June 9, 2014 / Theology
Sarah Coakley’s important book recommends prayer as a way to an incorporative model of the Trinity.
January 9, 2017
A sign of the times, outrage followed the February release of Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video and her performance at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. Critics claimed both were “anti-police,” pro-Black Panther, and “inciting bad behavior,” presumably against law enforcement. The next week, NBC’s Saturday Night Live released its own critical response to the backlash Queen Bey faced (particularly from the white community) in the form of a farcical movie trailer: “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.”1 Panic ensues in this mock disaster movie as white people fear that their other favorite stars will also reveal themselves to be black—black, meaning no longer agreeing to assimilate to the dominant white culture.
In the SNL sketch, a white woman in a cubicle drops her earbuds after listening to “Formation” for the first time: “Guys, I don’t understand this new song.” A coworker responds, “Maybe this song isn’t for us.” The woman then replies with the most groan-worthy line of the sketch: “But usually everything is!” SNL, in its signature humorous-yet-poignant fashion, reveals the absurdity (and sad reality) of appropriation in America: we’ll claim Beyoncé as our own only as long as she remains culturally palatable and, therefore, white.2 This sentiment of maybe this isn’t for us drives the central question of this paper: to what extent is black theology, like Beyoncé’s music, for us—us being the white church—and in what ways is taking on black theology yet another way to disingenuously consume or appropriate black culture?
Christianity Is Not Alien to Black Power; It Is Black Power.3
James Cone is considered the father of black liberation theology and one of the definitive voices on black theology and black Christology. His seminal work, Black Theology and Black Power, though nearly fifty years old, continues to speak to the contemporary reality of so-called post-racial America. The racial climate in which Cone was writing—1969, two years after the Detroit race riot and a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—looks similar to the one we live in now. Historian Julian E. Zelizer argues in the Atlantic that the country may be “repeating the mistakes of 1968” in its response to racial tensions and that “the string of racial violence Americans have witnessed in the past three years has brought the nation to a comparable historical inflection point,” which could only be made worse now that we have elected Donald Trump and a Republican congress to lead our nation. Similarly, some are arguing that we’re in a new civil rights era, with the Black Lives Matter movement at its center.4
Writing at the height of the 1960s civil rights era, Cone argues that black power is the foundation for black liberation theology. Cone, borrowing language from Paul Tillich, defines black power as “an attitude, an inward affirmation of the essential worth of blackness. . . . This is Black Power, the power of the black man to say Yes to his own ‘black being.’” This “saying Yes” is an emphatic “No” to the centuries-long dehumanization of black persons under a system of white supremacy. In Buberian terms, Cone writes that black power is the demand to be seen as a “thou” rather than an “it.” Indeed, it’s not difficult to connect Cone’s 1960s definition of black power to our current manifestation of civil rights: that is to say, yes, black lives matter.5
Cone employs a robust Christology to dismantle the “whiteness” (or cultural dominance) of the gospel that has perpetuated systemic racism, particularly in the American church. He argues that “the message of Black Power is the message of Christ himself,” that black theology affirms the cause of black power through the liberating work of Christ, and that Christ takes on the very suffering of his people, thus becoming “symbolically black” as a way to identify with the people who are most oppressed in racist white America.6 Just as the historical Jesus bore the skin of an oppressed people—first-century Jews under Roman occupation—so the Christ of today takes on the skin of today’s oppressed groups: Jesus “is our contemporary, proclaiming release to the captives and rebelling against all who silently accept the structures of injustice.” And in our contemporary culture, the oppressed are the undereducated and malnourished black children, the innocent black men with their hands raised, the incarcerated, and the people of color missing from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s now infamous selfie or the list of 2015 Oscar nominees.7 The role of the white church is not merely to cease perpetuating these realities but to stand up against them. Cone writes,
If the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation, and if the Church and Christ are where the oppressed are, then Christ and his Church must identify totally with the oppressed to the extent that they too suffer for the same reasons persons are enslaved. . . . It would seem, then, that emancipation could only be realized by Christ and his Church becoming black.8
To Cone that means that white Christians must choose a side. Instead of intellectualizing the problem of race or trying to act as peacekeepers, white Christians must choose the side of the oppressed and take on their suffering.9
Thus, in Cone’s imagination, black power and black theology are not for us to consume or appropriate because we, the white church, are not the oppressed.10 Only incidentally do black power and black theology pertain to white Christians as a way to save us from ourselves. For too long, the structures of white supremacy have made decisions for black bodies—and continue to do so. The only decision we are to make as the white church is whether we participate in the black power movement—will we affirm black persons as human and confess our role as oppressors?—or in our silence or disapproval, continue to oppress.11 Cone argues that it’s only through this liberation of black people that white people can be free from their role as oppressor. But this “good news” is not easy for the white church to take in—remember the hysteria from the SNL sketch. Cone writes, “Since he [the white person] mistakes his enslaving power for life and health he does not easily recognize his own mortal illness or hear the healing word.”12Something—or someone—needs to open the eyes of the white person to his or her complicity in systemic and daily racism.
