In December 1973 musicians Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani sounded “Ntsikana’s Bell.” The jazz classic improvised the plaintive, ruminative notes of Ibrahim’s grandmother’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church piano to the “Great Hymn” (“Intsimbi ka Ntsikana”or “Ntsikana’s Bell”). The hymn was composed in 1814 by uNtsikana ka Gaba, the Xhosa prophet who became one of South Africa’s earliest Black liberation theologians during the long Wars of Dispossession that occurred in the century between 1779 and 1879. As the founder of what is now known as the Ntsikana Memorial Church, uNtsikana’s Black prophetic ministry was the genesis of generations of anticolonial independent African church movements that joined Africa and the African diaspora together in Black struggle.
Two years after Ibrahim and Dyani sounded “Ntsikana’s Bell”—the sonic invocation of the complex and often conflicting theological relationship between Africa and Afro-Diaspora—the late Tata Desmond Mpilo Tutu, a theological jazzman known for his lively preaching and improvised dance, intervened in a simmering theological divide. At issue was the discord between American James H. Cone, the giant of Black Liberation Theology, and Kenyan-born John Mbiti, the father of African theology, at a high point for global Black solidarity. Where Cone felt that African theology was often apolitical and had little to offer the political and existential struggles of Black peoples, Mbiti argued that Cone’s Black theology was too concerned with Blackness and political liberation, and thus lacked Christianity’s salvific joy and theological revelation.
Tutu danced across the theological discord and poignantly proclaimed African and Black theology to be “soulmates” in his essay “Black Theology/African Theology—Soul Mates or Antagonists?” He writes:
I myself believe I am an exponent of Black Theology coming as I do from South Africa. I also believe I am an exponent of African theology coming as I do from Africa. I contend that Black Theology is like the inner and smaller circle in a series of concentric circles. . . . I and others from South Africa do Black theology which is for us at this point, African theology.
While many across the world remember postapartheid Tutu as the purple-robed presider of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who tried to reconcile Black and white South Africa into a failed “Rainbow Nation,” few remember the earlier Tutu who, at the height of apartheid, reconciled Africa and Afro-Diaspora by reminding us that Blackness and Africanness are two “concentric circles.” At a time when many young Black South Africans reject the reconciliatory racial politics of leaders such as Tutu and Nelson Mandela, few remember the blood-soaked cassock Tutu who was first baptized into political activism by bullets aimed at Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement and the Black liberation theology that inspired it.
On the eve of the first anniversary of his passing, we remember the Tutu whose incarnated Black theology was first conceived in Black townships’ terrifying womb of death and was born into the fiery preaching, sonorous spirituals and amahubo of the Independent African, Ethiopianist, and AME churches of his family. We remember the Tutu who came of age to the improvisatory rhythms, intellectualisms, impurities, and ingenuities of Sophiatown’s kwela, mbaqanga, and big band jazz music culture. We remember the Tutu who reconciled Black and African theology in a time of crisis in global Black struggle and solidarity.
Today, as predatory racial capitalism spreads scarcity across the globe pitting Black against Black in a desperate clamor for the crumbs of the nation-state, we cannot hear each other’s cries—and many have stopped trying. Black South Africans burn African “foreign nationals” alive for “taking their jobs” in the world’s most unequal society; the Dominican Republic expels its Black citizens of Haitian descent. The African Descendants of Slaves movement proffers a short-sighted nationalism as the solution to the real problem of labor market disparities between African Americans and Black immigrants in the post-civil rights United States. Almost paradoxically, as late-stage capital consolidates itself across the globe, weaponizing borders against Black solidarity, the horizons of our Black political imaginations have shrunk from Pan-Africanist visions of self-determination to citizenship within the nation-state.
This is not an era in which Audre Lorde might testify that “Berlin is Hard on Colored Girls,” or Gil Scott-Heron might desperately ask, “Tell me brother, have you heard from Johannesburg?” or Malcolm X might urgently remind us that “as long as we think that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, [we’ll] never get Mississippi straightened out.” In this crisis of solidarity and separation—of sister from sister, struggle from struggle, struggle from spirit, and spirit from study—all call and response has dissolved. Africa calls and the Afro-Diaspora does not answer. The Afro-Diaspora calls and Africa does not answer.
Our Black prophetic traditions call us to hear our sisters’ cries, yet the anguishes and aspirations of today’s prophets tend to be local and national, despite the dizzying speed and intensity of global digital connectivity. Children of disillusionment and disappointment, today’s prophets were born after the liberatory promise of Pan-Africanism and Black Internationalism during the short century of African independence. The promise of Black sovereignty and self-determination died almost as quickly as U.S. Empire pulled the trigger on Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Maurice Bishop. Accepting the foreclosure of the Black future prior generations envisioned, Nelson Mandela’s 1990 prison release marked the end of global Black solidarity and the effective collapse of a cohesive Black Internationalism that bound Africa and Afro-Diaspora together in struggle.
An intellectual crisis compounds this political crisis. As Panashe Chigumadzi has argued, the fields of Black and African Studies are in crisis and siloed from one another. Even as social movements such as the United States’ #BlackLivesMatter and Nigeria’s #ENDSARS respond to anti-Black violence across the world, an almost uniquely twenty-first-century breach separates hegemonic forms of Black and African Studies. Black Studies “doesn’t do Africa” and, in turn, African Studies “doesn’t do race.” It is, for example, ironic that the two most controversial debates animating Black and African Studies both bear the name “Afropessimism.” Yet the two are rarely, if ever, conceptualized or contested in conversation with each other.
As Black peoples face compounding crises around the world, we desperately need reconciliation among and within ourselves. On the anniversary of Tutu’s homegoing, Sankofa’s dialectical spirit moves us to go back to his historic intervention in the impasse between Black and African theology, so we can attempt to move forward in a moment of deep spiritual and intellectual crisis in global Black struggle. We should return to that rich debate of the 1970s, the call and response between Africa and Afro-Diaspora. Doing so might help us hear ourselves in each other’s voices and remind us that we are one, mutually formed by spirit and struggle. We remember and return to Tutu’s Black radical roots in the hope that we might reconcile sister with sister, struggle with struggle, struggle with spirit, and spirit with study.
The prelude to the 1970s “Black versus African” theology debate came years earlier. 1969 was an auspicious year in the Africana theological world. It saw the birth of two of the most important textual interventions in the systematization of Africana religious thought: Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy and Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power.
