Do You Believe in Black Jesus?

In chapter 4 of Edward Blum’s W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, Blum discusses the Gospel according to Mary Brown and her child Joshua, who represents one of Du Bois’s black biblical characters, who found comfort among those who were societal outcasts. He, who was [the black] Jesus Christ, marched with the poor, with sinners, and communists; however, this Christ was not embraced by whites. Better yet, this Christ was lynched by the white South because they could not accept a Christ that accepted all people, especially the American Negro. Because of this, Joshua was killed by the very people who awaited him – the Christian South. I often wonder about the thought processes of religious bigots who believe their God will accept them into His kingdom as a hater of people. I suspect many Christians do not realize they are destined to the one place they are trying to avoid, Hell. Furthermore, much of the historical literature paints a deeply racist American South in which Christians often attend Church in the morning, only to lynch blacks in the evening. This, more than anything, is why my parents are suspicious of religious people and their institutions. I was raised and educated in a suspicious black home; however, I was taught to love and embrace all people: black, white, gay, lesbian, poor, and defeated.

I have asked students and others what color was Christ? Most correctly they respond by saying he was Jewish; I then ask if they think Christ was a black Jew? It is here that causes some to pause…even from blacks; Du Bois struggled to understand why whites saw Christ in their image but blacks failed to see this. I have visited white churches in which their congregation’s depiction of Christ was blond hair and blue eyed man. I am most interested in the response I would get from my school community if I were to teach that Christ was black while he walked the earth. Keep in mind that my campus community is made up primarily of affluent white evangelicals. I suspect that my colleague who teaches at a similar school might be able to answer this question since his class addressed this topic on his blog here. This too was part of the 20th century color line problem Du Bois addressed.

“Christ Recrucified” (1922)

The South is crucifying Christ again
Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue
The sin for which no blamelessness atones;
But lest the sameness of the cross should tire,
They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,
And while he burns, good men, and women, too,
Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.

“The Black Christ” (1929)

O Form immaculately born,
Betrayed a thousand times each morn,
As many times each night denied,
Surrendered, tortured, crucified!
That love which has no boundary;
Our eyes have looked on Calvary (135-136).

[Source: James H. Smylie, “Countee Cullen’s ‘The Black Christ,’” Theology Today38/2 (July 1981): 160-73] h/t: Phil Sinitiere


44 thoughts on “Do You Believe in Black Jesus?

  1. We only had black depictions of Christ in my home growing up. It was not a big deal. My mother just like what Du Bois said, wanted us to feel good about our race. To her, it was important that we saw ourselves in the image of Christ.

    I find it interesting that you teach at a conservative religious school but was brought up in such a non religious liberal home.

  2. although i think this is an academic topic because it defines society and its treatment of race, i also think that many academics are far less religious than the rest of society. u can not be too academic to believe in voodo religion such as a mighty god’s son who walks among all races. i think my latter comment points to moral stories much like du bois address with mary brown.

  3. I must agree with George. But, i have also found the most educated people to be the most religious. I am not sure those southern Christians were really Christian.

  4. These are questions I struggle with – not necessarily the idea of race, really, but the idea that there’s only ONE way to practice a true faith.

    I have a really long story about my disenchantment with organized religion, but I’ll try to boil it down to this: I was 7, I think, and attending a very liberal church with my babysitter, whose father was the pastor (there as no religion AT ALL in my home, so I sought it elsewhere). The church sponsored a family from Ghana, (I think; I’ve forgotten that detail), and I made friends with the daughter of that family, who was just my age.

    One morning after Sunday school, I was asking her mother, who was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen – black like eternity and with beautiful ritual scarring on her face – about those scars. She was telling me the story of her culture’s tradition of taking women, just before their marriage, to a special place where all the women of the village gathered to celebrate her journey into full adulthood as a married woman. She was shining as she remembered this; it was an integral part of her very identity as a human being to be so connected to the ritual and community of her culture.

    One of the other Sunday school parents heard us talking and scolded me, right there in front of everyone, for “prying” into such “shameful” things. He made us both – me and the mother – feel terrible – she was suddenly ashamed of her differences (I gather that this man assumed that her sponsorship to the U.S. by this church would mean she’d give up all ties and connections to her native culture and become whatever the church wanted her to become) and I was infuriated that he’d yelled at me for asking and learning about someone different from me.

