W.E.B. Dubios, Macolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks

During my theological sojourn at Dallas Seminary, Eddie B. Lane [1] challenged the author on several occasions to make a contribution to evangelical thinking modalities by learning to wed Christ-centered thinking with Afrocentric interpretative applications of the Sacred text. In other words, Lane rightly avers that it is important for African American theologians to exercise critical thinking as one who `engages the biblical text concomitant to one’s communal context in order to loose the mental shackles of Eurocentric interpretive application. It seems that the African American evangelical theologian can ill afford spending an inordinate amount of time investigating false truth claims and worldviews that are not prevalent among African Americans in order to be accepted or, even more tragically, revered by the dominant culture within Evangelicalism. Rather, one must take pains to contextualize the complexities of evangelical theology to the degree that one’s African American target group (believing and unbelieving) can readily understand and appropriate the truths therein. That is, one must employ the pedagogical principle of “teaching the unknown in light of the known,” if one desires to build the necessary bridges for engaging our brothers and sisters in search of truth.

It amazes the writer how much the spirit of postmodernism, even if not philosophically understood by many adherents, has laid its fiendish grip on the African American community as well. The writer observes this spirit flowing through the minds and motivations of African American brothers and sisters who have, in unprecedented numbers, begun to reject Big momma’s and paw-paw’s “Hope” found in the Christ of Scripture (1Tim 1:1; Heb 6:13-20), for what I deem as cultural hearsay—the crafting of philosophical and theological beliefs through street corner and barber shop conversations instead of historical research. Quite honestly, I, too, was once victimized by this shoddy intellectualism.

This writer contends that rejecting the Bible as the “final” authority for how one is to contemplate the epistemic worth of the true and living God has become a besetting and irregular norm for many African Americans—within and without the church. Yes, it seems we are not immune to idolatry. So, then, what are we to do? Continue to wait our turn in back alleys, or in my case, a back office behind the comfort of a nonthreatening computer screen. With a new mantra, “Blog or die!” (a la the late Tupac Shakur’s “Ride or Die”) Or will we blog for the purpose of intellectual dialog and subsequently beat the streets for the purpose of intellectual engagement and evangelism? Do I really need to say evangelism to men and women bearing the appellation of “Evangelicals?” I don’t think so. But for the sake of those who are more fundamentalistically challenged, I shall. Lest I receive a loquacious and cantankerous diatribe, rebutting, “What about the gospel?” As if I am not concerned about the “lost souls of men and the slums that damn them” (a la Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). But I digress.

In all actuality, this writer is sounding a clarion call for evangelical thinkers, of any hue, especially African Americans, to accept the reality that effective theological training for African American students will involve helping them to understand the biblical text (ancient Near Eastern and Greco Roman) and historic Christian and non-Christian thought (i.e. voices of the African diaspora) that affect current understandings or misrepresentations of Christ within respective communities. For example, if one aspires to engage, apologetically, the broader thinking community (e.g., heterodox Black Muslims), then one must avoid straw man attacks by studying their ideological beliefs and practices in order to circumvent rhetorically fallacious argumentation. Dare I say that evangelicals run the unwitting risk of practicing cultural hearsay when thinkers attempt to interpret the plights of the African American community devoid of formal and informal cultural investigation? Causing greater masses of African American sons and daughters to exclaim, “To Hell with your blue-eyed Jesus!” I think I have heard those words more than once in various social milieus.

This essay will introduce 1) how African American evangelicals can begin to balance their understanding of ideological underpinnings and social exigencies that produced black nationalism in the United States and 2) a case scenario for employing the positive motifs found within its ideology.

Defining Black Nationalism

James Clyde Sellman defines Black Nationalism, also known as black separatism, as “a complex set of beliefs emphasizing the need for the cultural, political, and economic separation of African Americans from white society.”[2] There have been a myriad of black nationalists throughout U.S. history spanning periods eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, which have advocated for a separation or colonization of African Americans. Men such as Chief Sam, Martin R. Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, and Alexander Crummell, to name a few, were strict advocates of this cultural/political ethos.[4] According to Sellman, these men essentially believed that “African Americans’ greatest hope lay in the establishment of all-black settlements or colonies, most often planned for Africa.”[4] That is, the adherents of this nationalistic ideology[5] vehemently disdained the dehumanizing effects of institutional and individual racism in the United States[6], so deeply ingrained into the structural canvas of the socio-political practices and, heretical, theological suppositions of so-called governmental and ecclesiastical leaders, that hope for true equality expressed in human dignity as descendants of the African Diaspora[7] could only actualize by returning home to Africa. This is known as the emigration separatist[8] caveat of black nationalism, and, thus, should not be considered an exclusive response to Anglo imperialism. In fact, as will be discussed in a later essay, there were several different social reactions to racial prejudice and socioeconomic problems by various black nationalists.