Not long after the decolonizing winds of change spread across Africa, Mbiti, a Kenyan-born Anglican priest and Cambridge PhD, sought to indigenize the paternalistic “ethnophilosophy.” The tradition forwards “implicit” philosophy, which holds African religious conceptions, world views, and ritual practices as its starting point and was pioneered by Belgian missionary Placide Tempel’s controversial Bantu Philosophy (1945). Developed out of his lecture hall at Makerere University in postindependence Uganda, Mbiti’s classic African Religions and Philosophy set the parameters for a new field of scholarly inquiry. He held that African religious and philosophical traditions were undergirded by the intellectual integrity of a religious system “written not in [sacred texts], but in people’s hearts, minds, oral history, rituals and religious personages like the priests, rainmakers, officiating elders and even kings.” Mbiti developed a postcolonial African theology of incarnation and indigenization among peers such as Eboussi Boulaga, Engelbert Mveng, Charles Nyamiti, Kwesi A. Dickson, Gabriel Molehe Setiloane, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Rose Zoe-Obianga, John S. Pobee, Bolaji Idowu, Constance Baratang Thetele, and José B. Chipenda. The landmark 1956 collection Des prêtres noirs s’interrogent (“Black priests are wondering”), in which Black priests from Africa and the Carribbean studying in France questioned the Catholic Church’s colonialism, issued “the birth certificate of African theology.” Seven years later, the All Africa Conference of Churches’ (AACC) formal inauguration marked the official beginning of African theology. Its resulting text, Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs (1969), further developed the concept. Until then the term “African theology”—used as early as 1956 by Paul D. Fueter—was considered a nationalist slogan rather than “real” theology.
Mbiti’s African Religions lays out a systematic theology for “African traditional religion[s],” which, he argues, share a veneration for the divine, a sacred sensibility, an awareness of evil, an account of creation, and rituals. The famous opening phrase, “Africans are notoriously religious,” captured his point of departure for years to come. (The phrase was famously critiqued by philosophers such as his Makerere colleague Okot p’Bitek and Kwasi Wiredu, who criticized Mbiti for retrofitting African spirituality into Judeo-Christian garments.) Some of Mbiti’s most important concepts in African theological study became famous expressions, such as “the African concept of time” and “the living-dead.” Among them, too, is “I am because we are”—Mbiti’s classic humanist (mis)translation of the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which became the basis of Tutu’s contested vision of postapartheid racial reconciliation.
True to his vocation as an ordained priest intent on “Christianizing Africa” and “Africanizing Chrisitanity,” Mbiti proclaims in African Religions that “Christianity in Africa is so old that it can rightly be described as an indigenous, traditional and African religion.” Mbiti’s Concepts of God in Africa, which came out the following year in 1970, sought to demonstrate that African deities are but local names for a God who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Not everyone agreed. Wiredu and p’Bitek railed against the notion of casting African spiritual beings as a God with Christian attributes. Amid a debate about whether there was a substantive difference between the term “African theology”—that is, theological reflection about Indigenous religions—and “African Christian theology,” Mbiti clarified his position. At the 1977 Pan-African Conference of Third World Theologians, he stated “I will use the term ‘African theology’ without apology or embarrassment, to mean theological reflection and expression by African Christians.” With his essay “African theology,” Mbiti became one of the most prolific contributors to the growing canon of African theology which held the bible, African independent churches, and Africa’s Indigenous religions as its “three cooking stones.”
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On the other side of the Atlantic, as Black fists and Molotov cocktails led the urgent call for Black liberation in the aftermath of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power formed the crest of a new Black theological critique of North American theology. Jolted by Kwame Ture’s Black Power proclamation, the National Committee of Negro Churchmen published their own Black Power Statement in 1966. Albert Cleage’s Black Messiah (1968) came out the year of King’s assassination. Anguished by King’s murder, like Tutu, Cone turned to music and “listened to the sonorous sounds of Mahalia Jackson and B. B. King, Aretha Franklin and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland,” as he wrote his book in his brother Cecil Cone’s Union AME Church office. Black Theology sounded a hermeneutic key, improvising King and X’s theologies with the blues as witness to the Black condition. The book recalled the blasphemous words of AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who declared “God is a Negro” almost a century before Cone, then a young Northwestern University-trained AME Minister, proclaimed, “Christ is Black, baby.”
Cone found inspiration in African America’s historic identification with the Israelites’ Exodus and outlined a contextual theology centered in the Christology of a Jesus who proclaimed the good news to the poor and oppressed, and was incarnated as Black. Cone writes of the liberation of Israel from Egypt, declaring “Yahweh is the God of the oppressed and downtrodden and his revelation is made known only through the liberation of the oppressed.” Through a Black God, he made the Christian gospel relevant to the sufferings and strivings of Black people in an anti-Black and white-dominated society. Cone implores, “We must become Black with God!”:
The Blackness of God, and everything implied by it in a racist society, is the heart of Black Theology’s doctrine of God. There is no place in Black Theology for a colorless God in a society when people suffer precisely because of their color. . . . The Blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition his own condition . . . [and] that the essence of the nature of God is be found in the concept of liberation. . . . Black Theology’s emphasis on the Blackness of God . . . distinguishes it sharply from contemporary white views of God.
Yet Cone’s hermeneutics were grounded in the Christology of white theologians, such as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Macquarrie, and the Niebuhr brothers (particularly Rienhold, whom Cone considered the most important American theologian and ethicist of the twentieth century). Cone’s Black liberation theology borrowed from the Enlightenment tradition to critique Eurocentric theology, revealing the social basis of white theology as a death-dealing system.
Other Black critics, including his own brother Cecil Cone, famously critiqued Cone’s indebtedness to “an alien theological methodology.” Charles H. Long, the African American religious philosopher who long maintained the distinction between Black religion and Black theology, argued that Eurocentric methodological tools such as those that influenced Cone’s Black theology proved insufficient for a hermeneutics of Blackness and Black religiosity. He concluded that they failed to penetrate “the opacity of Black religion.” Cone’s critics’ vision of Black religion moved beyond the walls of the institutional U.S. Black church and into the rivers, mountains, shrines, slave cabins, and storefronts of Afro-Atlantic religiosity.
Cone, however, did not consider Karl Barth’s theology and its Christology conservative or alien to the Black religious experience. In the face of these critiques, he insisted that Jesus was central to Black theology not because he studied theology at a white seminary, but “because, and only because, [Jesus] was the final norm for the [B]lack church.”
Two years after publishing their classics, Mbiti and Cone convened at Union Theological Seminary—a historic moment in the dialogue between Africa and Afro-Diaspora. From 1972 to 1973, the two men jointly taught a year-long course on African and Black theologies at Union, engaging one another and their students in conversations about their respective theologies. Outside the Union lecture halls, intercontinental discussions on the relationship between African and Black theology occurred at conferences, including between the National Committee of Black Churchmen and the Council of Churches of Tanzania in Dar es Salaam in 1971, between the AACC and the Society for the Study of Black Religion in New York in 1973, and at Accra in 1974.
In December 1974 a consultation between African and African American theologians and churchmen occurred at the University of Ghana. Here Mbiti delivered his address “An African views American Black Theology.” In it he emphatically declared that “Black theology cannot and will not become African theology.” For Mbiti, the two theologies were irreconcilable because “the concerns of Black Theology differ considerably from those of African theology. The latter grows out of our joy in the experience of the Christian faith, whereas Black Theology emerges from the pains of oppression.” Furthermore, he argued that Black Theology could not be considered Christian: “One would hope that theology arises out of spontaneous joy in being a Christian responding to life and ideas as one redeemed. Black theology, however, is full of sorrow, bitterness, anger, and hatred.” In Cone’s words, the critique came as a deep indictment because Mbiti had been his co-instructor and interlocutor, thus his “perspective [was] not based upon a superficial encounter with Black Theology.”
