Writers Like James Baldwin Led Me to a Black Jesus

Writers Like James Baldwin Led Me to a Black Jesus 1

For years, I made my home with white people in white churches. I knew how to run and to hide and to move my body in ways that made white people feel more safe and less racist and more godly and less violent. Whether on the football field or in the pulpit, my performance gave them what they never deserved: confidence that the world was OK.

It started in college at Clemson University, where I played on the nationally ranked football team. Many young Black athletes like me left home and quickly found ourselves around white Christians because they were the ones who had greatest access to us. Between Bible studies and church outings, our worlds became white, our Jesus became a blond-haired and blue-eyed savior. This Jesus cared about touchdowns and Bible verses written in white letters underneath our eyes over the black paint.

As the weeks and months and years went by, I found myself closer and closer to white people. After graduating from college, I joined a white evangelical church and entered seminary in the hopes of becoming a pastor there. In my pursuit to be a better person and a better athlete and a better Christian, I viewed Black sermons and Black songs and Black buildings and Black shouting and Black loving with skepticism, and white sermons and white songs and white buildings and white clapping with sacredness.

But before long, images of Black people dying started appearing all over our televisions and newspapers and newsfeeds. And too many of the nice white people around me just didn’t seem to care. And I knew: I had to find a way to get free and survive.

July 5, 2016: I remember my hands holding my phone, my stomach sweating, my eyes beholding Alton Sterling, lifeless. I saw in him the face of every Black boy and man who couldn’t be protected. I was cold, empty, afraid. I didn’t know what do with what I saw or what I felt.

The very next day, another Black death: Philando Castile. I heard him pant. His breaths were heavy, weak, patterned. I remember hearing his girlfriend, Diamond, frantic and crying. “Stay with me,” she tells him. “Please, Jesus,” she cries. There are no answers to such a prayer.

I remember what the white Christians around me said, how they blamed Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile for their own deaths and how they struggled to see the value of our lives.

I remember not being a hero or an activist or a preacher with enough courage to tell myself or my wife or the people around me how I felt. I remember how the comfort and safety of being around white people quickly turned into rocky ground. I remember the question that I couldn’t shake from my soul nor my mind nor my body: How do I be Black and Christian and American?

In desperation and sadness, trying to find words of faith in the face of Black death, I picked up the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” I devoured it.

I remember Dr. King quoting James Baldwin. It was the first time I had heard of Mr. Baldwin. In “A Letter to My Nephew,” he wrote: “Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.”

I had always been afraid of what other people thought of me, what they would do to me, what they would make of me. Mr. Baldwin’s words hit me with a sort of mercy, a grace, as if almighty God was speaking, reaching down to touch my wounded flesh with his words.

I started to read the Rev. Dr. James Cone — “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” “The Spir­ituals and the Bluesand “Black Theology and Black Power.” I read J. Deotis Roberts’s “Liberation and Reconcilia­tion.” I read Stacey Floyd-Thomas’s “Deeper Shades of Purple.” I read Black poetry. I listened to Black songs. I looked at Black art. I couldn’t find a way out of the dark struggle except by reading Black theology along­side the book of Lamentations and the stories of the prophets and Jesus. If Isaiah’s and Nehemiah’s lives can be inherited as revelations of the divine, then I knew that the book of Baldwin and the book of Morrison awaited my opening.

The more I read these works, the more I let them teach me how to love. Not the type of love that must perform to be accepted — the type that would allow us to embrace our humanity and never allow ourselves to believe that proving what could never be proved was the best we had to offer. The type of love that Toni Morrison writes of in “Paradise”: “That Jesus had been freed from white religion and he wanted these kids to know that they did not have to beg for respect; it was already in them, and they needed only to display it.”

I saw why they insisted on saying Jesus is Black. They were not talking about his skin color during his earthly ministry, though it definitely wasn’t white. They were talking about his experience, about how Jesus knows what it means to live in an occupied territory, knows what it means to be from an oppressed people.

Dr. Cone, a central figure in the development of Black liberation theology, particularly spoke to me. It was not so much that he had all the an­swers, but for the first time, I was reading a theolo­gian who looked like me, felt like me, talked like me, loved Jesus like me, who knew the comfort of being around white folk like me, who knew the failures of white folk like me and who knew he had to leave what W.E.B Du Bois called “the world of the white man” like me.

I had entered a majority-white seminary in the fall of 2016, just months after the deaths of Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile and just weeks after I heard someone who worshiped where I worshiped praising the name Donald J. Trump. I was excited to be learning theology and about church history and preparing myself to become a minister. But by the time I started reading James Cone and others, I knew I had to leave the white places that had become less familiar and less worthy of my presence: the seminary where I’d been studying and the white evangelical church I’d attended for so many years.

I had met great people at these places. But, sadly, they never really took seriously the life of the Black body in America. So I decided to return to the Black people and Black worlds that made me and loved me. I was, as Toni Morrison writes, growing up Black again.

If the white people I worshiped with and went to school with and had dinner with had the imagination to see C.S. Lewis’s Aslan the lion in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” as Jesus, then I knew there should have been no problem when Black people said Jesus was Black and Jesus loved Black people and Jesus wanted to see Black people free. But I found out that many could see the symbol of divine goodness and love in an animal before they could ever see the symbol of divine goodness and love in Blackness.

My world changed when I stopped sitting at the feet of white Jesus and began becoming a disciple of Black Jesus. I didn’t have to hate myself, or my people, or our creativity, or our beauty to be human or to be Christian.

When I left, many white Christians around me thought I had betrayed them. They didn’t understand that I was leaving white supremacy behind. They saw it as leaving Jesus. What a terrible, terrible thing.

I have given up faith in the belief that things will eventually get better, a sort of triumphal note that takes one’s mind away from such inhumane violence, a faith that doesn’t take Black flesh seriously.

“I am black alive and looking back at you,” the poet June Jordan wrote.

I remember the first time I became an alive Black body. I remember it all. I remember what I told myself and tell myself and try to tell others in so many creatively Black ways:

We do not just die.

We do not just suffer.

We do not just fail.

We do not just grieve.

We live.

We dance.

We love.

We shout.

Danté Stewart is a writer and speaker on race, religion and politics. He is the author of “Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle,” from which this essay is adapted.

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