James Cone has long spoken of his experiences of black faith and black culture as fundamentally related to the concepts and ideas he develops in his theological work. His insight that God is black and that God’s blackness is the source of liberation in the world helps us understand his conceptual contribution to theology. We thus need an account of how he interrupts and reconceives of the idea of God by relating it to blackness.

In developing this account, I embrace what Fred Moten calls “phonic materiality.” Moten diagnoses white culture with ocularcentrism, a privileging of visuality that somewhat paradoxically restricts our ability to see black life. In contrast to privileging sight, he poses phonic materiality as a remedy. In speaking of phonic materiality, Moten emphasizes how “sound gives us back the visuality that ocularcentrism had repressed.” Phonic materiality, then, helps us consider what kinds of underthought sound carries. Likewise, by giving sound to black religiosity in his work—announcing black life in black theology—Cone voices the black life covered over by the “visual pathologies” of white supremacy.[1] Reading Cone’s work, particularly The Cross and the Lynching Tree, as sounding the concepts of God’s blackness and black liberation helps us see black life as the site of transformative revelation.

In this way, the paralyzing centrality of the white gaze and white understanding, the endless ways in which white culture anchors itself to the center of American thought, are displaced as the hermeneutical key for interpreting who God is. That is, rather than appealing to white people’s sight and knowledge as the measure of theology, Cone critiques white ability to correctly interpret the identity of God by pointing to the reality of black suffering in the world. Cone argues that concept and reality, our understanding of God and black life, must be brought together through attention to black theology, black culture, and black history. Through Cone’s work we can understand a liberation of the concept of God from the privatized prisons of abstract sight. This liberation of the concept of God points to an alternative black radical imagination that has much to teach us about ethical considerations in our contemporary encounters with black death and the proliferation of images of black death as the best means to wake sleeping consciences.

Concepts and Performance

Adrian Piper writes that conceptual art intends “to preserve the original [intuition]—nebulous as it may be—as nearly as possible in the final materialized work.” The physical nature of conceptual art can be said to “provide a public perceptual language that can more adequately convey the artistic intuition than any other medium, rather than dictating or generating the intuition conveyed.”[2] Something is carried in the medium that exceeds or is in remainder of the purely spectacular nature of art.

Piper’s practices of critical conceptual reflection take on an explicitly political valence when her conceptual work encounters her position in the world. Her art becomes more political the more she reflects on her position as a woman who is not visibly black. Out of this encounter between her art and her social position, Piper writes of the inadequacy of the isolated field of contemporary art; she desires to encounter “the outside world” and have it affect her aesthetics.[3] This invasive understanding of the world is precisely how Cone’s experience operates for theology. And, it is the invasion of the idea of God by black performance and black culture that gives Cone’s work its conceptual, political, and theological significance. Rather than understanding theology as something that is able to escape being touched by blackness, he understands that allowing the concept of God to encounter blackness is crucial to understanding and articulating theology.

In much of her performative work, Piper becomes a voluntary object for the subjects who encounter her, and in her gallery work, she highlights encounters with art objects. Through these practices of voluntary objectification, Piper has come to understand that this willingness to be the object of encounter for another, rather than reifying the object as a passive position, is encountered as aggression by the beholder of the art object. For Piper, this inhabitation of the object in a voluntary manner highlights the power of the object to, as Moten says, “mess up, or mess with” the other.[4]

Piper’s articulation of the relationship between concepts, performance, and the encounter with an art object helps us to understand Cone’s theological work as messing up or messing with the concept of God as an object of racial oppression that performs theological speech. In this framing, theology, music, church, and other cultural forms are able to be sources of transformative encounter that trouble the privileging of white visions of the divine and the world. As Piper’s artistic experiments have suggested, our eyes, and the visual pathologies that attend sight under white supremacist society, are not the final word or an infallible truth concerning how the world is (or ought) to be seen and encountered.

Cone and the Concept of God

From Cone’s writings, we can see that the relationship between Christianity and lynchings haunted him even before he began to explore such ideas in print. In his intellectual memoir, My Soul Looks Back, he notes how the lynchings enacted by white Christians created such dissonance with the faith he developed in the black church that he felt an intense urgency to interrogate how the concept of God among white Christians could operate so detrimentally to black people—so violently opposed to black life. This violence was a direct contradiction to his and other black people’s experience of God. This black understanding of God was deeply significant for Cone and was one he inherited from his hometown. Cone writes,

The importance of Bearden [Cone’s hometown] is the way it enters my thinking, controlling my theoretical analysis, almost forcing me to answer questions about faith and life as found in the experience of my early years. It is as if the people of Bearden are present, around my desk as I think and write. Their voices are clear and insistent: “All right, James Hal, speak for your people.”[5]

Here, we see Bearden as a space, a social sounding, that invades Cone’s theological reflections. His conceptual invention—that God is black—is directly tied to this inability to abstract or spiritualize away from the actual and material experiences in Bearden.

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone’s early meditations on the problem of lynchings for theological thought and the liberative possibilities of black social life emerge again in the questions and lives Cone invites the reader to encounter:

How did southern rural blacks survive the terrors of this era? Self-defense and protest were out of the question, but there were other forms of resistance. For most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance. At the juke joints on Friday and Saturday nights and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening weeknights blacks affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization. Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.[6]

As throughout his career, Cone shows the importance of black culture—particularly the spirituals and the blues—as a means of affirming black life in the midst of violent white oppression.[7] I understand Cone’s turn to music as a deeply affective and enfleshed understanding of the phonic materiality—the excess of existence that escapes capture by the white gaze.

