Writer reflects on four enlightening and thought-provoking lunches with the father of black liberation theology
J. Chester Johnson, poet and non-fiction writer, is the author of Damaged Legacy: The Massacre of the Elaine Race and a Story of Reconciliationpublished by Pegasus Books in May 2020.
Dr. James H. Cone, Union Theological Seminary, 1969
The summer of 2013 proved particularly significant for me, occasioned by a series of four private lunches with Dr. James H. Cone, author of Black Theology and Black Power, a book that has, since its release, carried the distinction as “the founding text of black liberation theology”. For Cone, a longtime distinguished professor at Union Theological Seminary, the gospel of Christianity had been hijacked and distorted by “white Euro-American values.”
I came to realize that the conversations I experienced that summer with Cone—just the two of us, black and white, one-on-one—were an essential segment of my “white account,” a moment in time where my racial background, impressions, and ideas were forcefully examined by a sophisticated new friend, whose distant Arkansas origins and mine were similar, though we saw the topics we explored from historically opposite realities. After all, we both spent our youth – I was the youngest – in small towns in southern Arkansas around the same time with only six years old and a relatively short distance of fifty miles separating us .
Thoughts rushed unrestrained and unrestrained into consciousness as my wife, Freda, and I sat down at Cone’s funeral on Monday, May 7, 2018, nearly five years after the intense discussions he and I shared over this summer of 2013. Riverside Church, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has just over 2,000 people. From the pew we sat in that day, Riverside Church was overflowing with a scattering of whites amidst a sea of African Americans. As I listened to nearby conversations, I realized that many attendees had traveled great distances to arrive at the ceremony honoring this controversial but seminal figure of philosophical and theological significance. As the funeral progressed, I felt a chill as to the degree of respect and acceptance his black liberation theology had evidently earned among black people across the country.
Thrilled. I can’t think of a better word to express my response to the powerful crowd reaction to Cone’s views on black life in the United States. Eulogies were plentiful that day from prominent leaders in black American churches and liberation theological circles, such as Cone’s friend Dr. Cornel West, former student Raphael Warnock (then senior minister of Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, who would later, in 2021, be elected the first African-American United States Senator from Georgia), and Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Cone’s protege, prominent author and dean from the Episcopal Theological School of the Union Theological Seminary.
At least for this white author, my prospective book was crying out for the voice of James Cone. While I had the benefit of firsthand racial reckoning with him asking questions and probing many answers, Cone’s writings called on white people to rebuke their beliefs and behavior toward black people and black liberation. In many ways, like Malcolm X, his voice would be inaudible at the peril of the nation.
My lengthy 2013 article on the Elaine Race massacre had been published in a national literary periodical, a copy of which I provided to Cone, who wanted to know more about the Elaine conflagration than my article conveyed. He and I inherited a common knowledge of the area where the massacre occurred and the associated racial rituals, practices, and oppressions that took place there. We all recognized that so much about the massacre was not unique to southern Arkansas – only a matter of the slightest degree separated a 1919 mass murder of African Americans from a single lynching.
A geographic commonality brought us together, as he had shown considerable interest in learning more about the Elaine Race massacre, which led to our first lunch in mid-June; the lunches are spread over the summer, ending at the end of August. I was familiar with Cone’s work, having read some of his theological writings. He knew little about me other than my authorship of the Massacre article and accompanying biographical highlights, unless he looked more elsewhere.
James Hal Cone was born August 5, 1938, in Fordyce, Arkansas, then a town of about 3,400 people just over forty miles northwest of my hometown of Monticello via a two-lane highway – much of it would have been unpaved at that time. Eighty years ago, these two communities were about the same size. Set in the woods of rural southern Arkansas, Fordyce’s only claim to fame during the 20e century was based on the municipality being the hometown of Paul “Bear” Bryant, legendary football coach for the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. In fact, Cone spent his youth in the small community of Bearden, about fourteen miles southwest of Fordyce and home to a population of less than 1,000.