Tutu addressed Mbiti’s critique on the same occasion. In his characteristically sharp tongue, Tutu began by asking if Mbiti’s indictment of Black theology as “unChristian” was “born out of a study of the history of the doctrine.” As far as Tutu was concerned, if the righteous anger of Paul the Apostle in his Epistle to the Galatians and the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine could be part of the Christian canon, then so too could the righteous anger of Black theology. On the publication of Mbiti’s address, Tutu likewise asked: “I am not quite sure that I understand what Professor Mbiti in the article I have referred to means when he says that people in Southern Africa ‘want and need liberation, not a theology of liberation.’ Could we not say the same thing about a theology of hope that what people want is hope, not a theology of hope?” In taking Mbiti to task for being “unhappy with Black Theology, mainly because it is concerned too much with Blackness and liberation,” Tutu drew on the work of African theologians such as Jesse Ndwiga Kanyua Mugamb who contend that “Liberation is the objective task of contemporary African Christian theology” because “salvation” as a theological concept cannot be complete without “liberation as a social/political concept.”
Tutu pointed out that, aside from the historical accident that brought together Black theology and African theology “willy nilly by our Blackness (of all shades),” the two also had common cause. Both arose as reactions against “an unacceptable state of affairs” in which African and Afro-Diasporic religious consciousness and Weltanschauung were negated as invalid or valueless. Both African and Black theologies took the incarnation of the gospel in their contexts seriously and, in so doing, provided a sharp critique of the universalisms of North Atlantic theology.
In an earlier 1972 essay coauthored with Gayraud Wilmore, “Black Theology and African Theology: Considerations for Dialogue, Critique, and Integration,” Cone also underscores the common historical origins of Black and African theology, recalling the Afro-Atlantic world’s turn of the twentieth-century Ethiopianist Movements which proclaimed the prophecy of Psalm 68:31: “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” He writes:
It was from religious men in Africa and the United States—from Paul Cuffee, Daniel Coker, Bishop Turner, Mangena Mokone, James M. Dwane, John Chilembwe, Edward Blyden, and a host of others . . . that the religious vision of Africa’s great destiny first arose and the initial call went out for the elevation and solidarity, under God, of all peoples of African descent. . . . All that we can justly interpret as Black Consciousness or Pan-Africanism, had its origin in their thoughts and actions.
Indeed, at the turn of the twentieth century, settler authorities pointed to the “Ethiopian scare”—what the 1909 South African Native Races Committee condemned as the “close connection between the Ethiopians and the negroes of the Southern States.” Among the most consequential in this transatlantic connection was the merger of Bishop Mangena Mokone’s Ethiopian Church with Bishop Henry McNeal Turner’s AME Church in 1896. Emerging on both sides of the Atlantic in the era that Cornel West periodizes as “Black Theology as Critique of Institutional Racism,” the “Ethiopian scare” formed the crest of one of the most remarkable confluences of African and Afro-Diasporic histories. Ethiopianists stood at the center of a dynamic Black popular movement confronting the domination of anxious, white Protestant settlers across the Atlantic. How, less than a century later, did the existential divide between Mbitian African theology and Conian Black theology grow so large?
Mbiti, writing in the relative cool of his country’s recent independence, remained ambivalent about Cone’s “liberation” and his overtly political and ontologically Black Jesus. While recognizing the political urgency of liberation for African America, and to some extent white settler minority ruled Southern Africa, Mbiti felt Cone’s theology wasn’t expansive enough. Seemingly forgetting African theology’s genesis in the Black Protest of Des prêtres noirs s’interrogent, Mbiti writes, “African Theology is concerned with many more issues, including all the classical theological themes . . . [which] together with innumerable pastoral and liturgical problems, give African Theology a very full agenda for the years ahead.” The question Mbiti posed to Black theology was: After liberation, then what? For Mbiti, it was “not at all clear where Black Theology is supposed to go.” The eschatological focus of Black Theology is “not clearly defined . . . [and] is avoiding other major theological issues.”
Meanwhile, Cone recalled Du Bois’s classic remarks about the “double consciousness” of conflicting spiritual strivings. His evolving, but ambivalent and often distanced, theological relationship to Africa arose from the sense that his Blackness was “inextricably tied to North America” and the source of an existential conflict inherent in his “double identity as American and African.” Cone felt that he was “more African than European,” but also more Black than African in his theological expression. He insisted on “grounding Black theology in the Bible and the Black struggle for freedom, and not African traditional religions.” “I did not share the view,” he writes in his 1982 intellectual biography My Soul Looks Back, “that Black religion was more African than Christian.” In a word, where Mbiti’s chief theological concern was indigenization, Cone’s chief theological concern was liberation. Tutu puts it bluntly:
Black theology is more thoroughly and explicitly political than African theology is. We cannot be lulled into complacency by a doctrine of pie in the sky which is reprehensible travesty of the gospel of the Incarnation. It has an existential urgency which African theology has so far appeared to lack. African theology has tended to be more placid; to be interested still too much with what I call anthropological concerns. This has been its most important achievement in the quest for indigenization.
Tutu did not take kindly to Mbitian African theology’s political aloofness, arguing that “African theology on the whole can probably afford to be a little more leisurely (I am not convinced of this) because Africa by and large is politically independent (but is it really free?). There is not the same kind of oppression which is the result of white racism except in Southern Africa.”
By the 1977 Pan-African Conference, Cone’s theological relationship to Africa had changed significantly. “Even before my dialogue with Africans,” Cone recalls in My Soul Looks Back, “I was severely criticized by several Black theologians for failing to include Africa in my theological perspective. The dialogue with Africans, the criticism of Black theologians, and the Black nationalist proclamation that ‘we are an African people’, led me to ask how Africa’s struggle for political independence was connected with Black people’s struggle for freedom in North America.”
Three years after Mbiti launched his salvo at the University of Ghana consultation, Cone delivered his response, “A Black American Perspective on the Future of African Theology,” at Accra’s 1977 Pan-African Conference of Third World Theologians. Cone took a measured tone, insisting on the “common historical option” to “[establish] our solidarity with the liberation of the Black World from European and American domination.” While Cone emphasized the historic connections between the African American and African religious and political experiences, he insisted that Black theology’s hermeneutics must rest on “faithfulness to biblical revelation” and “the universal dimension of the Gospel that transcends culture.”
Cone insisted that “indigenization and liberation belong together” and that “without the indigenization of theology, liberation theology’s claim to be derived from and accountable to oppressed people is a farce.” But he also granted limited and relative significance to “African theology’s concern with indigenization and selfhood in the attempt to relate the biblical message to the African cultural and religious situation.” Cone equated indigenization to Christian theology’s “creative appropriation of the language and culture of the people” for the utilitarian purpose of contextualizing “the theological task among the poor people of Africa.” Arguing that “African theologians challenge all Christians in the Third World to take seriously popular religion and unestablished expressions of Christianity,” Cone excluded the North American Black church from African theology’s sphere of influence.