Part of the turn to these aural forms of resistance is because they activate a different kind of enfleshed movement, through vocality and sound. Because “any word or body movement that was perceived to be insufficiently deferential, like standing upright and looking a white person in the eye, could get a black beaten or killed,”[8] music was able to provide a space for movement and performance that breaks down attempts to police the bodily movements of black people. Thus, it seems that Cone is pointing to the ways music enables one to encounter the object otherwise. Phonic materiality breaks down the assumptions about privatization and property that ground notions of objecthood as able to be possessed and policed.

Considering Cone as a conceptual theologian is a way of framing Cone which doesn’t imply that his conception of God is abstracted from blackness in some way. Situation or inhabitation—namely Cone’s bringing his situation as a black man and his inhabitation of Bearden into thought—can be stressed here, because he brings spatiality into thought. Or, to put it another way, Cone brings thought into spatiality. Instead of thought being an experience of transcendence, escape, or ignoring materiality or the conditions of black oppression, Cone portrays thought as the means by which the object’s objection to the fact of black oppression is intensified and then communicated through various forms of materiality. In this sense, Cone operates as an artist, utilizing theological materials in such a way that the concept of God is voiced doubly in his writing—in the content and in the form. Thus, “Cone” comes to signify both the man whose personal experience leads and enables him to write the work and a set of processes by which the production or performance of black theology is made apparent to us. We encounter Cone as this set of phonic, literary, aesthetic, religious, and historical processes such that the concept of God in black theology and Cone’s performative utterance is only possible to the extent that it is touched by black life, history, and culture.

Understanding encounter as the staging of material objects highlights the interplay of their vibrations. This interplay enables the text to sound in a multiharmonic vocality and sidesteps ocularcentrism’s primacy. Rather than echoing this primacy, Cone’s textual sounding in The Cross and the Lynching Tree displaces both white violence and black suffering as the foundation of his critique. Instead, we encounter the phonic materiality of black life and culture as the source of his conceptual innovation regarding God’s blackness.

Of Optics and Objects

Operating under the assumptions I have laid out—that the invasion of the Christian conception of God by blackness in James Cone’s work becomes a moment of the object’s objection inside of the concept—I now consider Cone’s critique of Reinhold Niebuhr in The Cross and the Lynching Tree as a helpful way for thinking about the relationship between ocularcentrism in the ongoing deaths of black people at the hands of the police. Cone recognizes Niebuhr as a great theologian whose understanding of the relationship between theology and the imagination allows him to see some of black suffering. However, Cone notes several ways that Niebuhr’s theological imagination is still all too shaped by white supremacy and its ocularcentrism. As Cone writes, “It was easy for Niebuhr to walk around in his own shoes, as a white man, and view the world from that vantage point, but it takes a whole lot of empathic effort to step into those of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans.”[9] For Cone, gazing at the suffering of black people from the position of whiteness is not enough to produce a transformation of the imagination and one’s conception of God. As he notes, “Niebuhr had ‘eyes to see’ black suffering, but . . . he lack[ed] the ‘heart to feel’ it as his own.”[10] This inability to feel black suffering as his own highlights the extent to which the subjects of white supremacy are unable to imagine the position of the object as anything other than that of the passive victim. Cone seems to suggest that there is an affective inadequacy to the white gaze that prevents the feeling of black suffering.

This problem of feeling thus highlights the affective dimensions of encountering the performative object versus the dead object. That is, the sight of the object in death or violation requires a primacy of the ocular. In the circulation of images and videos as a means of awakening sleeping white consciences, the sight of the dead object requires the repetition of black victimization that, in part, occludes the life that enables us to understand the violation as violation. For instance, the trend of sharing videos of unarmed black victims being shot by police is often thought to provide legitimation for black claims that antiblackness is at the heart of policing.[11] However, when separated from the context of black life, history, and culture, images and videos of black suffering very easily slip into visual pathology, reifying blackness as a purely passive object rather than a passive-aggressive object. To this extent, it seems important to note, as many have before me, that it is the performance of black life that threatens those who violate such life. It is Mike Brown and his friend walking in the street that threatens Darren Wilson. It is Sandra Bland’s voicing of her rights. It is Walter Scott’s flight.

All of this is to say that we must guard against articulating and acting as though the path to working for black liberation comes by simply seeing black suffering and oppression. It is not sight alone that enables transformative encounters; instead, we must come to understand the life that animates the performance of the passive-aggressive black object. Just as it is Thomas’s encounter with a wounded but risen Christ that brings him to his knees and not simply a buried Christ (John 20:24–29), it is only by having one’s imagination shaped by the insurrectionary social life of blackness that we can hope to encounter the objects of antiblack oppression as something other than dead objects to be retweeted down our timelines. Rather, it is this conception of God as the source of insurrectionary black life with which James Cone has gifted us and which we would do well to remember.

[1] Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 235.

[2] Piper, “My Art Education,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 1, Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968–1992 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 4 and 5.

[3] Piper, “Talking to Myself: The Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object,” in Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 41.

[4] Moten, In the Break, 235.

[5] Cone, My Soul Looks Back (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 17.

[6] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013), 12.

[7] Cone makes this point explicitly in his work The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992): “My contention is that there is a complex world of thought underlying the slave songs that has so far escaped analysis. Further theological interpretation is needed to uncover this thought and the fundamental world view that it implies” (19). Many thanks to Matt Elia for pointing out this passage as especially pertinent to this essay.

[8] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 128.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] See John 20:29 NRSV: “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”