The image below–”Christmas in Georgia, 1916,” by Lorenzo Harris, and taken from the December 1916 issue of The Crisis (pp. 78-79). The caption reads: “Inasmuch as ye did unto the least of these, My brethren, ye did it unto Me.” I have used this image on a number of post probably because it is so telling of the early Negro plight.
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. The image portrays Christ arriving to save His people…but not the Jews…enslaved and persecuted black folks. Blacks during the days of Harriet Tubman (circa 1830) used folk tales via singing to describe Christ’s coming to save them from Egyptian’s bondage; it would be Tubman — also called black Moses — that emerged in the days of the Exodus to guide the enslaved folks across the Red Sea into Canada. Such religious tales illustrated a “sense” of religiosity that still exists among black folk, but no longer carries the same fervor. My parents, who grew up in the south, do not call themselves Christian. This is unusual due to their race, geographical upbringing, and level of educational attainment. Black academics tend to gravitate more towards being either agnostic or atheist.
Blum speaks to the religiosity of Du Bois as a spiritual intellectual; I recall Cornel West writing about the soulful needs of faith and the church as a process of survival in a world dominated by white supremacy. But in an age of reason, one that places too much attention on academics for profit such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the norm of thinking is that intellectuals lack a faith in God — particularly white academics; however, the thought of blacks being atheist is unheard of in the 20th/21st century. This can be explained through the roots of slavery and Jim Crow; black folks congregated in the black church as they do today as a form of spiritual “togetherness”, but also as a show of political solidarity. The church stands at the center of the political, educational, and social lives of black Americans. What is different about black theology? According to James Cone, “it is due exclusively to the failure of white religionists to relate the gospel of Jesus to the pain of being black in a white racist society.” For nearly three hundred years, the enslaved houseworker had been listening to their owners’ prayers and Bible readings….they were able to interpret their own inexplicable situation and give themselves reasons to stay alive. This notion has transformed itself from the plantation to the political arena as seen by such actors as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
While today most African-Americans seem to belong to the general segment known as Baptists, the first African Baptist church began this trend, in Richmond VA, in 1838 when the pastor and members of the First Baptist Church of that city debated its growing difficulty: What to do with the growing black population in the church. Perhaps one of the reasons so many African-Americans today consider themselves Baptists is because it is a far more orthodox and conservative branch of Christianity. It is at this point one might see a division between those of religious academic type and those of pure spiritual devotion. The religious academic types see the church as a vehicle to bring about social justice in eradicating poverty, racism, and social ills that permeate society. This type of black folk tend to be far more progressive than those rooted in the deep southern tradition of spiritualism.