    It was the last time I ever went to church.

    I think what I’m trying to say here is that, regardless of how “enlightened” people claim themselves to be, very few are TRULY capable of the kind of enlightenment that allows them to live in harmony with ALL others. It takes both a great deal of self-confidence and a great deal of open-mindedness to be tolerant (never mind accepting) of people whose views and beliefs and practices run contrary to your own. That man was threatened by the mother’s differences, and would rather pretend they didn’t exist than discuss and celebrate them.

    The concept of a black Christ would be a radical challenge to the notions that most people – and, from the sounds of it, we’re talking most white AND black people – hold most dear. I can understand where the trouble blacks have in accepting a Christ in their own image comes from; people who’ve been subjugated for so long tend to accept the dominant culture’s views after a fashion. To make my point, try envisioning a FEMALE Christ…

  5. I find it unfortunate that people allow one person, or one event to color their perception of God. I claim Christianity, but I am not perfect. I don’t always, or even very often look like Jesus, but that does not discount who God is. I’m sorry that you’ve run into people who you think don’t look like Jesus and therefore have discounted organized religion, but lack of perfection among his followers does not mean that he is any less who he says he is. If nothing else, that assumption is a logical fallacy on the part of otherwise intelligent, articulate people. What if I decided to never go to class again because my first grade teacher was not nice and therefore all teachers must be mean? That would be ludicrous. I’m sorry if that’s insulting, but it appears to be true. By they way Eric, Southern Christians are no more or less Christian than any other form of Christian, they just struggle with different things.

  6. I think suffering is a part of faith. If blacks or any other groups are oppressed, it is worth it for heaven.

  7. I’m not saying that I’ve not led a SPIRITUAL life, Kristi, but I do think that my own personal path is just as valid as one that’s trod by the multitudes. One doesn’t have to be part of a church or an organized, recognized faith to have a relationship with God…

  8. I agree; some of the most spiritual people I know are those who do not subscribe to organize religion or a church. I have noticed that Americans faith and belief in God is pretty strong, but this same group is not a members of a particular faith or church. This is becoming the norm among many educated black middle class people; it has long been the case for whites in this demographic.

    It is my understanding that those under 30 (and many older than 30) blame their parents and their parent’s religion and social construction for the problems in the world today, including racism, povery, greed, etc.

  9. This is a mighty post, beautifully written. You have a strong voice, and I hope that many more get to hear it for decades in your classes and writing.

    Well done.

  10. I wasn’t debating anyone’s spirituality. I was questioning the logic that people, including educated people, use to explain their specific discouragement with Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or what have you. It’s poor logic that I was specifically bothered by.

  11. Kristi,

    If you went through several grades and through several teachers at your school, would it still be a logical fallacy if you then chose to leave?

    And if you took that open minded of an approach, then would you not belong to any and all religions? Would you not be making assumptions about other religions yourself if you choose to not be a part any relgion for any number of religions?


    Who and where are these people who blame the ideals of their parents for said problems?

    …maybe I just need some more liberal friends

  12. It would be wise to perhaps not care for that school, or even those teachers, but until you’ve been through every single person that belongs to education as a whole, it’s not intellectually sound to quit education, for example. And, my approach to religion isn’t open-minded about the head of the religion, it’s open minded about the people that belong to it. I realize that it takes a certain amount of faith to believe what I do, but it doesn’t keep me from being open-minded and intellectually honest to choose the one I’ve chosen and not the others.

  13. I think that everyone is capable of the kind of understanding that would allow them to take in Countee Cullen’s view of Jesus. Those folks are the minority but I have noticed that education doesn’t have to be deciding factor. Intellectual ignorance isn’t the same as emotional ignorance.

    It’s interesting to think of this in relation to the appearance of the historical Buddha. I really don’t know how dark the Sakya clan members would have been. Also, each culture or ethnic group which has embraced Buddhism has made the Buddha over in their own image. This hasn’t caused any problems I’m aware of. The male vs. female vision of Buddha is still a bit problematic. I think it’s telling, however, that the figure of Kuan Yin as a female boddhisattva is such a widely-loved creature.