In his defense, Cone was attempting to acknowledge the difficulty inherent to the dialogue between Black and African theology. He was careful not to “impose” his views on African theologians, stating that “the future of African theology belongs to Africans alone,” confessing that there were “risks inherent in any attempt by a North American to speak about the future of African theology.” For Cone this “risk” emanated from the problem of Black theology’s Du Boisian double consciousness.
Cone had alluded to Black theology’s problem of double consciousness earlier, in his coauthored 1972 essay “Black Theology and African Theology: Considerations for Dialogue, Critique, and Integration.” In the piece he anticipates Mbiti’s position on the irreconcilable chasm between the two theologies, framing it as a question of a fundamental ontological difference between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora:
Both in Africa and America, “dark skin came to symbolize the voluntary and stubborn abandonment of a race in sin” (Roger Bastide) . . . but in Calvinistic, Protestant America that symbolic association became rooted in a pathological hatred and fear of . . . “the dark brother within”. . . . Blackness, for the White American, has been something that needed to be expunged from reality, blotted out before the face of God. There was, therefore, an ontological basis for White racism in America and a corresponding ontological ground for Black pride and the Black man’s struggle against a latent but frighteningly real possibility of genocide. This is why it is correct to say that the Black American’s struggle is against the threat of nonbeing, the ever-present possibility of the inability to affirm one’s own existence. The structure of White society in America attempts to make “Black being” into “nonbeing” or “nothingness.”
In other words, double consciousness arises out of ontological negation—that is, the negation of Black being. Cone’s Black liberation theology, therefore, arose out of African Americans’ need to address the double consciousness that stems from the negation of Black being. In his intervention in the debate between Cone and Mbiti, Tutu pointed out that African theology also arose out of Africans need to “[address] the split in the African soul.” Tutu contends that African theology, like Black theology, also derived from the need to confront the double consciousness of ontological negation:
The African religious consciousness and Weltanschauung were not acknowledged as possessing much validity or value. Much the same comment could be made of the Black American experience. The Blacks in America had their humanity defined in the terms of the white man. . . . It is against this deplorable condition that both African and Black Theology have reacted.
Tutu made clear that double consciousness and the historic experience of ontological negation were common to Africans on both sides of the Atlantic, not specific to the American or Afro-diasporic experience. For this reason, double consciousness presented a theological challenge to the continent and its diasporas—a fact that both Cone and Mbiti had missed. In other words, Tutu understood that all people of African descent suffer the Bantustanization of the Black soul.
Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy includes a famous chapter on the “African concept of time” which most fully addresses the question of African ontology. He writes, “for Africans [religion] is an ontological phenomenon: it pertains to the question of existence or being.” Mbiti attributed “messianic” or prophetic time to the advent of Christianity, stating that “in traditional African life there is no concept of history moving ‘forward’ towards a future climax, or towards the end of the world.” Mbiti’s infamous claim that African ontology lacked a long-term future horizon faced great critique from African theologians and philosophers.
Among other problems, Mbiti’s notion of “African time,” and by extension African ontology, failed to account for the revolutionary time of Indigenous African prophetic traditions. The traditions that, for example, saw the spirit medium Mbuya Nehanda declare “mapfupa angu achamuka”—my bones will rise again—at her execution by Rhodesian police for her leadership of the 1896–1897 First Chimurenga, or Liberation War, which inspired Zimbabwe’s war for independence in the 1960s and 70s. Mbiti saw African ontology as timeless and transhistorical—primordial and untransformed by the ruptures of Transatlantic slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and apartheid. However, like all ontology, African ontology is not timeless, transhistorical, or primordial. It is deeply historical.
Cone rightly perceived the key ontological difference between Africans on the continent and Africans in the diaspora—to borrow from Saidiya Hartman—as those on the continent having the benefit of physical and psychic access to land, language, and lineage (even if highly tenuous, as in the experience of Southern Africa’s settler colonies). However, even with the benefit of African cultural accoutrements, Africans on the continent do not escape or transcend the common ontological experience of non-being, of social death, which has been expressed in our people’s tongues since the advent of slave-settler modernity. Long before Orlando Patterson theorized social death in 1982, Chigumadzi argues, Black peoples across the continent and the diaspora have theorized social death in our own tongues and idioms, according to our own Afro-ontologies of life and death.
In the wake of nineteenth-century missionary encroachment, Tswana peoples theorized sefifi, the state of living death or non-being. On the Swahili slave coast, Africans spoke of kifa urongo—living-dead—at the turn of the twentieth century. Famously Voudon has long theorized the zombification of Black life. Similarly, the soucouyant’s spectral presence reminds us that, like their sisters on the African continent, Afro-Diasporic life has long been haunted by the death-dealing predations of the world made by Transatlantic slavery, and its second comings of colonialism, Jim Crow, and apartheid.
Social death is a fact of both African and Afro-diasporic life. This was a fact Tutu knew in his bones. When British militarism spread bullet and bible during the 1789–1879 Wars of Dispossession, Tutu’s Xhosa ancestors famously cried, “Ilizwe lifile! ”—the world is dead!—speaking the cosmological and ontological rupture wrought by slave-settler modernity. Black people did not just suffer a social death, their world suffered a social death too. “Ilizwe lifile!” as Chigumadzi has written, sounded the cry of Black worldlessness. If we were to listen beyond the big English of the Western Academy, we would know that long before today’s Afropessimists, invoking Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, rightly called for us to end the world, Black radical traditions advanced prophetic pessimisms. After all, Rastafarian prophetic pessimism has long warned that without burning Babylon, there can be no Zion. For so long as Black peoples have believed themselves to be in this world, but not of this world, they have sought to end this world.
In the overwhelming nightmare of Black social death, faith in Blackness is necessarily theological. Tutu’s urgent Black theology calls our attention to this fact, as he drew on a long prophetic lineage that stretched back to the time of uNtsikana, South Africa’s earliest Black liberation theologian.
Amid the world-ending rupture of settler-colonial modernity, uNtsikana sought to overcome the double consciousness of conflicting spiritual strivings—a critique of Inkolo yaseMzini, the foreign cosmology of white settler Christianity and Inkolo yakwaNtu, the cosmology of Bantu-speaking peoples, rooted in Ubuntu. The late postapartheid Black liberation theologian Vuyani Vellem theorized “Ukunyuka,” the isiXhosa word meaning “to go up and against,” as the notion of a “Black uprising faith.” He writes:
Ukunyuka is imagined from the underside or underbelly of modernity. . . . Ukunyuka is expressed through ideas such as the Duboisian “double consciousness,” the institutionalization of the mediation of Blackness against modernity, the inseparability of race and class analysis, the cries of Black women and their triple jeopardy of oppression, the valorization of the culture of the oppressed, and the need for the assessment of the ideological orientation of the tools of analysis. These ingredients of a rising momentum and energy of a stubborn socio-political praxis of faith shape the narrative of Black faith
From modernity’s underside, uNtsikana’s “Great Hymn,” the first Xhosa hymnody, emerged as the exemplification of ukunyuka. Foreshadowing Tutu’s reconciliation of Black and African theology more than a century later, uNtsikana’s sonic and theological genius reconciled his critique of settler Christianity with the cosmos of African ancestrality. Combining the music of an isiXhosa wedding song with the words of a traditional praise poem, uNtsikana interpolated the praise of ancestors as the praise of uThixo, God, as creator, preserver, and protector. Crucially, even as he recognized the Thixo, the European God, uNtsikana affirmed the existence of Mdalidiphu, creator of the deep, God of amaXhosa ancestors. By sounding a Black liberation theology incarnated in the idiom of African ancestrality, he anticipated AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner’s 1895 statement that, “God is a Negro: even the heathen in Africa believed that they were created in God’s image.”
