Black Theology and Black Power Summary
Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone defines the Black Power movement within the context of Christianity.
- Black Power means the self-emancipation of Black people from White oppression.
- Cone argues that the gospel itself must be freed from Whiteness, and that the means of doing so may by necessity be violent. After all, Christ advocated for justice and release from oppression—not necessarily nonviolence.
- Rather than reform, Cone advocates for a completely new system that values Black lives. While the former can be wrought by protest, the latter can only be achieved through revolution.
In the introduction to Black Theology and Black Power, first published in 1969, author James H. Cone posits that the concept of Black Power is the single most important development in American life in the twentieth century. Cone emphasizes the relationship between Black Power and Christianity in America. In fact, according to Cone, Black Power is Christ’s central message to twentieth-century America. It will be necessary for the church to fight for Black Power and become radically opposed to all forms of White supremacy in the country, because objectivity is simply not possible in cases of racist violence. Cone asks,
Is it not time for theologians to get upset?
Cone’s understanding of Christianity is one that is grounded in time and place, engaged with the freedom struggles of the day. It will be the duty of the church, according to Cone, to radically reimagine America itself.
Chapter 1: Toward a Constructive Definition of Black Power
The first chapter of Black Theology and Black Power aims to define Black Power in context. Citing Frederick Douglass, Cone argues that struggle is necessary for any sociopolitical progress. He defines Black Power as the “complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary.” Black Power implies self-determination for Black people in America, freedom from racist violence, and the right to be treated with human dignity. Black Power means reckoning with the fact that the White world does not see Black people as human; further, both the oppressor and the oppressed must come to realize this. Fighting to be recognized is not a battle without great risk, and Cone acknowledges the importance of this. To be human, he says, is to find something worth dying for. Enslaved people risking their lives for their freedom understood this.
Cone debunks the concept of “reverse racism,” a charge often levied at the Black Power movement. Because Black people are not oppressors of White people, they cannot enact structural violence against them. “It is not the intention of the black man to repudiate his master’s human dignity,” Cone writes, “but only his status as master.” It is natural, he argues, that the Black community feels anger and hatred toward a violent White society.
Along these lines, Cone says that only Black people will be “liberators” of other Blacks; if a power dynamic exists such that one group must give another group their freedom, then no group is truly free. Integration, as a form of violent assimilation, is not the answer to this. As Christians, Cone argues that we are not yet living in the Kingdom and therefore are not on equal footing in our “togetherness.” America’s existing institutions are White men’s institutions, and they exist on White men’s terms. To reach the Kingdom, Cone says, these institutions must be broken down and their White supremacy unmade. At present, they teach Black Americans that they are less than human, and the response of Black Power is to reject those teachings.
When pain and oppression are absolute, Cone says, Whites cannot define what the proper response to oppression is or ought to be. Violent resistance may very well be necessary to stand up against total structures of violence. But what about the peaceful protest? Liberal White people might appeal to...
(The entire section is 2,257 words.)