  14. This is a very interesting topic and we have actually talked about to some extent in my Bible study at my church. One of our leaders always says Jesus looks more like Osama than he looks like you, which is a kind of strange thing to think about when all you see around are these perfect blue eyed and blonde haired depictions Jesus.

  15. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

    Nothing in there about brow-beating others to a certain way of thinking. Help widows…don’t ask them to donate large sums of money for “special projects.” Maintain self-control…don’t ask everyone to do it one way to make it easier to be faithful. Religion is best served small. Big and organized religion can become a plodding ship where a small turn of the wheel at the head can take a whole lot of people in the wrong direction.

    In the same chapter of James, the author says to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” and to “humbly accept the word.” There are definitely times that a person of faith should speak out, but when done with reason and humility it is much more effective (and has a greater likelihood of being correct).

    While Jesus’ skin color would not seem relevant to salvation, it seems clear that the white-stereotype perpetuated by (some) organized religion has done more harm than good. How does a blonde Jesus keep circulating generation after generation? People don’t like to be told they may be wrong, particularly over things that have become deeply ingrained in the way they perceive the world (or their religion). Sometimes the small beliefs (skin color) are weighted just as heavily as the more important ones (resurrection). Again, humility and personal intellectual rigor is a good thing for a believer of any faith to have. Stepping on a religious cruise ship and entrusting it completely to provide a voyage to truth is lazy and can have unfortunate consequences.

  16. Alright Jesus was neither white or Black he was Jewish so technically he is in between he would have looked middle eastern not light enough to be white or dark enough to be black. He was Ara. I dont see why people try to make him something he is not and any way why does it matter what skin color he was does that change who he was and what he did for us?

  17. I believe people picture Jesus akin to their own race because in our society we are most comfortable with our own shade of race. Now when I say this I don’t mean that in a racist way, it’s true, people feel comfortable within the confines of what visually other people group them in, whether that’s white, black, or a purplish tint. I’ll admit, talking with some black students feels awkward to me, and often I’ll feel uncomfortable talking with them or hanging out with them. Most of my life in fact I’ve considered Jesus white because I grew up familiar with white people in a society that identifies Jesus as white, which in fact is not true. That’s straying from the point, Jesus WAS of Jewish/Middle Eastern ethnicity, but in spirit he WAS NOT Jewish or Middle Eastern. Rather he aims to identify himself with people without boundaries of color or race in question. The Gospel is aimed at all people is it not? So for letting people apply Jesus to their distinct ethnicity and identifying themselves with Him, they are cementing their relationship and spirituality in Jesus. I honestly don’t have a problem with it either for the record if you didn’t catch that.

  18. It changes everything Daniel,

    If your God is of the same race as you are, you inherit the ability to use that factor against others of a different race.

    Excuse me for being slightly sacrilegious against what ever anyone might believe, but the Jesus, as well as pretty much all other gods (I don’t want to leave anyone out…), have been tools for the will of man.

    Having your God be the same race as you is just like having an extra mallet in your tool shed to pummel those who disagree with you


    Back to Kristi,

    I understand you point, but at what point would you deem it fit to leave a religion? (I was using the school analogy metaphorically to represent a religion, not to imply leaving eduction)

    You seem to want others to keep searching until they find your religion, but it seems as if you are saying you are done searching yourself.

    I guess that is just the main idea behind any religions and probably the reason of why most black families have a white Jesus. Because their families only learned of Jesus from people who has the white Jesus mentality set in stone.

  19. You cannot possibly know everything I’ve looked into. And for that matter, if I believe in the tenets of my religion, of course I would want everyone to find it, because I believe that’s the only way that anyone will get to heaven.

  20. This topic i believe has been debated over for many years if Jesus looks more like me or he looks like you. The most logical answer i believe is that he would look like a middle eastern Jewish man. He is the son of Mary which makes him a decedent of David and many more and what is common of all these people is that they are Jewish which also makes them middle eastern. So that is what i would think of when i am contemplating the color of JESUS. But it would be cool if he was a Brother!