During the summer of 2013, he told me a variety of stories about growing up in aggressively segregated southern Arkansas and, specifically, Bearden. One such story involved watching a black man get whipped in town at a four-way crossing by a local white police officer; apparently the officer thought he had been too slow to accelerate his vehicle. Such wanton and arbitrary acts of violence, affront and injustice perpetrated by white people in and around Bearden wore Cone for the rest of his life. He often invoked the relevance and influence of his parents, sometimes invoking his father’s name, “Charlie”, seemingly to give Cone additional information and additional courage to face a moment of dilemma, uncertainty or past pain.
From the start, Cone brought to each of our lunches, as a gift, a different, personally inscribed book he had written, and from the start of our conversations I was struck by the eagerness, curiosity and the transparency of this man in his mid-70s. Throughout the summer, stories about Cone’s life in Arkansas, including the years he spent in Little Rock studying at Shorter College and at Philander Smith College before moving on to earn his doctorate at Northwestern University, would flow from him without a hitch. While a college student in Arkansas, he worked as a driver for a prominent Little Rock businessman, the “n-word” being freely used by his employer’s associates and colleagues from the backseat of the automobile. Telling these chauffeur stories, Cone still remained furious at the ignominy of having to don the mandatory driver’s cap as part of his job.
Cone insisted on learning as much as possible about me: what it was like to be white and teach in the all-African-American school in Monticello before integration, and what was the response to my efforts from local communities, black and white. ? How did my family react to my opinions and actions? How did I come to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer a lot? How did my views on race develop to differ so tellingly from white people in southern Arkansas, especially my own family? What did I think of James Baldwin and Malcolm X? Did the Episcopal Church make reparations in connection with its apology and national day of repentance for the Church’s role in transatlantic slavery, using a litany I wrote at the request of the ‘Church ? How and why did I become so attached to the first physical memorial to the massacre at Elaine Race? Leading a deluge of weighty but sometimes intimidating questions, he was continually and relentlessly curious, this renowned professor at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary, where he had taught since 1969, this man of profound humility, who, despite his enviable body of work of remarkable compositions , complains about his writing skills and the great difficulty he has in putting word after word on paper.
He freely described and discussed the myriad of crucial topics that occupied his focus and ruminations, including the steps and circumstances that led him to black liberation theology; his regular criticism of Reinhold Niebuhr’s neglect of the plight of black people in Detroit and New York, two cities where Niebuhr had been very active; our mutual attention to the Detroit riots, the city of Detroit and surrounding Wayne County, Michigan (two local governments for which I consulted earlier in my life and career); his belief that black people usually hide their most visceral comments about white people; the march of a million men; his view that the white subjugation of African Americans imposes a heavier burden of original sin on whites; and our mutual reminder of the integration of Little Rock Central High School, which happened in 1957 when I was growing into a teenager and Cone was nineteen.
Our last lunch at the end of August 2013 turned out to be the least satisfying – for both of us, I think. The conversation began in a very unusual way with personal recriminations from Cone. He accused me, verbally citing an identical shortcoming for all white people, of not paying enough attention to Malcolm X. He also blamed me, referencing and castigating white people as a group in general, of not not understand the circumstances and attitudes of black people. Shortly after this unexpected jeremiad, I received a phone call informing me that my wife had to go to the hospital unpredictably and that I had to meet her as soon as possible. Cone’s demeanor changed instantly and dramatically, showing a lot of concern and sympathy, but I had to rush. Thus, our relationship ended quite abruptly and unsatisfactorily. He got angry with me for still confusing reasons, and I, in turn, felt offended by his aggressiveness. We never held hands again.
Following those summer lunches with Dr. James H. Cone, I have often pondered and attempted to answer the riddle I have never been fully able to answer – that is, say why did he want to pursue long discussions with me? We never really had a detailed agenda for any of our discussions. Until the very end, each of our meetings carried the ambiguity of a meeting of friends for no other reason than to share striking experiences and personal proposals. After pondering this question for years, I decided that I likely represented an opportunity for Cone to enter into a previously unrealized conversation he was considering with a white person from his past who would willingly recognize and understand life in Bearden and southern Arkansas that Cone endured and overcame from the 1940s and 1950s. Am I wrong to assume that four summer lunches in 2013 created a retrospective for James Cone that shed light on his own story and his opinions on the background of passing with a white man?