Preach Brother Preach: James Cone, Founder of Black Liberation Theology Lights Up the Lessons Taught by James Baldwin and Colin Kaepernick

Preach Brother Preach: James Cone, Founder of Black Liberation Theology Lights Up the Lessons Taught by James Baldwin and Colin Kaepernick
Christine Passarella By

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"Every human being is an unprecedented miracle." —James Baldwin

In a world of everyday people, we indeed find extraordinary courage and determination. In each of us are gifts we can give to the world to transform, uplift and sustain beauty, love and justice. The men and women who answer this call to be Coltranian forces for good nourish this earth. These are the people I am on a journey to meet, learn from and write about.

Walk with me as I explore the Coltranian paths of theologian Rev. Dr. James Cone, writer James Baldwin and athlete Colin Kaepernick as they offer this world pristine illumination in the darkness to bring hope to our human condition.

In my view, one is living a Coltranian life based on integrity, love of self and love of humanity while blazing an individual trail to continually grow into a higher self. James Cone was the founder of black liberation theology. He enriched this world with his courage to be unsettled daily and would not rest knowing the suffering his people faced and continue to face. He passed away on April 28, 2018, but his message is as alive as ever.

During the time I was blessed to live in a historic building connected to Riverside Church, I found the experience to be quite surreal as the vibrations in this apartment resonated at different decibels. Partly because literally, the apartment shared a wall with the church and the organ music floated exquisitely into my being each Sunday morning elevating me. But It was more than that as this complex also housed many brilliant scholars from Union Theological Seminary. I had the miraculous experience of riding the elevator randomly with the acclaimed African American theologian Rev. Dr. James Cone as he lived two floors below. I ran into him frequently by chance noticing he was in his sleek jogging attire on his way to run along Riverside Park. His presence inspired me simply because he was an elderly man with the discipline to jog every day. But soon this frail-looking man with a high pitched musical voice came into my consciousness with a scholarly body of work and a dedication to black people with such a fervency that my mind was forever expanded.

I soon realized I was sharing the elevator with one of those everyday people who brings the majesty of his humanity to be that force that changes the molecules in a room. Rev. Dr. James Cone was the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. He recently passed away at the age of 79, but his presence on this earth has made an impact on his friends, colleagues, family, students...and me, a lady who shared the elevator with him once in a while.

It was my friend and mentor Dr. Cornel West who introduced me to Dr. Cone. He recently stated in memorializing his close friend and colleague, "James Cone was an exemplary figure in a tradition of a people who have been traumatized for 400 years but taught the world so much about healing; terrorized for 400 years and taught the world so much about freedom; hated for 400 years and taught the world so much about love and how to love. James Cone was a love warrior with an intellectual twist, rooted in gutbucket Jim Crow Arkansas, ended up in the top of the theological world but was never seduced by the idles of the world."

In his phenomenal book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Rev. Cone lays it out telling us that the lynching of black people in America was like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Dr. Cone authored 12 books and 150 articles. His last book, Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian will be released this fall. Cone's outstanding corpus forces America to look in the mirror and examine its history as it relates to the treatment of black people.

"Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a 'recrucified" black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy," Reverend Cone told us.

Born in 1936, he was raised in Arkansas which was a lynching state. Young James Cone watched his parents deal with segregation and the threats of lynching. He was deeply affected by the sacrifices they made for the family and the examples of courage and love their lives represented. James Cone is now gone but his challenge to us to continue the conversation must be ongoing if we are to rise and fulfill America's promise. He places the cross metaphorically next to the lynching tree and challenges us to see Jesus in America in a new light. His clear understanding of how the oppressor treats the oppressed is something he teaches and preaches to America's citizens in a belief we will finally wrap our hearts and minds around the travesty of injustice brought to African American people.