As a social movement, Marsh suggests, “a black nationalist social movement is an organized effort to create a collective consciousness and racial/cultural pride, and it may or may not desire to control a sovereign territory.”[9] In other words, some black nationalists purposed to redirect the psychological and philosophical moorings of African Americans without advocating geographic escapism. Therefore interpreters should avoid attributing “a one size fits all” attire to the philosophical dress of black nationalistic thinking. As I have heard many African Americans erroneously espouse on varying occasions during casual conversation concerning this topic. Hence, to be fair, each adherent of black nationalistic tenets must be evaluated and judged based upon the merits and practical implementation of respective beliefs.

Guiding Principles of Black Nationalism

It seems to be common knowledge that African American historians/theologians agree that Black Nationalists operate according to two guiding principles: black pride and racial separatism. Black pride seeks to ameliorate the consciousness of African American people who have been duped into believing that they exist merely for the purposes of the dominant culture (vis-à-vis the pejorative Aunt Jemima or Amos and Andy Syndrome—which seemingly contemporarily manifest itself as an insatiable desire for professional athletics or becoming a pop cultural icon). This philosophical belief system, furthermore, yearns to aid African Americans in understanding that “self-love” doesn’t necessarily have to be narcissistic or hedonistic (since the aforesaid qualities are “negatively” internal motivations, not external); rather it can be an existential expression of an African American commitment to honoring its ancestry by learning about, and from, their forefathers and foremothers.[10] Too often, mainstream evangelicalism reasons that exuding “black pride” must always be understood in a negative fashion; but is this the only alternative?

This writer agrees with Carl F. Ellis’, Free At Last?, contention: “Black is truly beautiful, but it is not beautiful as a god. As a god it is too small. Afrocentrism is truly magnificent, but it is not magnificent as an absolute. As an absolute, it will infect us with the kind of bigotry we’ve struggled against in others for centuries.”[11] Ellis, an astute Reformed theologian and Afrocentric cultural sage, understands that we cannot put the cart before the horse, as it were. For we will distort the Sacred Text in order to bleed African as opposed to allowing the text to breathe God’s sacred words. Thus we do speak about our blackness with Scripture as final arbiter of right thinking. Ebonically speaking, “We don’t get it twisted, doc.” We are Reformed; we, too, proclaim “sola scriptura,” but we are not so naive to misconstrue sola scriptura (Scripture alone) as “nuda scriptura (only Scripture)”. For Scripture, tradition, and experience work together to speak to our collective philosophical, theological, and social consciousness as African Americans; in fact, this seems to be the normative mode for integrating faith and learning for covenant recipients throughout all times.

Here is an illustration that may assist you in understanding my reasoning. The author has been blessed with three handsome young sons, Anthony (5), Timothy (2), and Tristan (8mths) because of the biochemical connection with a bangin’, excuse me, that is to say, “vivacious” African American queen—who just so happens to be my covenant partner. It seems that whenever people (African, Latino, Anglo American) see my youngest son, Tristan, they always have the tendency of lauding his complexion and texture of his hair on account that he is light skinned with straight and curly hair. In fact, many have the audacity to label his hair as being “good hair” because of the texture. While my eldest sons, Anthony and Timothy, sit in the background receiving no accolades for their hair because it is kinkier. There was a time, however, during their neonatal years that many of the same individuals adored their hair in the same fashion because it too was straight; however, the admiration dissipated as their hair became thicker (let’s avoid saying “kinky” since the term by definition connotes “an imperfection likely to cause difficulties in operation”).

Now imagine the distorted psychosis that could develop, if the writer lacked the mental acuity to recognize cultural brainwashing[12] (a principle taught naturally by Black nationalists) and the foresight to challenge the mindset of those who attribute “goodness” to the things that are closer to whiteness, and “badness” to physical characteristics that are more akin towards blackness as being logically flawed and grossly heretical. The writer’s sons could grow up confused, and, thereby, begin to seek validation for their personal worth based upon the standards of the dominant culture. Hence, the positive out workings of black pride should be that one could acknowledge the beauty of God’s special craftsmanship in making one black without representing the age-old, black power, false god, supremacy of ontological superiority in order to tear down another race or ethnicity. African American evangelicals must deal with black pride from a balanced frame of reference and refuse to eradicate the truthfulness of having a positive self-concept and identity as a glory reflector and bearer of the imago dei through one’s blackness[13].

