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.

The great leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers were gone, stolen from the people through the horror of assassination. In the writing of James Baldwin, you hear the heart-wrenching pain from the loss. How does America come to terms with ripping a people apart and not facing what was done to them in the past with ramifications in the present? Reparations for this suffering and absurd heartlessness seems to me like the start of an apology that could never suffice, never. It seems to me, and many others that payment to descendants of slaves in the United States of America is long overdue for the forced free labor that built this country.

The beauty of Baldwin's literary gift is that he is still here in his books. One just has to pick up The Fire Next Time, Go Tell It On The Mountain, No Name in the Street, or any other of his masterful writings and you know he wrote about his present to inform our future, perhaps in hopes his life would take root in our hearts from generation to generation.

Now this generation is presented with the vulnerability and strength of athlete Colin Kaepernick as he is telling us his American story rooted in his love for black Americans in the United States. It is his story to tell, and in a free country, we all have a right to express ourselves. We must listen to one another across this beautiful land if we are going to love, grow and heal together.

I was born on Flag Day. When I was five years old living in Brooklyn, New York, I thought all the flags hanging outside the residential houses were for me, gracefully celebrating my birthday. I laugh at that now, but perhaps I was on to something. Perhaps all those flags waving in the air are for each of us to celebrate our blessed lives in our country, and a reminder that we the people must be always cognizant of our responsibility to bring forth justice for all. Colin Kaepernick kneels because he has the platform to raise awareness about injustices that are devastating to black people.

We must be willing to examine our presuppositions in order to contribute to this world the best of who we are and will continue to be. Kaepernick recently stated, "People sometimes forget that love is at the root of our resistance. My love for my people serves as the fuel that fortifies my mission." He continues to learn and evolve so he can serve the oppressed, fortified as he stands in the light, he kneels out of love. From my perspective Colin Kaepernick is working through his Coltranian journey, determined to live in his truth to help create a better world, and willing to pay the price. He was born in 1987 to a mixed-race couple; his mother is white and his father is black. He was adopted by a white couple. Kaepernick achieved success including becoming a professional football player for the San Francisco 49ers. He remains an unsigned free agent and is facing the ramifications for speaking his truth in a society that is not always ready for the prophetic voice.

His actions help me understand what the flag stands for more, not less. I saw a report that stated it was a United States veteran who helped guide Kaepernick to kneeling as opposed to continuing to sit during the national anthem because it brought forth more respect. The two men spoke and listening to one another brought deep empathy. In Colin I see a man who loves his country deeply, so much so he is willing to pay a cost. He could no longer stand during the national anthem because so many black people are being killed unjustly, with their blood mixed in with his tears he took action.

Kneeling for Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and all the bodies hung from the lynching tree. In Kaepernick's kneeling is the unflinching dedication to speaking up for the oppressed and a hope we continue to evolve fully into a society that demands equality, and human rights for all of its citizens.

And so it is, we are all connected. You who are out there in this world playing your instruments, composing your songs, living artfully in any way while marching to the beat of love in a world of sorrow bring the hope. If the hearts can change, the culture will change. This is our time to dig in deeper, look closer, live artfully, and do not turn away. We may live bittersweet lives as in the joy of life, there is the pain of life which John Coltrane expressed in his exquisite music. Coltrane stated, "I believe that men are here to grow themselves into the best good that they can be-at least that is what I want to do." In choosing to be multipliers of love Cone, Baldwin, and Kaepernick bring light, hope and peace.

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