  21. I agree with Moses that he most likely middle eastern…and he was Jewish. But I also think that people should be free to think whatever they want about the color of Jesus.

  22. Color ain’t jack when people (and I’m agreeing with Walker on this) manipulate Jesus’s color or ethnicity for their own use. Like I said in the above paragraph I still hold on to this fact dearly that Jesus’s appearance and teachings, like so many other prophets, are manipulated for the good of the oppressor (i.e. whites against slaves). His legacy I doubt is the debate on what shade his skin was but rather the fact that his true legacy is the salvation of mankind, at least that’s what ancient scriptures say, not the Daily Catholic or the Mormon Weekly. In my opinion the color issue of Jesus is a pointless debate that is going nowhere fast. Yes he was Middle Eastern. Yes he was Jewish. But does his skin have really ANYTHING to do with his legacy that supposedly his followers listen to? If you say yes then I worry about you…

  23. Quit trying to fit Jesus into a mold. To claim that he was black or oriental or anything other than a Jew is simply a revisionist lie for the sake of… what?

  24. A very good friend of mine who is Black, female and an ordained minister – a scary combination – was asked the same question early on in her career. Her response: “Will a Black Jesus lead Black folks to love each other an behave correctly?”

  25. Pingback: Edward Blum’s University of Houston’s Seminar on Race by Phil Sinitiere « The Proletarian

  26. I wonder if we sometimes miss the point about who are “… the least of these.”
    Because, in as much as we’ve done it to them, we’ve done it to Jesus.
    Does that make Jesus black? Depends…
    So who is doing what to whom?
    Am I mistreating?
    Am I ignoring?
    Am I belittling?
    Or am I segregating myself with “I–thou” terminology.
    Perhaps Jesus is some punk white kid from wealthy parents who wonders what about life is worth living. Perhaps I just passed Jesus on the corner, waving a newspaper.
    Parkhill and Ericsson– right on. i’m afraid that trend goes back to Constantine.

  27. Pingback: Thoughts on Ed Blum, W.E. B. Dubois, Toni Morrison, Race, Sex, and Black Literature « The Proletarian

  28. First of all, no one is really answering the question. Was Jesus Black? Well, Jesus was a Hebrew, and they were definately people of pigmented skin. Go through the Bible and look through the clues. The Bible, itself, is in fact an Afrian book, and I can (or should I?) assume that we all know what Africans look like, especially in the region specified in the Bible. This was North and North Eastern Africa, and also the Middle East, which at that time, was populated with individuals of color and considered a part of Africa, and not Asia at this time. In fact, the Hebrew languge, and this region of the world is considered to exist under an Afro-Asiatic language family, and is in an Afro-Asiatic geographical location. Let’s be real with our lives folks. Jesus and Hebrews (later called Jews) were not what we see today. The cultures and pigments have mixed over the centuries and people have converted to Judaism over the years. For instance: Adam was made from dirt, what color is that? Samson had seven braids [but should translate as (dread) locks]; Solomon and his love were dark and beautiful; and Moses was able to stay alive in the house of the Egyptian pharaoh (I’m sure a little European-looking (“Jew”) would cause a commotion, and he would be killed. Duh. Jesus’ color does matter, because people of color have not been able to cling to their culture, ethnicity, language, and intrinsic/extrinsic identity because of racist/sexist/white supremacist/patriarchal oppression institutionalized in our global society. Many Europeans have a hard time understanding that which is outside of their immediate experience; that is why the paintings and depictions were made to fit their image, so they could understand Christ. They were fashioned first under the Greco-Roman context. Jesus was fashioned to look like Appollo/Hermes and Jupiter/Zeus during the ‘formation’ of the church from the 1-3 centuries. Pagan rituals/practices were transmitted to be Christian. Things were added and taken away to make better sense to the Greeks/Romans and throughout the empire.

    You can take it or leave it. Does it matter overall for salvation? No. Does it matter that Jesus was Black/pigmented/of color? Yes.

    Disclaimer: I’m not saying this in order to make anyone feel better, or worse. It’s only the truth. I have researched this (individually and as a Master of Divinity student) and have done the work by interrogating the sociology/anthropology/geography/polity or politics of the issue. I have only presented an unbiased represenation of truth, whatever that may mean.

