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Editors’ Note: This reflection is adapted from the tribute delivered by West at Cone’s funeral at New York’s Riverside Church on May 7, 2018. Transcript courtesy of Union Theological Seminary.
My dear brother, James Cone. Words fail. Any language falls short. Yes, he was a world-historical figure in contemporary theology, no doubt about that. A towering prophetic figure engaging in his mighty critiques and indictment of contemporary Christendom from the vantage point of the least of these, no doubt about that. But I think he would want us to view him through the lens of the Cross and the blood at the foot of that cross. So, I want to begin with an acknowledgement that James Cone was an exemplary figure in a tradition of a people who have been traumatized for 400 years but taught the world so much about healing; terrorized for 400 years and taught the world so much about freedom; hated for 400 years and taught the world so much about love and how to love. James Cone was a love warrior with an intellectual twist, rooted in gutbucket Jim Crow Arkansas, ended up in the top of the theological world but was never seduced by the idols of the world.
That is who we are talking about. And, oh, he loved us so. And I loved him so, I would have taken a bullet for him and he would have taken a bullet for me, even as we would have been dancing around them to get out of the way because we wanted to be together.
There is no James Cone without his parents, Lucy and Charlie. In his great The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011)—a text that will last as long as there is an American empire shot through with white supremacy and predatory capitalism and homophobia and transphobia and patriarchy—he concludes the acknowledgements by thanking Lucy and Charlie, because their “amazing love and wonderful humor . . . created a happy home that kept us from hating anybody.”
James Cone was a love warrior, an exemplary figure in a tradition of a people who have been terrorized for 400 years but taught the world so much about freedom.
That is an echo of Emmett Till’s mother: “I don’t have a minute to hate. I’m going to pursue justice for the rest of my life.” It’s an echo of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, it’s an echo of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it’s an echo of the love-soaked essays of James Baldwin. James Cone stands in a tradition of a people, a great people, with a grand tradition. The Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church on the Jim Crow side—the chocolate side—of Bearden, Arkansas, taught that little Negro genius something. He was already fortified before he got to Union Theological Seminary. He had been shaped, he had been molded, he had been challenged, he had been questioned, and he stood tall.
He stood tall and said: I got something to say to the world and I don’t say it on my own. What do I say? Like the Isley Brother’s “Caravan of Love,” a falling in love with truth and the condition of truth, was always to allow suffering to speak, a falling in love with goodness keeping track of the evil, he begins with white supremacy, he wrestles with white supremacy, but he always connected it others, even if it took him a little while to get there. How come? Because we got too many black folks loving everybody but black people.
He said: I’m going to start with black people, then I’m going get to the other people. Nothing wrong with that. That is who he was when he had been shaped already by his father. In his autobiography, My Soul Looks Back (1982), Charlie tells him: I’ll never allow your mother to work in the white house because I know about sexual violation, and I don’t have that much money, but I’m going out to collect and sell wood every day and I’m not accepting a penny. Don’t ever sell your integrity. Don’t allow anybody to buy your integrity. You stand tall even if you broke because you got some joy that the world didn’t give you and the world can’t take away.
So, when he talked about the Charlie Cone inside of him, that’s the Sankofa that our black-nationalist brothers and sisters understand: you can’t stand up and move forward until you are connected to the best of what has gone into you, because the highest standards have been set by those who are dead. The question is, will our lives be connected to the afterlife of our brother Cone as he moves on the other side of the joy?
James Cone was not just an academic theologian. He lived life-or-death. His theology was grounded in the cry of black blood, the wailing of black suffering, the moans and groans of black hurt and black pain, and it was trying to convince us not just to have courage, but fortitude. A Nazi soldier can be courageous and still be a thug; fortitude is courage connected to magnanimity and greatness of character. That is what we are looking for. James Cone served, he sacrificed for the least of these, he tried to hold up the bloodstained banner with a level of spiritual nobility and moral royalty already enacted by Lucy, already enacted by Charlie, already enacted by the best of his church by the time he began to interact with vanilla brothers and sisters. He was misunderstood, he was misconstrued. But just because he was mad and enraged, because he was focusing on the sin, that didn’t make him a hater. He had charitable Christian hatred: he hated the sin, but still tried to love the sinner. And the problem is so easy. Others look at black folk and ask, How come they’re so mad? How come they’re so angry? Well, if your children were treated that way, if your children were going to jail, your children were receiving a decrepit education, you’d be upset. But you don’t expect us to be upset?
We need the spirit of a James Cone in the younger generation: not just on fire, but putting love and justice at the center and, most importantly, willing to take a risk.
James Cone said, Let me tell you something right now, I’m not one of those Negroes who is afraid and scared and intimidated. I am going to tell you the truth, and I am going to talk about the suffering of black people.
He always acknowledged the prophetic white brothers and sisters, such as Donald Shriver, Tom Driver, Christopher Morse, William Hordern, Lester Scherer, Beverly Harrison, Robert Ellsberg, any white brother or sister who approached him as a human being had a chance to experience his tenderness. But he was still on fire!
And that’s what we need these days. We need the spirit of a James Cone in the younger generation: not just on fire, but putting love and justice at the center and, most importantly, willing to take a risk.
In his writing, his discipline was unbelievable: Black Theology and Black Power (1969); then A Black Theology of Liberation (1970); then The Spirituals and the Blues (1972); here comes God of the Oppressed (1975); and with Gayraud Wilmore, Black Theology: A Documentary History (1979). Then My Soul Looks Back (1982); here comes For My People (1984); here comes Speaking the Truth (1986); here comes Martin & Malcolm & America (1991). He said: Christians, if you don’t understand the genius of Malcolm X, go back to the Cross.
Go back to the Cross. That’s what he was telling us. That’s what it is to be on fire. He’s still on fire. His spirit will be strong, it will be transfigured, it will be transformed. We will never forget our brother. Let’s live our lives in such a way that we remain in the same tradition as our brother James Cone.
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University. He has published over twenty books, but is is best known for his classics Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.
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