We See Christ There with His Black Face and Big Black Hands Lounging on a Streetcorner13
Cone argues that the only thing that can save the oppressed and oppressor alike is black power echoed in the liberating gospel of a Christ who is “symbolically black,” identifying and siding with our culture’s oppressed. For Cone, the extent that black theology is for the white church is only in its willingness to participate in the suffering of others, to recognize its own complicity and choose the side of justice. What happens, though, when the “symbolically black” Christ moves past symbolism and emerges as a person? What happens when the white church appropriates this black Jesus, using him for white salvation in the place of black liberation? In what ways is that black Christ for us?
Two years after Cone published Black Theology and Black Power, while the civil rights movement was underway and black persons demanded that their bodies were beautiful, author John Updike published his own commentary on the times.14 Rabbit Redux, a sequel to Updike’s celebrated Rabbit, Run, displays a tableau of American life in the late sixties, framed by the moon landing, sexual revolution, and domestic race tensions. It’s in the midst of this that Updike introduces his own vision of black Jesus in Skeeter, a drug-dealing convict.
The antihero of the story, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, finds his life interwoven with two unlikely friends—Jill, a white eighteen-year-old hippie, who becomes Rabbit’s lover, and Skeeter, who bunks in Rabbit’s home while on the run from the police. Rabbit himself is part of Nixon’s “silent majority,” a middle class white male, anxious about his country’s future. Like today’s president-elect promising to “Make America Great Again,” Rabbit yearns for the previous decade when the dollar was strong, women were simple homemakers, and race was not a national conversation.15 “So personal for Rabbit is this vision of old America,” writes Updike scholar Marshall Boswell, “that in Rabbit Redux, it becomes a stand-in for Rabbit’s subjective God. In fact, God and America become conflated in Rabbit’s inner theology.” Thus, Rabbit’s imagined role as a good American is that of “America’s own begotten son . . . a defender of the faith.”16 This perception of America, and his role as its defender, is disrupted, however, when Skeeter enters Rabbit’s world. The middle section of Redux revolves around Rabbit’s “education” by Skeeter, who claims himself to be a savior—not America’s begotten son—but the black Christ, whose presence begins to open Rabbit’s eyes to the racist structures in his world. But as much as he is a savior to racist Rabbit, Skeeter is also an antichrist, a savior strictly for the salvation of white lives.