In this complex and often ambivalent call and response between Africans long separated by the Atlantic, Africans and African Americans came to see one another through the ontological lens of a “looking glass.” Africans saw African Americans as mirror images of themselves in the future and African Americans saw Africans as mirrors images of themselves in the past. Seeing each another as contemporaries in a common spiritual struggle against anti-Black domination was, and often still is, its own struggle.
Unlike with any other African country, a close, complex, and often contradictory spiritual kinship exists between Black South Africa and Black America. Black South Africans and Black Americans share a common ontological experience—the experience of being politically and religiously marginalized under a white settler theology of domination or, as Cone called it, of Black non-being under a “Calvinistic, Protestant” God. In South Africa, with roots in the Cape’s seventeenth-century slave society, the Dutch Reformed Church’s (DRC) neo-Calvinist fundamentalism and fixation on predestination provided apartheid’s civil religion. Under apartheid spatial planning, the Black townships of Tutu’s upbringing, typical of Black South African life, were created as what the late Vellem, invoking Fanon, called “zones of non-being.”
Born just as Prime Minister Barry Hertzog’s notorious “Native Bills” further segregated and sequestered South Africa as a white man’s country, Tutu’s Black liberation theology was first incarnated in the zones of non-being. He was born in 1931 in a township called Makoeteng, “the place of rubble.” Tutu’s mother, Aletta Dorothea Mavoerstek Matlhare, was a letlhomela—one born after the sibling before her had died. In accordance with Tswana tradition, she was given the name “Mavoertsek”—a profane Afrikaans “vloekwoord” used to shoo dogs away—to ward off the spirits of death that had taken so many Black infants at the time. Her family called her Matse for short. In turn, when her third child Desmond was also born a lethlomela, she named him Mpilo, “life” in isiXhosa, as prayer and protest against the death that continued to saturate Black township life. After surviving death as a sickly child suffering polio, Tutu recalls going to church for the funeral of his younger brother Thamsanqa who died as an infant. Not yet ten years old, his family was then living in Tshing township, when his father, Zachariah Zelilo “ZZ” Tutu, a teacher and former Ethiopian Church minister, was forced to conduct his infant brother’s funeral service himself. As South African theologian Tinyiko Maluleke argues, Tutu’s infant brother’s funeral service provided one of his earliest notions of church, humanity, and society: “Apart from the emotional toll that comes with the loss of a sibling, the pain of watching one’s parents in pain, even before one understands death and its devastation fully, the funeral was memorable for the young Desmond because [his father] conducted it himself, as the local minister was absent.”
While Tutu recalls his as a happy childhood within a family that was better off than most other Black families, childhood did not spare him from the exigencies of Black township life and death. Their religious life was peripatetic and improvisational— moving from location to location and church to church as necessary. The precarity of township life gave Tutu a childhood as frenetic, frantic, exuberant, and noisy as the independent African churches of his grandfather, father, and uncle. Perhaps most memorable was Tutu’s uncle, a shoe repairer, who famously preached in the township, calling not on Jesus but on Simon Peter, the head of the church after the death of Christ. Tutu describes: “When he went around evangelizing I carried his banner. I would walk in front of him, carrying the banner . . . and he would sing: ‘Simon Petrus, Ndincedise.’—‘Simon Peter, help me.’ So the children in the location would call me Simon Petrus’s child.”
“Simon Petrus’s child” soon found himself in a church of Black pride, Black bishops, and the beautiful singing of Negro and African spirituals. Tutu writes, “When my older sister became friendly with the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) pastor, I became a member of that church: it’s a Black church that came from the United States; episcopal – with bishops. Very beautiful singing.” By the time the Tutu family joined the Anglican Church, after his sister began attending an Anglican boarding school, Tutu’s ecclesiastical world had already been grounded in the Black underworld of the townships and in its independent African and African Methodist churches.
Importantly, the young Tutu came of age with the Drum Generation whose center of gravity became Sophiatown just as the newly elected Nationalist Party officially implemented apartheid in 1948. Maluleke writes that “Desmond’s faith and its language were carved out of the impurity, intellectualism, and precariousness of Sophiatown.” Tutu attended school at the famed Madibane High in the Western Native Township (an area adjacent to Sophiatown), where legendary Drum magazine writer Can Themba taught him and his two close friends, Karabo Tebogo Casey Motsisi and Stanley Motjuwadi. The three went on to the Bantu Normal College in Kilnerton, Pretoria, historically known as the “jazz capital of the Republic.” All three were intoxicated by jazz, “Negro literature,” and Hollywood films.
While Tutu pursued theology at Father Trevor Huddleston’s St Peter’s Theological College after apartheid cut short a promising teaching career, his friends became famed writers, joining Drum and Golden City Post where they reconnected with their old teacher, Themba. In Tutu’s style we would come to feel the prose and poetry of Drum writers, including his friends Motjuwadi, Motsitsi, Don Mattera, Es’kia Mphahlele, Todd Matshikiza, Bloke Modisane, and Dugmore Boetie. In Tutu’s rhythm we would come to feel the kwela, mbaqanga, and big band jazz of musicians such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Dorothy Masuka, and Spokes Mashiyane. In particular, the influence of Zacks “Zig-Zag Zakes” Nkosi, the horn-blower whose classic mbaqanga album “Our Kind of Jazz” sought sonic resolution between Africanness and Blackness. Nkosi leaned toward Mbiti’s Africanisms, but ultimately ended up speaking in both African and Black tongues, as Tutu came to do as well.
Though the Drum Decade of the fifties was a period of mass defiance and gave Black South African protest its first international headlines, Tutu confined his theological calling to the church and remained politically inactive. Nonetheless, coming of age among the Drum generation, Tutu’s theological sensibility was formed in chorus with peers who expressed the exigencies of Black township life and death—baas, batons, and bullets—through writing, music, and dance. This was a way of defying dompasses, curfews, raids, and forced removals; Black bodies corralled and kraaled into overpopulated “native reserves” and “native” townships; “native hostels” cramming sixteen Black men to a single-sex hostel door, their wives and children stamped as “superfluous appendages.”
Outside the bounds of these “native” worlds, Black (non-)being became synonymous with the Tsotsi—the thug, the gangster, the guluva, the cleva, the trickster, the trespasser, the transgressor from the Black underworld. Under the apartheid logic of racial capitalism, the Black body—when not working for baas, when outside the world of settler control—is forever out of time and place and forever in transgression. In this zone of non-being, the most subversive aesthetic traditions embody the Tsotsi’s movement between spatio-temporal dispossession and transgression. The true genius of the most virtuosic of the Black South African performative repertoire owes itself to the long tradition of subversive aestheticization of the Tsotsi as the Black body out of time and place. It is from this that Tutu’s lively, embodied Black theology would later draw its genius.
