Is There a “New Black Theology?” Yes and No.

Last week I had the distinct privilege of sitting on a panel with Willie James Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and Edward Philip Antonio with Joanne Terrell responding. The panel was convened by the Black Theology Group at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meetings in Chicago, IL from November 16-20.

The title of the panel was “Towards a New Black Theology?: Going Back in Order to Move Forward!” and centered upon the work of Jennings (The Christian Imagination), Carter (Race: A Theological Account), and myself (Redeeming Mulatto) and how we intersect with and diverge from Black Theology. As a panel we did not directly address the nomenclature “New Black Theology” which is not a terribly apt term for the work that we do, but it would also be a mistake to suggest that we are not indebted to Black Theological reflection either. The question of the name is less important than our hope that people might begin to enter into the problems and possibilities that animate our theological work. In the presentations we each, in our own way, sought to highlight both our connections to traditions and sensibilities of Black Christian thought as well as highlight how we are imagining a way forward.

9780300152111It was truly a gift to share this time with my dear friends and those who took time to participate in the conversation. Sadly, a recording of our presentations is not available (to my knowledge) and would convey more fully the spirit with which we do our work. But in lieu of that I would like to share my presentation from the panel discussion and would welcome any thoughts.

What follows is the text of my presentation, “Theology From and To: What is Mulatto Theology?”

I still recall my first encounter with James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power as an undergraduate student. In this book I discovered that a text could catch you in an unequivocal stare. It was a holy, furious, and prophetic stare, one that seemed to require you to account for yourself, to decide. Looking back upon this moment I am reminded that this is theology at its best – that a text is never a mere collection of words, but when one wields them skillfully and with passion and insight they cut us to the quick, require us to examine ourselves, our commitments, our hopes. What does it mean to stand within this tradition? But as well, what is the relationship of this tradition to other expressions of Christian existence? This morning I will take a few minutes to consider the relationship between Black Theology and my own work, which I characterize as a “mulatto/a theology.”

To begin to think through this question today I want to highlight three points and the way in which I have been informed by the Black theological tradition.

  1. (sources) – what informs the work
  2. (particularity) – who does the work
  3. (telos) – what is the aim of the work

I. Sources

From its very inception, Black Theology has been both an attempt to liberate the black body from the oppressive vestiges of Western economic, social, and theological hegemony. At the heart of this project has been a re-appropriation and re-evaluation of what sources are determinative in casting a theological vision of black experience in the West and particularly in the United States.

Victor Anderson has brilliantly pointed out in his work Beyond Ontological Blackness, that the retrieval project of the black Christian tradition (namely the slave spirituals and narratives) aimed to buttress the lineage of Black Theology’s primary concerns within a broader African American Christian narrative. As well, Anderson points to the difficulty in locating a coherent narrative from within these various disparate sources especially regarding their often-contentious relationship to the white-dominated abolitionist movement. Anderson’s critique is representative of an inherent difficulty in Black Theology’s seemingly perpetual tension regarding which sources are faithful and expressive of the African diasporic reality and which sources represent colonial modulations that gave rise to that diasporic reality.

To think through this tension it is helpful to turn briefly to James Cone’s navigation of this challenge. While Black Theology certainly cannot be distilled to James Cone, his negotiation of this challenge highlights one of the fundamental marks of Black Theological reflection. In Cone’s work the question of sources became an incredibly elegant and prophetic display of swords turned to plowshares (or perhaps plowshares turned into swords) as the theological conceptions of Jesus’ humanity and divinity resisted becoming parroted repetitions of a Western “orthodoxy.” Instead Cone ventured into this “Christo-logic” so deeply that he broke open new ways of imagining the “classical.” Cone’s conception of deifying the black body through the logic of the communicatio idiomatum and thereby articulating the presence of all oppressed dark bodies in Jesus’ body Cone re-imagined a doctrinal loci. This re-imagination of theological claims continued the theological tradition of Black Christian thought and life in its creative appropriation of oppressive ideologies and turning them into modulations of Christian resistance and liberation.

He turned the “Sound of Music” into jazz, if you will, he Coltrane-ified the Christological formulations of “creedal” theological ideas.

