Tag Archives: liberation theology

Claudette Colvin, Respectability Politics and Human Dignity

Manushka Gracia-Desgage is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh graduate with a degree in English Writing. She has a passion for writing, law, God, and social justice. She spends her time tutoring 1st and 2nd graders.

March 2, 1955 was a monumental day in Montgomery, Alabama. When they hear this, most people will assume that I’m referring either to the stand that Rosa Parks took or the introduction of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But both will be wrong. March 2, 1955 was the day a 15-year-old Black girl stood up for justice. Before there was Rosa Parks, before there was a Montgomery Bus Boycott, there was Claudette Colvin.

        Claudette Colvin’s place in history is generally denied or passively mentioned. From elementary school on to the rest of our lives, it is cemented in our historical schema that Rosa Parks’ arrest was the spark that ignited the bus boycott which served as the springboard for the Civil Rights Movement. However, nine months before Rosa Parks took her stand, Claudette Colvin found herself in the same situation and did the same thing. And that’s about where the comparisons end. When Colvin was arrested, she was grabbed by the wrists and jerked up from her seat. Her books went flying everywhere. She was dragged and kicked. Parks, on the other hand, was relatively peacefully escorted off the bus with two officers carrying her belongings for her. Her hands were not cuffed. When she got to city hall, her fingerprints were taken and she was given permission to phone her family.

        Rosa Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP; Claudette Colvin was a teenager who came from a family that wasn’t part of the prominent sect of Black Montgomery. Parks was deemed as a composed, acquiescent, and levelheaded person; Colvin was seen as feisty, emotional, and demonstrative. Parks was light-skinned; Colvin was not. In short, Claudette Colvin did not embody the politics of respectability that the religious leadership of the Civil Right Movement wanted to project.

        Once Colvin was charged and convicted of “assaulting” an officer, the support she reaped from leading Black officials dwindled. People had hoped to use Colvin’s case as the means to challenge the system of segregated bus seating. However, she was regarded as an uncontrollable teen and too young to be the face of such a powerful and transcendental movement. She was from King Hill, the place seen as the bottom-feeder of Montgomery, Alabama. The leader of the Montgomery NAACP, E.D. Nixon, put it this way: “I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with.” Claudette Colvin wasn’t seen as that ‘somebody’.

The bus boycott ensued not too long after Rosa Parks made her stand. In the meantime, NAACP lawyers were mounting a case to attack the constitutionality of segregated bus seating. When the case was formulated and prepped to go to court, Claudette Colvin was one of the four witnesses chosen to testify in the case that came to be known as Browder v Gayle, a case that changed the course of history but is widely forgotten. The testimonies of Colvin and the three other women (not including Rosa Parks) had helped the federal court abolish segregated bus seating in Montgomery, AL.

        After the case was over, Colvin was once again ignored and undermined. There were no congratulatory phone calls, no visits, no letters, no anything. She was pregnant. Yes, she was pregnant. And so she wasn’t exactly someone to be heralded in their eyes. It didn’t help that she didn’t reveal who the father was, a man that had taken advantage of her sexual naïveté, and the fact that her child was light-skinned, prompting most to assume that the father was white (even though he wasn’t).  Colorism (read: internalized White Supremacy) was part of the reason why the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ostracized Claudette Colvin.

        There’s a famous picture of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a key figure of the Civil Rights Movement, and Inez Baskin of the Montgomery Adviser. It is a portrait of the three on a bus on the first day of integrated bus seating. Claudette Colvin is nowhere to be found in that photograph. It’s a glaring absence every time I look at that portrait. A 15-year-old girl from the shunned town of King Hill who was raised by a great-aunt and great-uncle who were maids made a stance that adults of higher status didn’t have the gall to make. She sparked a fire that grown men and women didn’t dare risk to spark before her. Yet, the most mind-numbing part of her story is not the back seat the laws expected her to take, but the one the people that shared her skin color (and, of course, those who don’t) forced her story to take. They didn’t want her to be the face of the boycott movement because she was viewed as a feisty teen who didn’t respect authority. The same authority they were tirelessly fighting against. The irony. Nine months later, Rosa Parks was catapulted to iconic status for doing the same thing. The difference was that Parks was, number one, not a teenage. Number two, Park’s hair was silky and shiny as well as her skin was much lighter. Lastly, Park’s family wasn’t lower-lower class like Colvin. Did I mention Parks wasn’t a teenaged mother either?