When Tutu was in his final year at Father Trevor Huddleston’s St. Peter’s College, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre abruptly ended the Drum Decade’s rhythm. When members of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe’s Pan African Congress (PAC) turned themselves in for the “crime” of refusing to carry to their dompasses, the apartheid state opened fire, killing sixty-nine Black people. “We were in a state of shock,” Tutu said of his and his St. Peter’s colleagues reception of the news, “and I think a kind of disbelief. It couldn’t have happened. There was also a kind of anger at God. After the shooting, there was blood in the street. Soon after, it rained and washed away the blood. . . . It seemed God was siding with these people, even removing the evidence of what had happened.” Even so, Tutu and his fellow students did not think of joining the protests against the pass laws: “We were in some ways a very apolitical bunch.”
In the aftermath of Sharpeville, the apartheid state banned political parties, driving the PAC, the ANC, and their soon-to-be formed armed wings underground and leaving a political vacuum. In 1962, the year Mandela was arrested, a recently ordained Tutu left for London’s King’s College where he earned his Master of Theology degree for his dissertation on Islam in West Africa, and found personal and political reprieve in a country where “no passbook was required.”
Having become South Africa’s most qualified Black Anglican theologian, it was when he returned to South Africa in 1967 that Tutu’s theology first found political expression, as he faced police brutality as the elder chaplain to Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement whose revolutionary fire erupted into the June 1976 Soweto Uprisings. An angry blow against the impotence of the lull of the early sixties, the Black Consciousness movement was the most significant existential crisis for John Vorster’s apartheid state.
In questioning the relevance of Black liberation theology for Africans, Mbiti had claimed that Southern Africans “want and need liberation, not a theology of liberation.” But for Tutu and the Black Consciousness movement, Black liberation theology was always praxis. Black liberation theology was never the cold comfort of academic abstraction. Black theology sought, to borrow Biko’s words, “to pump back life into [the Black person’s] empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.” In other words, to do Black theology was ukunyuka—an uprising theology that enfleshed uNtsikana’s prophetic spirit in Biko’s Black Consciousness generation.
Initially, when Tutu returned to South Africa to teach at the Federal Theological Seminary at Alice in the Eastern Cape, he was in his own words, “naive” and struggled to readjust to life under an increasingly repressive apartheid state. Following the post-Sharpeville lull, the late sixties were a time of seething unrest in the Eastern Cape. Tutu’s political transformation came through his role as the Anglican chaplain at the University of Fort Hare, Nokholeji, the historic Black institution which had educated the pan-Africanist vanguard that included Sobukwe, Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Seretse Khama, Kenneth Kaunda, and Julius Nyerere, and was educating future Black Consciousness leaders such as Nyameko Barney Pityana.
When Tutu returned from the United Kingdom to the Eastern Cape, he found himself in the ancestral grounds of Black theology in South Africa and encountered a generation possessed by the prophet’s uprising spirit. Tutu was at first ambivalent about the emerging Black Consciousness, but his politically engaged students—many of whom had brothers, fathers, and uncles who were banned, imprisoned, or exiled—put his hands to the growing fire. Many felt that Tutu, whose time in the UK had sheltered him from Black life under apartheid, was too moderate and optimistic about South Africa’s future, lacking the urgency that coursed through their veins. In effect, Tutu was so nonracial as to be above race. Nonetheless, bound by their respect for him as their chaplain, they continued to engage him in political debates at the Sunday coffee evenings the Tutus hosted in their home and at meetings of organizations such as the University Christian Movement (UCM) to which he chaperoned them.
The UCM, which was formed in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape in 1967, was the first to institutionalize systematic Black theology in South Africa by sponsoring a series of seminars. While Cone’s Black theology emerged at the stage which Cornel West periodizes as “Black Theology of Liberation as Critique of North American Theology,” it emerged in South Africa as “Black Theology of Liberation as Critique of Apartheid Theology.” Like Cone’s frustration with the Black church in the United States, Black Consciousness leaders had grown impatient with the uncritical theology and political acquiescence of mainstream Black churches in apartheid South Africa. Black Consciousness organizations such as Biko’s South African Students Organization (SASO) would conclude that “Black ministers seem to be at sea (at a loss) concerning the proper interpretation of this religion. That this perverted Christianity is being taught at school for the perpetual enslavement of the Blacks.”
It was at the UCM meetings attended by students of all races, that leaders such as Biko, then a University of Natal medical student, and Pityana, then Fort Hare law student, first concluded that if Black people wanted to challenge whites on an equal footing, they first needed to organize themselves independently. So it was that Pityana and Biko changed the face of post-Sharpeville struggle when they walked out of a July 1968 conference of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the white-dominated vanguard of the nonracial left, declaring “Black man you’re on your own.”
The year 1968, which marked the height of worldwide Black liberation struggles and student protests, was a watershed moment not only for South African struggle but for Tutu as well. At the July 1968 UCM annual conference held in Stutterheim near Alice, Tutu supported Biko and the Black delegates’ decision to defy the pass laws that circumscribed their participation, withdraw from the conference, and convene a separate Blacks-only caucus. “[Tutu’s] support was important,” said Pityana, “because he was one of the chaplains, and there were some universities who were very opposed to this.”
A month later, Tutu’s faced apartheid police brutality head-on for the first time during the August 1968 Fort Hare student strike. After police detained students protesting issues such as discrimination against Black staff and student council representation, Tutu delivered a political sermon on Sunday, August 25. He enthralled his students with his rebuke of apartheid’s repressive state which he compared to Eastern Europe, where Warsaw Pact troops had marched into Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague spring” reforms the previous Tuesday night. Students’ fears that their chaplain would not be called to preach again were proven correct.
Tutu’s Warsaw comparison was not a metaphor. Days later, armored police vans arrived to break up a strike of 500 students singing freedom songs such as the great African nationalist hymn, “Nkosi Sikeleli’ Afrika” (“God Bless Africa”) in front of the university administrative building. Pityana, who later became an Anglican priest, never forgot how Tutu offered the “greatest example . . . of what to be a priest was about” when he waded into the fray when the police arrived with guns, dogs, and tear gas: “We had been surrounded by police, with dogs snarling at us. We were petrified, for nearly two hours. Some people were crying. . . . The staff of the university, the white people—some of them armed—these professors were watching and nobody said a word, nobody. . . . Desmond [came] almost from nowhere, in a cassock . . . broke the police cordon and came to be among us.” Until that day, Tutu had never stared down the barrel of apartheid’s gun. He hardly slept that night, and broke down weeping at mass the next day, “I was so angry with God,” Tutu remembered. “I couldn’t understand how he could let all that happen to those students.”
Overcoming his initial ambivalence to his students’ Black Consciousness, Tutu’s anger jolted him into a search for a God who participates in history and found Him at gunpoint—the God of Black liberation theology. Tutu’s authority as a Black liberation theologian grew beyond campus through conference papers and articles that rejected the view that any theology—Western or other—could be universal, and argued that theology had to be contextual. He continued to do so as a lecturer at the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland beginning in 1970.