Like in many of his novels, Updike employs a Barthian/Kierkegaardian dialectic in which two paradoxical ideas coexist without synthesis. Thus, in Redux, Skeeter can be both Christ and antichrist without true contradiction. Skeeter names himself the “new black Jesus” while at the same time blaspheming Rabbit’s white “pansy” (American) God: “Hey. Chuck,” Skeeter says to Rabbit. “Ain’t no Jesus. . . . Hey. Wanna know how I know? Wanna know? Hey. I’m the real Jesus. I am the black Jesus, right? There is none other, no.”17 It is this paradox that makes the reader most uncomfortable with Skeeter and Redux as a whole. In creating a black Jesus, Updike does not transcend racist stereotypes but rather lets Skeeter embody many of them. Skeeter is the lazy thug, the noncompliant youth, the sexual aggressor. Yet it’s through this embodiment, ironically, that Skeeter is his most Christlike. By Updike’s casting Christ as a racial stereotype, the gospel of salvation reveals our racism to us, the white church.
One particular scene stands out as representative of Skeeter’s paradox. In their suburban living room, Skeeter instructs Rabbit to read the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass to him, Jill, and Rabbit’s twelve-year-old, Nelson, as part of their black “education.” The vignette Rabbit reads—the rape of Esther, a black slave girl—is juxtaposed with a scene playing out in his own living room. As Rabbit reads, a fight breaks out between Skeeter and Jill, ending with Skeeter grabbing and ripping Jill’s dress off her chest. Rather than reaching out to the hurt Jill, Rabbit orders his son upstairs as a way to protect him. Nelson refuses to leave, and an argument triangulates around Rabbit: Nelson fears that Skeeter in his anger will kill Jill, Skeeter blames Nelson for thinking he “owns this cunt,” and Jill asks Rabbit to intervene. When at last Nelson marches upstairs, Skeeter tells Rabbit to continue reading and speaks a word of love to Jill to soothe her anger. Rabbit continues, thinking it will keep Nelson safe in his room, but behind the pages of the Life and Times, Rabbit spies Skeeter and Jill “wrestling; in gray flashes her underpants, her breasts exposed. Another flash, Rabbit sees, is her smile.”18 When Jill catches Rabbit spying, she runs off, naked with clothes in hand. Updike scholar Jay Prosser calls this scene “a race reversal of black and white,” an echo of the Douglass memoir. Here “Rabbit is designated slave, Skeeter slavemaster, and Jill slave girl—a rape scene Rabbit enjoys watching.”19 In a single moment, the reader is struck by the despicability of both men: Rabbit, the complicit observer, and Skeeter, the sexual aggressor.
In the Redux scene, Skeeter embodies a fear that white men have had regarding black men for centuries—that they rape white women. Cone addresses this in his 2011 book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, naming suspected rape as a primary cause for black male lynchings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He writes,
Without slavery to control blacks, new means had to be devised, and even a new rationale for control. This was supplied by black men’s imagined insatiable lust for white women. Because of their threat to white womanhood, black men must be carefully watched and violently kept in their place, segregated and subordinated. . . . Even when sexual relations were consensual, “race-mixing,” mockingly called “mongrelization,” was always translated to mean rape, and it was used as the primary justification of lynching.20
Prosser, in his analysis of the scene, assumes the sexual act between Skeeter and Jill is rape, but the smile on Jill’s face plays to the ambiguity and thus to the suspicion that even consensual sex between a black man and woman must be rape. In this scene, Skeeter embodies white racism by becoming the very “black beast rapist” that white men expect him to be.21 This fulfillment of expectations, however, is ultimately what brings salvation to white readers. In being provoked by the racist identity of Skeeter, the reader must confront his or her relationship to this Christ. Does this Christ make us uncomfortable because he’s “unapologetically black” or because he embodies all of our negative stereotypes of black men? And can those two perceptions be teased apart?
