Jesus. Jesus! Jesus?: Race and Religion and the African-American
by Ferdinand Hunter
I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. – Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
Jesus Christ haunts me.
Over the years, Jesus and I have lost track of each other. He is like an old friend. I know where to find him, and he knows where to find me. I have his number, so to speak, but I wouldn’t know what to say if I called and he answered. This is not a matter of anger or the feeling that a promise has been broken. There were no tragic circumstances to tear me away from the Church. There was no “Why! Why! Why! moment. There was just a quiet and gentle stepping away because none of it felt real to me. It’s simply a matter of fact that I have always been an agnostic. Even as a child in Sunday school I was full of doubt.
I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, yet he stills haunts me.
The answer is simply because he is inextricably bound with the history of who I am. It is an almost immutable fact of my African-American culture. When you are a slave and you are escaping through the woods and you hear the hellish baying of the hounds on your trail, what name do you whisper in desperation? When there are crosses burning in your front yard and your name is being called forth, what name do you shout? When your church has been bombed with four little girls inside, what is your cry? When your child is born healthy and strong after sixteen hours of labor, and you are cutting the cord, what do you whisper? In the extreme moments of the sacred and of the profane even though you may not believe in his holy name you say: Jesus. Jesus! Jesus?
For many, if not most, African-Americans’ race and religion are inextricably bound. According to both the Gallup Poll organization and the Pew Research Center, African-Americans are the most religious Americans. Gallup says 97% of African-Americans cite religion as being very important in their lives, and the Pew Foundation gives a lower percentage of 87%. Regardless of the disparity, the numbers reveal that there are few atheist, agnostics, and “none”s within this demographic. This begs the question again, “Why?” Perhaps because once upon a time when my ancestors were slaves all they really had to sustain themselves were each other and Jesus, with his promise “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:15 KJV). That was the promise of a life beyond that was glorious and untouched by slavery. Burdens could be laid down at the cross of Jesus. But the fact of the matter is that the coming to Jesus was not a matter of choice. It was a matter of force. It was a matter of the slave owners controlling the cultural narrative and thereby controlling the slave mind. Teach the slave Ephesians 6:5-9, which essentially says absolute obedience to the master is the will of God:
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
Furthermore, force-feed the slave the notion that their skin color is a curse from God because of the curses of Cain and of Ham. Under Ham’s curse there is the curse of inherited servitude. Not only are you cursed with slavery, but so are your children and your children’s children.
On March 21,1865, in Savannah, Georgia, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, laid out for those in attendance the founding principles of the Confederacy. Furthermore, he asserted that the civilization known as the Confederacy had as its core principles the inferiority, the subjugation, and the enslavement of Africans. Stephens argues that the South’s cause is more than merely noble; it is righteous and ordained by God in his cursing of Cain in the Old Testament. There could be no greater cause. To be contrary to that cause is to be contrary to the will of the Creator.
Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition, which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material—the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of his ordinances, or to question them. For his own purposes, he has made one race to differ from another, as he has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to his laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our Confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.
Those were not just the values of the South. Those were, and in some quarters still are, American values. In Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that America “was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
Coates reminds the reader that for Africans in America, the period of slavery was longer than the period of freedom. Black bodies have always mattered within the context of “America.” Black bodies counted as three-fifths of a person for the sake of congressional representation. Black bodies mattered for the purpose of chattel taxation. Furthermore, black bodies mattered because the free labor made products such as rice and tobacco and sugar less expensive. Even more importantly free black labor made cotton cheaper for the American and British textile mills, which provided the economic boost America needed to grow and the financing for the Industrial Revolution. Consider the quote from theologian Howard Thurman: “When the slaves were taken from their homeland, the primary social unit was destroyed, and all immediate tribal and family units were ruthlessly broken. This meant the severing of the link that gave the individual African a sense of persona. There is no more hapless victim than one who is cut off from family, from language, from one’s roots.”
The African experience in America was never just about black bodies being controlled, but about the control of the black minds. With that being said, it is ironic that the slave found a meaningful identity that transcended slavery within the context of a religion—and when the text was interpreted by those who forced the religion upon them. And when the context of slavery ended with the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment, with the corrupt dissolution of Reconstruction came the rise of Jim Crow, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, and more than a century of de facto and de jure racism. Of course solace would be found in the arms of the Christ.
In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bois speaks of the “warring souls” in which African-Americans are presented with the conundrum and the struggle to be at once black and American in a society in which White Anglo Saxon Protestant seems synonymous with being American. Du Bois’ book speaks to the formation of identity. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, of the approximately 12.5 million Africans captured and shipped across the Atlantic to the already discovered New World, 10.7 million survived the arduous voyage. Of those 10.7 million survivors, 388,000 were bought and sold in North America. My ancestors were among the 388,000. People who had once been Igbo, Fulani, Hausa, Congo, and hundreds of other ethnicities had their names, their religions, and their cultural identities stripped away. Not until the 13th amendment was there even an option to have the identity of American Citizen. Nonetheless, in spite of being stripped of their culture, language, and identities slaves sought to create new identities under inhumane circumstances. But again it is ironic that as the identity of slave was being formed so was the identity of Christian. Ultimately, again as witnessed in the Civil Rights movement, this religion that came with the institution of slavery would be transformed into the theology of liberation, which does not wait until death for freedom and justice, but demands it while still alive.
All of this begs the question: this is the past, so, why does this matter? In The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Antonio tells Sebastian, “What is past is prologue?” In other words, if you wish to know how we got to this moment, review the past. For years I used these historical truths to make it easier to walk away from the Church. As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve approached becoming wiser, I’ve come to realize that my not believing in the Word doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t appreciate the beauty of the Word. The culture is simply a part of who I am. To separate entirely from my particular culture of African-American Methodist Southern culture is to separate myself from my history.
Ferdinand Hunter lives in Chandler, Arizona, with his wife and daughter. He is currently on the English faculty at GateWay Community College in Phoenix, with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Brown University, a Master of Liberal Studies degree from Arizona State University and a BA in African-American and African Studies from Emory University. The first, and in many ways the most formative, 22 years of his life were spent in Georgia.