“For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.”
~Hebrews 6.4-6, New Revised Standard Version
Though Countee Cullen considered poetry “raceless,” his early writings are reflective of a colored in experience. By colored in, I mean that he is simply commenting on the already created “Negro” or “black” life as opposed to living without its designations and the historical/ social/ cultural/ familial conclusions. He is not responding to life as he now sees it, without the lens of race and before he is told that he is negro or colored or black. His writings and even often their titles are reflective of a racialized view of American life: The Ballad of a Brown Girl, Near White, To a Brown Boy, For a Lady I Know and his first volume of poetry, Color. Consequently, though I appreciate the use of the term and his striving toward such, it appears that Cullen was not able to create a space for himself outside of the context of race.
Still, Cullen did seem to express hesitation at making Christ “black” in his poem “Heritage.” He writes,Lord, I fashion dark gods, too, Daring even to give You Dark despairing features where, Crowned with dark rebellious hair, Patience wavers just so much as Mortal grief compels, while touches Quick and hot, of anger, rise To smitten cheek and weary eyes. Lord forgive me if my need Sometimes shapes a human creed.
He nevertheless went on to write about Jesus Christ as “black” and as a member of the “black” experience. Though not the first to connect the African American experience with that of biblical figures or lynching with the cross of Christ (The Negro spirituals often drew upon the stories of the Bible.) and certainly not the last (See James Cones’ The Cross and the Lynching Tree), “The Black Christ”, written in 1929, is written from the experience of lynching.
But, perhaps more trying for me is Cullen’s poem written in 1922 of Christ embodied in the lynched bodies of African Americans titled “Christ Recrucified.” In it, he charges the South with “crucifying Christ again.” Consequently, these crucifixions are unlike the first as recorded in the New Testament Gospels wherein Christ died for the sins of the world “once and for all” or that Christ is crucified again and again because of believers who have fallen away from the faith as indicated in Hebrews 6.4-6 (I Peter 3.18). No, the crime of crucifixion is only charged to one group: those socially colored white. This is an example of the racialization of Christ’s gospel.
To further my point, in Cullen’s retelling, Christ is wrong: “Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue.” Christ, the Son of God and the second Person of the Trinity whom the prophets declared was without sin and thereby the perfect sacrifice for ours, for the sake of race, becomes guilty. The identity, character, witness and purpose of Christ all sacrificed to further the goal of race, to drive home its point, to make its statements clear. Sadly, we will use anything and anyone to prove its truths.
For Cullen and many others, “black” skin is sinful. In the racialized gospel of Jesus Christ, it is the physical or external representation and symbol of evil. Despite the biblical accounts of Satan as the adversary and the believer’s accuser, American Christianity has historically associated evil not with a spirit or demonic force but with a cultural group (cf. Ephesians 6.12). In the racialized gospel, we do wrestle against flesh and blood. And this label of evil is also associated with that of socially colored white people as persons like Malcolm X will later give voice to the long held view that they are “white devils.”
Still, it troubles me even now the ease with which Christ is given sin and it is a sin, according to Cullen, “for which no blamelessness atones.” Christ has no way of escape and is no longer a savior but trapped within the same socially constructed body. There is no resurrection, no ascension into heaven. There is nothing that God can do about this social construct. It is outside of and should not be included as a part of our salvation, of Christ’s salvific work. God forbid.
In Cullen’s effort and that of many others to identify Christ with one’s humanity, Christ’s divinity and in this case, his sinless nature is tossed aside so that he might support the plight of socially colored black people. It is so necessary that all of Christ be identified with this socially constructed group that Cullen even adds to the narrative of Christ. He is also burned and persons “battl(e) for his black and brittle bones.” Christ’s gospel is made part of the narrative of African Americans and Christ’s story becomes a part their story, now belonging to them. Christ has now been made a part of the tug of war of race and this is how the very Body of Christ is pulled a part.
Lord, help us to know when we are creating our own Christs, crosses and human creeds. Amen.
Additional Readings & Resources
The Boy Who Painted Christ Black by John Henrik Clarke
Black Theology by James H. Cone & Gayraud Wilmore
The Black Christ by Kelly Brown Douglas
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
James H. Smylie,”Countee Cullen’s The Black Christ”, Theology Today 1981 38:160.