This link between the torture of Christ on the Cross and black people in the south he hoped would empower all people to take action against white supremacy and injustices of all kinds. Dr. Cone tells us in this environment of terror in the segregated south of his childhood, the blues and religion were chief weapons of resistance. America must embrace a deep understanding of the blues if it is to face its history truthfully. "Blacks found hope in the music itself—a collective self-transcendent meaning in singing, dancing, loving, and laughing. They found hope in the stoic determination not to be defeated by the pain and suffering in their lives. James Baldwin calls this hope an ironic tenacity," Cone stated. The extraordinary mind of this man who dedicated his life to people for over fifty years educating, striving and writing to guide America to understand its own history made him a powerhouse, never to be pushed aside.

In his book, The Spirituals and the Blues Cone writes about the importance of black music. The sacred and the secular music of black people in America is what we hear in the spirituals and the blues. Black people, Cone tells us created a world for themselves to express their humanity under the harsh reality of slavery and segregation. How was it possible to endure? The music of black people tells us how it was possible to survive and cope with life's contradictions and excruciating injustices. Dr. Cone makes it clear that music has been and continues to be in the present day the most vital creative art expression from black people in the United States. I can attest to the fact that studying the spirituals, the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rap, hip-hop has helped me reach a higher level of consciousness.

"The blues are a lived experience, an encounter with the contradictions of American society but a refusal to be conquered by it. They are despair only in the sense that there is no attempt to cover up reality. The blues recognize that black people have been hurt and scared by the brutalities of white society. But there is also hope in what Richard Wright calls the endemic capacity to live. This hope provided the strength to survive, and also an openness to the intensity of life's pains without being destroyed by them," Cone wrote. Jazz or blues musicians who speak to the souls of others are emptying out their understanding of the history of African Americans in this country and bringing it to the audience to interpret. The great musicians do this. And when you hear it, even if you are not sure exactly what you are listening to, you know enough to be moved by the love, the pain, the courage, and the journey.

Listen to John Coltrane's "Alabama" today, and see how it resonates and informs each cell of your body, heart and soul. Ask yourself what went into every note that Coltrane played for the people. And if you do not know, I argue that you should continue to learn more about American history, as our school systems failed us in this regard.

We the people can rise, will rise, must rise, our country presently is depending on us to wake up. A message to all Americans is to realize daily our ancestors are watching from inside our souls. I love my country deeply, and that is why I dedicated my life to children through education. James Baldwin told us, "The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat." As a child of the tumultuous '60s, my Coltranian journey brought me to my calling to fight for social justice through teaching and writing. I feel it is imperative to articulate the lives of the oppressed and spotlighting the urgent need for people to being forces for good. I am the founder of Kids for Coltrane. My work in education focuses on jazz to teach children about American history, equality, character education, and the Arts. By doing this, children become invested in literacy, compassion, curiosity and courage.

The passion, brilliance, and conviction of writer James Baldwin come around us like the rarest of gems. James Baldwin was one of the most exceptional writers of the 20th century who brought us into the depths of his life in Harlem and then beyond the borders of this country. His rise from poverty to the highest levels of intellectual society was proof that in all of us exists such possibility to shun what a society tells you your limited options are. Throughout his youth, he had a hyper-vigilant understanding of the world he was witnessing and as a writer, he takes us with him on his journey for a reason...he allows the reader to feel inside the suffering, the poverty, the struggle, and the injustice.

His awareness of the unkind treatment of black people in America was something he would not let the world ignore. And so, with his literary genius, he left us books, essays, articles, film reviews, plays, interviews, and an Oxford debate to educate us.

James Baldwin asks us the deep questions, so deep that if you can truly hear him, you will weep as you answer. Baldwin was a truth teller bar none and he chose to be that force for good. His feelings were so sensitive it is a wonder he could survive the pain he experienced and witnessed under white supremacy. In his fabulous essay Sonny's Blues, Baldwin brings us into the home life of two brothers, one being a jazz musician, the other a school teacher. The reader is invited into the Harlem experiences of the brothers through their family bonds.


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