After the World Council of Churches appointed him as their Theological Education Fund’s (TEF) director for Africa in 1972, Tutu came to know newly independent Africa’s aches and aspirations intimately through a breathtaking forty-eight visits to twenty-five African countries over three years:
I was in Addis Ababa when there was rioting in the streets, a prelude to the overthrow of the dynasty of Haile Selassie. . . . I have visited the Sudan, admittedly after the end of the seventeen years of civil strife, but I could see what this internecine war had done to people and their property. I have visited Nigeria and the former Biafra and have seen there the awful ravages of that ghastly civil war on property and on the souls of the defeated Biafrans.
Alive to Africa’s anguish and anger, it’s unsurprising that when white-settler ruled Rhodesia’s security police searched Tutu’s luggage and discovered his essays, they shouted, “This is not theology, this is politics!”
As the TEF’s Africa director, Tutu engaged in extensive debate with his colleagues who, through organs such as the AACC, ushered in an African theology of incarnation and indigenization. On his first trip to the United States in 1973, he visited Union Theological Seminary where Cone and Mbiti co-taught their course on Black and African theology.
It was during this visit that Tutu was inspired to reconcile Black theology’s urgent critique with African theology’s expansive cosmos to respond to the South African context. In South Africa, Black liberation theologians such as Dr. Manas Buthelezi charged that the African theology of indigenization was unacceptable because “the emphasis that this procedure places on African life and thought is not realistic since it involves conjuring up the past which is not crucial to the African in his present socio-economic and political circumstances.” When Mbiti charged Cone’s theology with being too Black, too angry, and too political at the 1974 Accra meeting between African and African American theologians, Tutu was ready with his retort: conjuring an African past without attending to the present’s urgent Black critiques was meaningless.
Tutu understood that neither Black critique nor African cosmos were sufficient in isolation, but were most meaningful when reconciled together as two concentric circles of a historic dialectic. Critique, the inner circle, is the first step toward immanence. To achieve true transcendence, the cosmos, the larger circle, must expand itself from the exigencies the critique exposes. To be meaningful, the critique must flow from the cosmos, and the cosmos from the critique.
Back in South Africa, the Black Consciousness Movement enfleshed this radical dialectical spirit and became the most important threat to Vorster’s apartheid regime. Black Consciousness organizations such as the South African Students Organization (SASO) drew their revolutionary fervor from political tracts as much as they did from the bible. In their 1973 conference resolution, SASO declared Christ “the first freedom fighter to die for the liberation of the oppressed.” These were not idle words. In February 1974 Onkgopotse Abram Tiro, the SASO leader and staunch Seventh-Day Adventist who sponsored the resolution, became the first South African freedom fighter to be assassinated by a parcel bomb from apartheid security forces.
The next year, as African independence “fever” further installed Black theology in South Africa, SASO and other Black Consciousness organizations held rallies to celebrate the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola’s (MPLA) overthrow of the Portuguese. The regime banned their leaders and charged them with terrorism. Not for the first time since it had persecuted, banned, and jailed leaders of the early twentieth century’s Ethiopian Movement, the settler state put Black theology on trial—the apartheid state subjected nine SASO leaders to South Africa’s longest terrorism trial—seventeen months. It demanded that they explain the meaning of the SASO resolution that had made a guerrilla of Jesus and drew comparisons between the Essenes (the Israeli revolutionary movement) and FRELIMO: “Christ joined the ESSENES and worked in close collaboration with the ZEALOT”—an Israel guerrilla warfare unit against the Romans. The resolution took Christ’s revolutionary credentials from Isaiah 61: 1–2 (“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and opening of the prison for those who are bound”) and Luke 4:18 (“He has sent me to proclaim the release to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed”).
During the notorious terrorism trials, the Black Consciousness leaders expounded on a Black liberation theology that combined their urgent Black critique of apartheid’s theology of domination and the expansive cosmos of pan-African liberation. Drawing from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), and anticipating Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s call to “decolonize the mind,” the Black Consciousness Movement deliberately used the term “consciousness” vis-a-vis Black Power to emphasize the need to decolonize the mind and soul as a prerequisite for revolutionary action. In other words, like the Black and African theology it drew on, the Black Consciousness Movement understood the need to begin by addressing the negation of what South African psychiatrist N. Chabani Manganyi famously called “being-Black-in-the world.” As the spiritual and ideological heirs to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe’s Pan-Africanist Congress, Biko’s Black Consciousness brought Africanness and Blackness in dialectic relationship by drawing its political-theology from all over the Black world—Xhosa prophets Ntsikana and Nxele’s uprising spirit, Ethiopianism, Garveyism, Anton Lembede’s African nationalism, Kenneth Kaunda’s African humanism, Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa, Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor’s négritude, Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X’s revolutionary nationalism, Kwame Ture’s Black Power, and James Cone’s Black theology.
By the 1976 uprisings, Tutu had returned to South Africa to assume the historic role of first Black Dean of Johannesburg at a time when most Black political leaders had been banned, jailed, or exiled. Refusing government permission to live in the suburbs as “honorary whites,” the Tutus chose to live in Soweto, which burned with the unrest of Black youth frustrated and fired up by Biko’s gospel. On the eve of the Soweto Uprisings, Tutu launched his first political salvo in a May 6 open letter to Prime Minister John Vorster, warning of his “growing nightmarish fear that unless something drastic is done very soon bloodshed and violence is going to happen in South Africa almost inevitably.” Pityana, who had been in and out of detention since his 1968 expulsion from Fort Hare, wrote to his former chaplain expressing appreciation for his stand, while warning that appealing to Vorster as a grandfather and “writing letters is a useless gesture.”
In the end, Vorster ignored Tutu as Pityana predicted. On June 16, 1976 Vorster’s guns opened fire on unarmed Black children in the worst state massacre since Sharpeville. 176 Black school children were killed, and hundreds more were injured. Panicked by the international attention, and the national unrest that followed, the state clamped down further. More than 4,000 young Black people left the country to join the ANC and PAC’s armed wings. The next year the regime made a martyr of Biko, murdering him in their custody after detaining him without trial under the Terrorism Act. It blamed Black Consciousness for the continuing unrest, outlawed twenty Black Consciousness organizations and newspapers, and detained leaders and Black journalists. Standing before 20,000 mourners from across the country and world gathered for Biko’s funeral in the Eastern Cape’s King William’s Town, Tutu delivered these words:
God called him to be the founder father of the Black consciousness movement, against which we have had tirades and fulminations. It is a movement by which God, through Steve, sought to awaken in the Black person a sense of his intrinsic value and worth as a child of God, not needing to apologize for his existential condition as a Black person, calling on Blacks to glorify and praise God that he had created them Black. Steve, with his brilliant mind that always saw to the heart of things, realized that until Blacks asserted their humanity and their personhood, there was not the remotest chance for reconciliation in South Africa. For true reconciliation . . . can happen only between persons who assert their own personhood and who acknowledge and respect that of others. You don’t get reconciled to your dog, do you?