        The aspect of self-hate that permeates throughout her story is interesting to note. Black leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for racial equality were still victims of some level of self-hate. Rosa Parks, to them, was a more politically respectable figure to make the poster-person of the Montgomery Bus Boycott because of what she presented: lighter skin, smoother hair, more privileged background, and an appeased spirit, akin to W.E.B. DuBois’ Talented Tenth. White people wouldn’t feel challenged by someone so docile and who resembled them more than Claudette Colvin. It showed that, despite the fact that the black community had garnered enough audacity to contest the racism laced in segregated bus seating, they were still colonized intellectually. Their mindset was still, “We need THEM to accept US,” a mindset that still plagues our people today, when our mindset should be, “We ARE just as good and just as worthy. We don’t need acceptance.” Using Claudette Colvin as the face of the bus boycott movement would have shown that our people were aware that we are so valiant that even a 15-year-old girl with poor parents, coarse hair, and dark skin could change the course of history. But instead, the all-too-familiar rhetoric prevailed.

In spite of it all, the truth doesn’t change because of how one feels about it.  Courage doesn’t have a preconceived mold. When you stand up for what is right in the face of hostile forces, you could be two years old or 222 years old. History can be made by ordinary people who come from meager circumstances. Claudette Colvin changed history regardless of who people decide to put on the historical poster. Colvin’s courage was the bank from which Rosa Parks withdrew her courage. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to fame from what Colvin had the courage to do.

        Historians have often dismissed Colvin’s story, citing her as a passing notion, a mere detail that helps provide color to a bigger story. But historians don’t make history, history makes history. History is still history even if no one talks about it. Biblical history shows a God who takes persons like Gideon, the youngest child from the least respectable family, and transforms a deliverer, yes the poster child of divine liberation. God is not a respecter of persons because God has created us with infinite worth, the imago Dei. The liberation movements of human beings should be committed to human dignity, which is a matter of the heart, and not the superficiality of respectability politics. While Rose Parks will always be seen as the face of the Montgomery Boycott, nevertheless, Claudette Colvin was THE catalyst. She is not forgotten. Just like Rosa Parks is not forgotten. As Colvin herself said, “I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’ And I did.” And that’s all that matters. 

infant lowly, infant holy

originally posted at Toy Adams’ Imagining Jesus blog

These days, there are a lot of Christians that like to talk about being “Incarnation,” and even to some extent “The Incarnation” itself. There are even some Christians who prefer to talk about multiple incarnations. When it comes to discussions of the Incarnation, we love the neat,cleaner, more respectable adult version, where we talk about Jesus as a Grown-Up, as he is able to walk  with us, talk with us personally. This perspective is a highly individualistic, it is self-centered, and exclusive of children’s subjectivity in the life of The Church.  As a Liberationist and an Open Theist, I am all for defending many (not all) relational approaches to understanding God. During Advent, this is the time where we must affirm God’s openness and freedom in choosing to reveal Godself in Christ Jesus, and at the same time we must affirm God’s particularity, the specific choice that God makes, God’s chosen location and positionality.

Let us not fool ourselves. Almost everyone remembers that famous scene from Talledega Nights, where Ricky Bobby proclaims that he loves to pray to Baby Jesus,. “Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we’d also like to thank you for my wife’s father Chip. We hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. It smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it” or “Dear Lord Baby Jesus, lying there in your…your little ghost manger, lookin’ at your Baby Einstein developmental…videos, learnin’ ’bout shapes and colors.” The hypermasculine shaming by our general culture was not the beginning of neglecting Baby Jesus as LORD. That all began when Christians throughout history appropriating philosophies that were inconsistent with the idea that YHWH himself became a child. In his book, In the End—The Beginning: the life of hope, Juergen Moltmann notes that the greek words for slave and child have the same root, that even the inspired New Testament authors use the term “childlike/childish” disparagingly (Luke 7:32/1st Corinthians 14:20, for ex.).