While questions of sources have been central to Black Theological reflection and informed from whom I take my theological cues and points of intersection, Black Theology can be seen not only as a question of sources, “Is Christian theology sufficient or inherently oppressive, etc?” Rather, Cone displays a fundamental rhythm of Black Theology as a praxis of creative re-appropriation, re-interpretation, and re-deployment. In this way Black Theology, as an improvisational performativity, seeks to both articulate God’s work in the world and for the world. But even more, Black Theology has done so out of a deep commitment to the embodied moment from which our speech concerning God must arise. This leads me to a second consideration of Black Theology’s contribution to my own work, theology and particularity.

II. Particularity

I first read James Cone’s Black Theology, Black Power in the context of a church history course as an undergraduate. But while reading Cone’s work I had still, ringing in my ears, the prophetic jeremiads of David Walker and Henry Highland Garnett who took up the burgeoning American narrations of freedom and possibility, of Christian brotherhood and love and re-fashioned them into defiant refusals to accommodate the oppressive Christian distortions American national imagination and society.

One of Black Theology’s enduring contributions to theology is the insistence on enacting theology from within the situation of the black body. In the midst of this contribution, black Christian intellectuals also demonstrate how the black church was an exercise of the bodily commitment and presence of Jesus in the world. This commitment can be seen in the subsequent movements from Black Theology and the important contributions of womanist scholars. It is in relationship to this deep commitment to the body that my own work is both connected to Black Theological reflection as well as seeks to re-imagine the particularity of the body in our contemporary moment.

            Redeeming Mulatto takes up the situatedness of the black body in the American context but aims to complicate both the creation of the black body and its concomitant relation to the white body. RM does this through a theological examination of the mulatto or interracial body as a lens through which to explore how race works as a theological construct, but also how we might begin to theologically articulate difference (be it racial, ethnic, cultural) in more fluid and nuanced ways. This exploration culminates in re-envisaging of Christ through a mulattic personhood where difference is not an either/or (either black or white), but a new possibility of wholeness made possible through the incarnation and the life and practices of the church.

In this way the methodological center of RM is working out of the re-articulation of themes, plunging deeper into a particular Christian logic with an deep commitment to the bodily spaces that these theological claims occupy. But it is this commitment to bodily space that also creates a reconfiguration of this bodily space and hence a “mulatto theology.”

A mulatto theology articulates the significance of the body in relationship to the particularity of the multiple or the “in-between.” One particularity within this space is the reality of race and ethnicity, the constitutive reality that our bodies are marked by race. By race I mean a matrix of interpretation wherein the meaning of my body is both given to me – flowing towards me through various cultural, institutional, and interpersonal realities – and within which I attempt to live and be. Race is a reciprocal performativity that I am at once performing out of and which is performing upon me.

Understood as a process, mulatto theology articulates identity within the multiplicity, seeking to improvise and reconfigure in the midst of various realities that constitute one’s life and body. Among these include race, ethnicity, and gender. But as a theological exercise mulatto theology also articulates the fact of createdness, of Jesus’ particular body and life and identity as a reality that constitutes and performs upon individuals and humanity as a whole.

III. Telos

Black Theology as a praxis of improvisation with a commitment to the particularity of the body have contributed to and informed how I inhabit my own work and my calling as a theologian. But of course we must also ask the question, “to what end?” Black Theology is marked by the unequivocal commitment to the liberation of the poor and oppressed, to those marginalized by the economic, social, and theological regimes of power in such a way that those who are disempowered might faithfully envisage God’s work for and among the disinherited.

In the midst of this aim mulatto theology navigates a complicated space of multiplicity, seeking to make sense of how people can be entangled in attachments to both the regimes of power and the marginalized. Here the language of mulatto is intentional and guides an overarching methodological conviction. “Mulatto” – as a term inherited from a colonial system of classification which raped dark women and then deployed both the women and their children within the domestic economy – points to bodies that were both the product of exploitation, but who also inhabited these spaces in complicated and conflicted ways.

On the one hand these bodies were unequivocally “colored,” not-white and suffered the perpetual terror and humiliation of their fellow black brothers and sisters. But in the midst of this there also emerged societies and implicit (or explicit) biases regarding light and dark. The mulatto was certainly a victim, but they also embodied and deployed a certain power within a racialized society white light and dark were a type of currency.