Invoking Biko’s declaration that Black Consciousness and Black solidarity was the ticket price on “the quest for a true humanity,” Tutu called for a costly reconciliation. In Biko’s words: “For the liberals, the thesis is apartheid, the anti-thesis is non-racialism, but the synthesis is very feebly defined. . . . The failure of the liberals is in fact that their antithesis is already a watered-down version of the truth whose proximity to the thesis will nullify the purported balance.”
Biko’s death drew the world’s attention to apartheid’s terror and solidified African and Afro-diasporic solidarity around a common Black Consciousness. In paying Tutu tribute on his death in December 2021, West recalled his and James Cones’s July 1985 journey to South Africa on the invitation of the South African Council of Churches, where Tutu served as secretary general. Barely off the plane, West was soon at the funeral of four young anti-apartheid activists in Duduza township and found himself witness to Tutu’s powerful ministry at the first political funeral since the state of emergency had been declared earlier that year. Tutu invited the then thirty-one-year-old “comrade from California” to deliver his message of solidarity: “Justice is indivisible and love is unstoppable!”
Recognizing the indivisibility of Black struggle, West and Cone met with Tutu and several other Black South African theologians and discovered the urgent need to convene around the common concerns of Black theology on both sides of the Atlantic: if global apartheid was the thesis, global Black solidarity would be their antithesis. The results of their revelation were two major milestones in the development of the-then twenty-year history of systematic Black theology—a December 1986 Union Theological Seminary conference and its edited collection We Are One Voice: Black Theology in the USA and South Africa (1989).
“Black theology . . . is for us . . . African theology,” Tutu wrote. This meant that the challenge to African theology was the same to Black theology. If the political urgency of Cone’s Black theology challenged Mbiti’s African theology out of its complacency, the cultural vision of African theology challenged Black theology to move itself beyond the “Black theology as critique” paradigm. Recall Mbiti’s question: After liberation, then what? Mbiti was asking what Black liberation theology provided for Africa and its diasporas beyond critiquing Euro-American Christianity as a death-dealing system. With the West as its focus, Cone’s Black liberation theology foregrounded critique, analysis, and denunciation at the expense of articulating a cosmological vision of Black liberation and selfhood. Where Conian Black theology’s main concern was critique, Mbitian African theology’s was cosmos.
Tutu understood that like African theology, the hermeneutics of Black theology cannot be found in the abstracted theologies of Euro-America’s formal liturgical orders. Rather, Black and African theologies are heard, seen, and, most importantly, felt in the embodied theologies uttered, expressed, and enfleshed in the call and response; the stomp, shout, sweat and scream; the breath and beat; the hurl, thrust and gesture; the leap, lift, and swing from silence to rapture in the religions of African peoples scattered across the world by the death-dealing terror of history. In the beginning was the Word, but before the Word was the Sound.
“When we are looking for African theology,” Mbiti’s peer, the late Kenyan theologian Reverend John Henry Okullu said in his intervention in the debate on African theology, “we must listen to the throbbing drumbeats and the clapping of hands accompanying the impromptu singing in the independent churches.” His statement predated the iconic 1989 cover of African Religions, which foregrounded a man bent in rhythm, beating his own drum. Beyond Mbiti’s academic formulations of African theology, the song and dance that embody its core are clear in their foundational ancestral and spiritual openness to passages of history—from the San to Sun Ra’s ancestral arkestral philosophies, from cowskin to CASIO drum beat.
Similarly, invoking Amiri Baraka, Cone writes with equal reverence about the Saturday jukebox and Sunday praise and worship in The Spirituals and the Blues (1972):
Black music is also theological. That is, it tells us about the divine Spirit that moves the people toward unity and self-determination. It is not possible to be Black and encounter the Spirit of Black emotion and not be moved. . . . To interpret the religious significance of that spiritual for the Black community, “academic” tools are not enough. The interpreter must feel the Spirit; that is, one must feel one’s way into the power of Black music, responding both to its rhythm and the faith in experience it affirms. This song invites the believer to move close to the very sources of Black existence, and to experience the Black community’s power to endure and the will to survive.
If Mbiti struggled with reconciling African theology’s origin in “joy and hope” and Black theology’s “out of oppression,” jazz and the blues—as opposed to Negro spirituals and their Zulu counterpart, amahubo—had already solved that dilemma. Jazz and the blues are premised on the principle that our joy must know our pain, and our pain must know our joy. Indeed, these sonic theologies remind us that, in the words of cultural critic Bongani Madondo,“there is no epistemological difference between the disruptive, defiant African rooted rock performance of Screaming Jay Hawkins and that of the Zulu rock/gospel diviner, Busi Mhlongo . . . it’s fixed and freed in our perennial search for God.”
More than a jazzman in the world of theology, Tutu was a tsotsi theologian in search of God. Tutu articulated his lively, incarnated, and indigenized tsotsi theology through the word, song, and dance of this improvisatory ethic of survival and struggle. Improvisation, after all, is simply the English word for what Black people know as “being led by the spirit,” an ethic which amaNdebele capture when they say, “Ngihamba lakho” (I go with it), which we can express theologically as, “I go where the spirit takes me.” Mbiti himself wrote in African Religions that for people of African descent, “worship is uttered rather than meditational, in the sense that it is expressed in external forms, the body ‘speaking’ both for itself and the spirit.” When Tutu charged that “African theology will have to recover its prophetic calling,” he asked pointedly, “Why should we feel that something is amiss if our theology is too dramatic for verbalization but can express only adequately in the joyous song and movement of Africa’s dance in the liturgy?”
Tutu reconciled Black critique with African cosmos, and his Black theological praxis embraced embodied utterance, not only on the pulpit but also on the burning streets of apartheid South Africa’s townships. His praxis demonstrated that African and Black theology exist dialectically and can only be understood in mutual relation vis-à-vis one another as “soulmates.” Tutu understood that questions of self-image and self-determination are central to Black struggle on both sides of the Atlantic. Where Mbitian African theology strove for African self-image, Conian Black theology strove for Black self-determination. Tutu understood that we need both. Pushed at gunpoint to find a God who participates in history, Tutu drew on jazz’s dialectic synthesis of Black critique and African cosmos to incarnate a theology that could answer the burning political and existential questions facing the Black Consciousness generation of the seventies.
Today a new generation of Black activists on both sides of the Atlantic searches the rubble for its self-image and for a vision toward self-determination. In this crisis of separation—of sister from sister, struggle from struggle, struggle from spirit, and spirit from study—returning to Tutu’s earlier Black radical reconciliatory spirit will help us move forward. When the classic debate over Black and African theology reached a tenor in the 1970s, Tutu’s theological heritage—grounded in the Black prophetic lineage uNtsikana had sounded with the bells of his Great Hymn—allowed him to cut through the noise, to hear and to understand. Africanness is the outer circle. Blackness is the inner circle, the suture, the call and response between Africa and Afro-Diaspora. Blackness strums us tight into echo chambers, reverberating together, Blackening each other with the cries of our sufferings and strivings in our search for personhood.