A good maxim to employ as a primer for understanding Black Nationalism is to remember, “All separatist are nationalist, but not all nationalist believe in separatism.”[14] Concerning nationalism and racial separatism Cornel West asserts:
Any kind of nationalism, for the most part, will be used in a way that ends up dehumanizing folk. We all need recognition and some form of protection, but usually in these dominant forms the quest for group unity results in attacking someone else. The history of nationalism seems to be part and parcel of the history of tribalism. It tends to be deeply patriarchal and homophobic with little sense of our common humanity. Black Nationalism has come to be problematic because every Black Nationalist has to sooner or later have some relation with territory or land. Black people in America are a people without land, that’s part of our heritage.[15]
All in all, the point that writer desires to make is that black evangelicals can learn from the passion expressed by black nationalists to remain true to one’s cultural ancestry and ethnicity, but we cannot stop there. We must allow Scripture to challenge our inherent biases as we seek to “speak the truth in love” and confront imperialism where it rears its ugly head in any form, even our own hearts. Also, African American evangelicals need not fear being intellectually misconstrued and labeled as theological iconoclast, or eisogetically heretical, by the dominant voices within the evangelical community because one has a proper view of one’s blackness and position in the covenantal community of faith.

Our desire should be the same as the apostle Paul’s for his kindred: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel [African Americans] is that they might be saved.” Are you willing to become all things to all men so that you might save even more? Or are you more concerned about impressing those who can increase your social and economic status?

Curtis Woods


Footnotes:

1. Dr. Lane served as the only African American tenured professor to teach at Dallas Seminary in the school's 83 year history. He led as the sole proprietor of the Urban Ministries program. He retired in 2005.

2. James Clyde Sellman, Black Nationalism in the United States (1998-2000, accessed). In similar fashion, C.Eric Lincoln, Black Muslims in America, comments, “All black nationalist movements have in common three characteristics: a disparagement of whites and their culture, a repudiation of “Negro” identity, and a concomitant search for and commitment to the black (African) heritage (p. 47).”

3. For more information on the aforesaid black nationalists, see Wilson J. Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism: 1850-1925, (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1978).

4. Ibid., p. 2.

5. Cornel West, “On Black Nationalism” in the Cornel West Reader, suggests, “Black nationalism is an ideology…Nationalism per se is a modern phenomenon. It’s a post-Napoleonic development in modern Europe. Once organizing activity began to take place for the purpose of promoting self-determination among black people, nationalism became one of the more attractive ideologies that could attempt to mobilize them.” In agreement with West’s understanding of black nationalism as an ideology, Clifton E. Marsh, From Black Muslims to Muslims, quotes M. Ron Karenga, Afro-American Nationalism, Beyond Mystification and Misconception, stating, “black nationalism can now be defined as an ideological formulation, i.e., subjective reconstruction of reality in black terms; a social strategy containing proposals and programs of reconstruction and a collective vocation, that is, a struggle for community (p. 8).”

6. Although the writer employs the term “United States,” the writer recognizes that it would be anachronistic to attribute the aforesaid term towards “Nat Turner” who lived and died during the period labeled as Colonial America.

7. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Encarta Africa 3rd Edition, defines the African Diaspora as “the forced dispersion of African peoples throughout the new world and even beyond.”

8. Clifton E. Marsh, From Black Muslims to Muslims, explains separatism as “the belief that people of African descent cannot attain freedom and equality in the United States: therefore, the solution is to acquire a separate state. There are two forms of separatism: (a) territorial [nation within a nation] and (b) the back-to-Africa movement [emigration] (pp.10-11).”

9. Ibid., p.7.

10. Cornel West, Race Matters, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 23-25; 42-42.

11. Carl F. Ellis, Free At Last, 154.

12. Eddie B. Lane describes cultural brainwashing as “a process of formal and informal, objective and subjective, teaching and reinforcing the idea that African American culture is substandard and inferior to other cultures in general and White culture in particular and therefore is not qualified to be on equal terms with other cultures in society.” For a detailed analysis concerning the reality of the residual effects of oppression on the psyche of today’s African American men, see Eddie B. Lane, The African American Christian Man: Reclaiming the Village (Dallas, TX: Black Family Press, 1997).

13. Bruce Fields, a systematic theologian at Trinity International University, holds that “‘blackness’ is not just a reference to skin color; it is a symbol abounding in meaning and force. The reality of rejection, dehumanization, fear, and oppression is reflected in this word.” For more interaction with this line of thought, see, Bruce L. Fields, Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 13.

14. Marsh, From Black Muslims to Muslims, 7.

15. West, The Cornel West Reader, 525.