Unfortunately, Moltmann does not extend this logic to the Advent image of the Trinity, Mary our Theoktos, her husband Joseph, and Baby Jesus in the manger. In this lowly infant, God has once and for all united divinity with the class of human beings on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. Children cannot speak. Babies cannot change themselves, feed themselves, OR WALK! Christians desire to solely talk about Jesus as an autonomous, able-bodied male-privileged Jewish subject. The idea that God was dependent upon a woman to nourish Him (in the womb) for His well-being is offensive to us. There are some Christians caught up in debating how the Son of God really could not become a human zygote because that means he was unconscious, and therefore could not reciprocate the love of the Father. This abstract and meaningless debate is one in which God’s sovereign choice at choosing risk and vulnerability is ill-recognized.  If the Church Fathers and Mothers agreed in line with the Gospel narratives that the Second Person of the Trinity did indeed become FULLY human, then the Son experienced fully and completely all things involved in human development and growth. As the Gospel according to Luke informs us, Jesus grew in both WISDOM and STATURE (Luke 2:52).

In agreement with James Cone, we as The Church must recognize continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of the creeds. God in the hypostatic union has reconciled marginalized humanity and emancipatory divinity. “For [the early church], Jesus is certainly a unique person, but the uniqueness of his appearance reveals the Holy One’s concern for the lonely and the downtrodden,” argues James Cone in A Black Theology of Liberation. By starting from the bottom-up, God’s salvation works for the benefit of all: God’s Triune love travels from least of these all the way to the top in order to raise up all of humanity at the New Creation (some people will choose judgement, others, reconciliation).This is the logic of the Resurrection, a theo-logic that finds itself as the result of the Incarnation of YHWH as Holy, Lowly Infant.

Following the arguments of the late Clark Pinnock, I can co-sign on the idea that Scripture presents us with a paradox of strength and vulnerability. “Though ontologically strong, God can be vulnerable because of the decision to make a world like this. The Lord of the universe has chosen to limit his power by delegating some to the creature. God gives room to creatures and invites them to be covenant partners, opening up the possibility of loving fellowship but also some of the initiative being taken away from God and creatures coming into conflict with his plans”- The Openness Of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Clark Pinnock gets the general description of God’s nature basically right but what his analysis ignores is the particular circumstances that YHWH reveals Godself. God invited the Hebrew children that YHWH delivered from Pharaoh to be covenant partners first. God chose to covenant with King David, Israel’s greatest king, to be God’s specific vehicle for the Logos’ embodiment. The loving fellowship that YHWH invites humanity to partake in is the story of the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings: the very narratives that reveal YHWH’s justice & preferential option for the widow, the stranger, and the poor. 

This Advent season I have also been working my way through Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Black Boy is Richard Wright’s autobiography about his childhood, or his lack thereof. It is a miserable tale in many instances, with stories about the brutality of an impoverished life, White supremacy, and religious fundamentalism. Wright shares a story of one Christmas day where he received nothing but an orange, and he describes the pain he felt while all the other kids in his neighborhood were playing outside, having fun. It was experiences such as these that taught Wright how to live in solidarity with those who are afflicted. “The spirit I caught had gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate toward those whose feelings were like my own, made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives, made me strangely feel tender and cruel, violent and peaceful” (chapter 3).

The title Black Boy itself is filled with irony IMO.  When Black men are referred to as “boys,” it is an insult going back to African enslavement. Black people were/are considered to be at the bottom of White Supremacist hierarchy. On one hand, “boy” is pointing towards Wright’s experience of oppression under Jim/Jane Crow imperial domination.  On the other hand, “boy” is also being reclaimed with Wright taking back his ownership of his own childhood and his own story in spite of being robbed of it by organized religion and structural injustice. I am now contending that we Christians do a reclamation projection of our own, that of revisiting this notion of the Divine Baby more than once a year, to allow God’s choice for risk and vulnerability to define God, and not our own speculations. Once the Church returns to the childhood of the Triune God, we will be better able to join in the bottom-up Resurrection movement of the Logos. 

The Musical Jesus: From James Hal Cone to Jesus Walks

James Cone’s work The Spirituals and the Blues is a unique expression of African American political theology. In this text he seeks to examine the unique cultural foundation that has shaped both Spiritual and the genre of Blues as a form of musical expression. For Cone music can represent a cross section between political ideology and theological frameworks. Through this piece it is apparent that the distinctive experiences of African American has radically shape their view of politics and religion and that the connection between Spirituals and Blues makes sheds some light on this point. For him both are deeply connected to the point that you cannot one from the other. Furthermore, he believes that the use of Spirituals and the Blues have both been utilized by African American to subvert the oppressive forces of Western white supremacist culture. He writes: “Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture.” (p5-6). Ultimately for Cone the use of Spirituality and the Blues serves as a way for African American to seek liberation from political and theological institution that is both destructive and oppressive.