Rabbit is faced with these questions as Skeeter plays a continued force in his life. It is in the presence of Skeeter that Rabbit begins—ever so slowly—to recognize his need to be saved: from his racism that is both embodied in and foiled by Skeeter. Prosser writes, “Updike . . . argues that the Skeeter chapter is a 1960s ‘teach-in.’ Rabbit tries to learn. Reading aloud the words of Frederick Douglass, he becomes black, and in a fashion seeks solidarity with Skeeter.” The reader gets a glimpse of this solidarity in Rabbit’s confrontation with neighbors who are angry that a black man is on their premises. Rabbit finds their racism absurd and Skeeter impossible not to defend.22 Likewise, when the police chief assumes Skeeter is responsible for Rabbit’s house fire, which kills Jill by asphyxiation, Rabbit again defends Skeeter’s humanity and suggests that his racist white neighbors are the culprits. Through Skeeter, Rabbit begins to see racism in others and in himself. This is both the miracle and tragedy of Skeeter: the only way he can save Rabbit is by bearing the sin of racism upon his shoulders, a burden placed there by his white creator, Updike.
Is Skeeter the kind of black Christ that Cone imagined as he wrote Black Theology and Black Power? Does being a black Jesus in America mean bearing the sin of white men and women upon one’s shoulders? When Cone writes that black power means black people get to decide, on their terms, what liberation looks like, we see that Updike’s savior is not Christ to black lives at all. To black men and women, Skeeter is all antichrist, saving only white people on their terms. This is what happens, it seems, when the white church claims black Jesus as our own without listening to hear what the real Christ, “with his black face and big black hands,” says to us.23
In the following two sequels, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, the memory of Skeeter haunts Rabbit. Although a newspaper clipping cites his death, Skeeter returns as graffiti on the side of a building—“Skeeter Lives”—as an echo of the resurrection. “So there is life after death, of sorts,” Rabbit reflects late in his life, “Skeeter lives.”24 Critics have not offered many explanations as to why Skeeter keeps returning to Rabbit, except to suggest that this haunting serves as a way for Rabbit to bear witness to the role Skeeter played in his life and as a way for Rabbit to continually confront his own sin: his racism and culpability in Jill’s death and the traumatization of his son.
Catholic theologian Christopher Pramuk speaks of the role of haunting in his essay on the white response to black suffering. Pramuk connects the memoria passionis (memory of the passion) to the collective memory of the black community in remembering its suffering: slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow.25 “For African Americans the memory of the dead is largely a memoria passionis,” he writes, “and this casts the community of the dead with a distinctive role, a certain kind of presence.” This role, according to Pramuk, is “the stubborn refusal to forget the victims, both before God and before the victors of history,” to bear witness to the unjust deaths, to #SayHerName.26 He writes of “[placing] oneself under the Black cloud of witnesses,” of sitting “at the feet of Black suffering,” as one would sit at the foot of the cross, and admitting and grieving one’s complicity in the continuance of racial injustice.27 In Redux, Rabbit does not fully address his own racism, yet Skeeter’s continual presence in his life suggests that he’s on his way. The resurrected Christ—in this case, Skeeter—has not let Rabbit forget him and the force he played in his life.
In Black Theology and Black Power, Cone writes that “the time has come for white Americans to be silent and listen to black people.”28 It is clear that white Americans, and in particular the white church, have not listened well. We have insisted that our culture be the norm, making it difficult to embrace the blackness of Beyoncé, let alone broader representations of blackness in America. We have insisted that our Christ be white and have used him to justify racism from slavery to the mass incarceration of black men. Maybe what we need is a black Jesus to come and disrupt our perspective, to show us the extent of our sin. Updike’s black Jesus does not quite get us there. He may reveal to us, the white church, our sin, but he does not offer liberation to black lives. Skeeter as Christ functions only to help the white church begin to address its privilege and racism by forcing us to see our racism for what it is. To black lives, Skeeter is pure antichrist—he is a misrepresentation of what it means to be black and is thus no savior at all. It is the black Jesus imagined by Cone who fully functions as Christ to both black and white lives: liberating black persons from oppression and liberating white persons from their role as oppressor.
Lauren D. Sawyer
Lauren D. Sawyer is a published writer and freelance transcriptionist. She received her MA in theology and culture from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology in 2014 and intends to pursue doctoral work in the future. Currently, she splits her time between her home in downtown Indianapolis and the San Francisco Bay Area where her partner lives. She writes at theologyandliterature.com.