What “mulatto” in a mulattic theological framework suggests is not the valorization of the mixed race body, nor the marginalization of the mixed race body. Rather, “mulatto” gestures towards the situatedness of bodies in a racial world where a person and a people occupy multiple spaces at once. The life of discipleship is navigating these various realities, discovering patterns of unfaithfulness as well as the continual possibilities that stand before us. “Mulatto” theology suggests that we stand in a space that is both transgressive and transgressed, that we cannot separate ourselves from the realities of our tragic beginnings, but that these realities do not exonerate us or protect us from perpetuating old terrors in new ways. We are children of mothers and fathers with complicated and tragic stories, but we cannot excise ourselves from them. A mulattic theology seeks to exist between these realities and discern patterns of faithfulness in their midst. Out of this reality a mulatto theology does not work to establish a cultural space or retrieve a tradition.

In a way, mulatto theology seeks to work against itself. Liberation is the creation of space where particularities become intermingled where sources and tradition become bound to aliens and strangers. Its aim is to make possible a vibrant and vital space where humanity’s possibilities become re-imagined in the various encounters of races and cultures, but above all in the ongoing encounters between God and humanity. In these encounters humanity becomes new again and again, being added to, molded, shaped, cut and knit-together. But because it speaks out of the inter-spaces, in the midst of a whole made from the many, mulatto theology is a modulation of possibility whose outlines are re-inscribed as we encounter others whose stories and realities find resonances in our stories.

And thus mulatto theology is irrevocably tied to slave spirituals and Walker’s jeremiads, and Cone’s confession of a Jesus who ontologically identifies with black experience. But it is also tied to the liminal reality of the migrant worker, and the perpetual foreignness of the Asian American. Mulatto theology stands bound to the courage and insights and wisdom of Black Theological tradition. But in relationship to this tradition mulatto theology also embraces the neither/nor and the ways in which these interstitial realities make space for new improvisations, new songs.

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5 thoughts on “Is There a “New Black Theology?” Yes and No.

  1. Hey, I actually did get a recording of the session. I have quite a few recordings to go through and edit (sound levels could use some pumping up), but I’ll let you know when they are up on my blog.

  2. Brian,

    I especially enjoyed this paragraph:

    “In a way, mulatto theology seeks to work against itself. Liberation is the creation of space where particularities become intermingled where sources and tradition become bound to aliens and strangers. Its aim is to make possible a vibrant and vital space where humanity’s possibilities become re-imagined in the various encounters of races and cultures, but above all in the ongoing encounters between God and humanity. In these encounters humanity becomes new again and again, being added to, molded, shaped, cut and knit-together. But because it speaks out of the inter-spaces, in the midst of a whole made from the many, mulatto theology is a modulation of possibility whose outlines are re-inscribed as we encounter others whose stories and realities find resonances in our stories.”

    I can appreciate the priorities in your final paragraph, but please don’t exclude us white folks who want to break free from our sinful legacy and participate, as well. (I know – it’s not about me.)

    Some background may be in order: I was introduced to your blog through my son, who is pursuing his MTS at Duke and especially enjoys learning from Dr. Jennings. (Btw, he and I have also had spirited disagreements on the Zimmerman/Martin case!)

    I’ll be giving some attention to both Jennings’ The Christian Imagination and your Redeeming Mulatto in the near future. There were attempts at racial reconciliation within the Promise Keepers movement years ago, but I’m not sure how helpful they ended up being.

    Regards,
    Scott

    1. Thanks Scott. In fact the idea of a “mulatto theology” is not to articulate what it means to be mulatto in a strictly racial sense. In my book I trace how race forms all of us into disciples of its ideas. Interracial identity is an identity that makes these processes of formation visible. But in examining how interracial identity is formed and how interracial people themselves navigate this world we can begin to see a new way of articulating identity and personhood. I use that framework to re-interpret Christ, specifically the Definition of Chalcedon. Seeing Christ as “mulatto,” human and divine, we also see his identity bound to his salvific work, the re-creation of what it means to be human. Baptism is the entrance into this “new humanity” where we are born of Spirit and flesh. As these new persons, the particularities of our racial identities are not lost, but rather becomes “transfigured.” In this way “mulatto theology” is not a theology for mulatto or mixed race people. Instead, it is an invitation to all people to become new people, bringing our old selves into new communities.

      Peace,

      Brian

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