same, black boys, if the enemies have been properly certified as such by our Christian leaders, and if they’re poor and brown and 10,000 miles away, you must hate them. You must scream and rampage and kill them, black boys. Pick up the firebombs and char them good. We have no civilian jobs for you, of course, but we have guns and medals, and you must kill those gooks-even if some of them do resemble the image reflected in the night-black pool of your tears. “What can a nation expect in response to such vicious words? It gets the truth-far more than it deserves. For the black men reply: “Hypocrites, white hypocrites, you only want to save your skin and your piled-up treasure from the just envy-anger of your former slaves, your present serfs and your future victims. name of this Christ you deny our past, demean our present and promise us no future save that of black mercenaries in your assaults upon the world’s dark and desperate poor.”

Their rage cries out: “Give us no pink, two-faced Jesus who counsels love for you and flaming death for the children of Vietnam. Give us no blood-sucking savior who condemns brick throwing rioters and praises dive-bombing killers. That Christ stinks. We want no black men to follow in his steps. Stop forcing our poor black boys into your legions of shame. We will not go.”

“If we must fight,” they say, “let it be on the streets where we have been humiliated. If we must burn down houses, let them be the homes and stores of our exploiters. If we must kill, let it be the fat, pious white Christians who guard their lawns and their daughters while engineering slow death for us. If we must die, let it be for a real cause, the cause of black men’s freedom as black men define it. And may all the white elders die well in the causes they defend.” This is Black Power-the response to the American Christ.

Unbelievable words? If any Christian dare call them blasphemous, let him remember that the speakers make no claims about Christ or God. Only we Christians- black and white-do that. If the just creator-father God is indeed alive, and if Jesus of Nazareth was his Christ, then we Christians are blasphemers. We are the ones who take his name in vain. We are the ones who follow the phony American Christ and in our every act declare our betrayal of the resurrected Lord.

If judgment stands sure it is not for Stokely Carmichael alone but for all of us. It is we Christians who made the universal Christ into an American mascot, a puppet blessing every mad American act, from the extermination of the original possessors of this land to the massacre of the Vietnamese on their own soil even, perhaps, to the bombing of the Chinese mainland in the name of peace.

lf judgment stands sure it is not primarily upon SNCC that it will fall , but upon those who have kidnaped the compassionate Jesus-the Jesus who shared all he had, even his life, with the poor-and made him into a profit-oriented, individualistic, pietistic cat who belongs to his own narrowly-defined kind and begrudges the poor their humiliating subsistence budgets. These Christians are the ones who have taken away our Lord and buried him in a place unknown.

We shall not escape by way of nostalgia or recrimination. For if he whom we call the Christ is indeed the Suffering Servant of God and man, what excuse can there be for those who have turned him into a crossless puppet, running away from suffering with his flaxen locks flapping in the wind?

If God is yet alive we cannot afford time to reminisce about the good old days of the civil rights movement when everybody knew the words of the songs. The time of singing may be past. It may be that America must now stand under profound and damming judgment for having turned the redeeming lover of all men into a white, middle-class burner of children and destroyer of the revolutions of the oppressed.

Chance for Redemption

This may be God’s message for the church-through Black Power. It is a message for all who claim to love the Lord of the church. If this reading is accurate, our tears over the demise of the civil rights movement may really be tears over the smashing of an Image we created or the withdrawal of a sign we were no longer heeding. Therefore if we weep, let it not be for the sins of SNCC and CORE but for our own unfaithfulness and for our country’s blasphemy. And let us begin to pray that time may be granted us to turn from blond dolls to the living, revolutionary Lord who proclaimed that the first shall be last and the last first.

If this message can break the grip of self-pity and nostalgia on us, the power of blackness may yet become the power of light and resurrection for us all. Has it not been said that God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform? I can conceive of nothing more wonderful and mysterious than that the blackness of my captive people should become a gift of light for this undeserving nation -even a source of hope for a world that lives daily under the threat of white America’s arrogant and bloody power. Is that too much to hope for? Or is the time for hoping now past? We may soon discover whether we have been watching a wall or a curtain-or both.

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