  29. I agree color does not matter, the love and belief is what is important. In my research there is no way to prove one way or another, however most archeologists would agree that he was probably neither white nor black. There is no way he could possibly have been white. Most likely having been a Middle Eastern Jew he was likely very similar to the features of current middle eastern inhabitants. Yes there have been changes in traits in these regions so he may have had darker skin pigment to even an olive tone. What matters is his willingness to accept and forgive anyone. By the way what is of color supposed to mean. Aren’t we all of color in the end?

  30. Walker, clearly what Daniel said went right over your head. The color of Jesus’ skin does not change the fact that he died for all men of all races. You are looking at the social consequences of Jesus’ skin color based on the ideas of men that were no more Christian than the anichrist will be. True Christians, and there are few, possess agope love, which can only come from God. They have such an intense love for others in their heart, that race is the last thing they see when they look at some one on the street. They see a human being searching for the truth, and they will do all that they can to bring that person to Christ. RACE IS IRRELEVANT. Do not classify Christianity based on what you have seen, because most of it isn’t Christianity.

  31. Jesus Christ Had To Have Been Black Because He Was Jewish. Everyone Knows Jewish People Are African Because The Original Jews Came From Ethiopia. Ethiopia Is A Country In Northeastern Africa. These Jews Then Migrated To The Middle East/Southwestern Asia And Formed Their Own Country Of Israel In 1948. Only An Ethiopian African Black Jewish Jesus Christ Messiah Could Have Suffered And Endured The Same Religious Persecution, Racial Oppression, Repression, Racism, Bigotry, Rejection, And Murderous Fate By Crucifixion That He Endured By The Romans, By Pontius Pilate, And By The Roman Catholic Church As The Black People In The Southern States Of America Faced By Slavery and Lynching, During The Late 1800’s And During The Civil Rights Era Of The 1960’s. Only An Ethiopian Black Jewish Jesus Could Have Suffered The Same Religious Persecution, Racial Oppression, Repression, Racism, Bigotry, Rejection, And Murderous Fate By Crucifixion That He Endured By The Romans, By Pontius Pilate, And By The Roman Catholic Church That The Martyr Martin Luther King Jr. Did By The White Supremacist Killers Named James Earl Ray’s, Loyd Jowers, Frank Liberto, Memphis Police Department officer Marrell McCollough, MPD Lieutenant Earl Clark, And Raul In Memphis, Tennessee On April 4, 1968 And That The Martyr Medgar Evers Did By The White Supremacist Killer Named Byron De La Beckwith In Mississippi On June 12, 1963. A White Aryan Anglo-Saxon Roman So Called Jesus Would Not Have Been Allowed To Suffer The Same Religious Persecution, Racial Oppression, Repression, Racism, Bigotry, Rejection, And Murderous Fate By Crucifixion That An Ethiopian African Jewish Jesus Christ Messiah did! Enough Said!

  32. It doesn’t matter about what color Jesus was. It matters about who He is and what He came to do. To me all this stuff about if Jesus was black or whatever other color is really irrelevant and is just another stupid attempt by the devil to cause division amongst people. Jesus loved all people regardless because we are all His children. Two things that the Lord wants from all his children 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind & 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. We all have the same measure and God loves us all regardless of race and all that type of stuff. God bless and love to all!!!

  33. While What You Say “Jesus loved all people regardless because we are all His children” And “We all have the same measure and God loves us all regardless of race and all that type of stuff” Might Be True, According To The Roman Catholic Church Of Patchogue, New York, I Do Not Deserve The Right To Live A Life Free Of Racist Labeling, Ethnic Ridicule, Attacks On My Heterosexual Sexual Orientation, and Social Inequality Due To The Fact That I Am A Nigerian Man Struggling To Make It In America! Furthermore, They Believe That God Does Not Love Me Because I Am A Nigerian Man Living In This Country!

  34. I’m sorry you experience that Eduseun but just keep in mind that they are just people they are not God. You must test the spirit with the Spirit. What man says and what God says are two different arena’s.Do not let them get you so angry that you turn away from Him.Stay rooted brother in Christ. God bless you & yours.

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