Cone does great work in explicating the differences between traditional notions of Spirituals and how he believes African Americans have actually used Spirituals. This begins with his rejection of a Marxian view of Spirituals. Marx believes that the Spirituals sung by the Africans slaves’ sole purpose was to act as an opiate for them in relation to their slave masters. Marx’s ideology is marred by his concept of class consciousness. From this he believed that Spirituals allowed the slaves to passively conform to the desires of their slave masters. Cone however, vehemently disagrees with this assessment. He believes that African slaves were keenly aware of the power of musical interpretation and inherently new the dangers it posed to the authority of the slave masters. Thus, the slaves had to be subtle in the ways that they used Spirituals as theme for liberation without alarming their white slave masters. The Exodus story and Moses served as one way that the slaves could elude to liberation that did not alert their masters to their intentions.

The Exodus narrative as a slave spiritual had a profound implication on the way the slaves envisioned their lives both politically as well as theologically. Moses’ message of liberation called for divine liberation in heaven as well as earthly liberation from the slave masters. Cone points to slaves like Nat Turner who courageously learned to interpret the bible for himself. It is from his version of scripture that he saw the Christian imperative for not only a spiritual liberation heaven but its Earthly manifestation in the mist of slavery. This ultimately led to his rebellion and subsequent death. Similarly to Cone’s configuration of the Spirituals he believes that the Blues had a similar message. The Blues represent a secularized version of the socio-political message that was expunged from Spirituals. They too could equally be used as tools of liberation against dominant oppressive groups. Much like spiritual the Blues could be used to articulate a powerful socio-political message with profound theological implications. They affirmed the personhood of African Americans in the face of institutions that were created to take this very thing away from them.

While reading Cone’s work I began to think about some of the other connections that can be made with between African American experiences and how that has translated into music to have implications for theology, politics, and society in general. I preface this by stating that James Cone wrote this particular work in the 1970’s so what he wrote was indeed insightful for the context to which it was written. However, I believe that the religious insights from spiritual are reflected within the work of African American’s in other genres of music as well. In today’s context I do not see theo-political issues reflected in any particular artist or genre rather I see it in various songs by various African American artists. For example, Kanye West in his song “Gorgeous” poses a very interesting question.

West is questioning the function of hip hop music in the 21st century. Much like the Blues did for African Americans in the 20th century hip hop resonates with ideal and experience of many African American youth today. This is complicated by the secular nature of hip hop music. Hip hop music in itself could be seen as the religion of the youth today. The thought, ideas, cultural values, and even its counter cultural elements are appealing to youths. Ultimately, West is posing the question has hip- hop music replaced the socio- political elements that were once held onto by the Blues and Spirituals. Hip hop is to the soul of modern youth as what spirituals were to slaves. While admittedly this is not the case for all of hip hop music, West may be on to something, certainly there are hip hop songs that articulate a political theology the likeness of spirituals and the blues. Kanye West’s own work is an example of this. His song “Jesus Walks,” although not a gospel song has some inherently spiritual dimensions to it. From the introduction to the hook the song is laced with theo-political implications. He begins with the verse:

“We at war ” “We at war with terrorism, racism” “But most of all we at war with ourselves”(Jesus walk)” “God show me the way because the Devil tryna break me down” (Jesus walk with me)”

These lines hint at how West views some of our current socio-political struggles. Threats such as terrorism, racism, and even our inner struggles can leave us helpless. He sees they only way out is through his belief in Jesus. Jesus serves as liberation in this context in much the same way that Christian theology function as a form of liberation for the slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. West in this particular song is making use of theology and politics to articulate freedom from systems of oppression that dominate society today. Although West’s song gives insight to current use of African American political theology, I wonder what other songs and genres have similar themes.

Recommendations:

James Cone’s The Spirituals and The Blues

Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The Hip Hop Church: Connecting With The Movement Shaping Our Culture

Anthony Pinn, et. al.: Noise and Spirit: The Religion and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music

(A THROW BACK!): Calvinism And Holy Hip Hop

White Saviorism Cultural Appropriation in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

The Cross, Predestination, and Emmit Till

MTV is for Minstrel Television: Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, & Race