Editor’s Note: This is the second in a four-part series exploring “the seductive nature of white supremacy” and Black Christian identity and faith. Part 1, “The Hound of Hell,” asks: How, then, do Black Christians currently in, or coming out of, White Christian spaces maintain our hope in the face of a coercive self-hatred and of bitterness, hostility, and despair? We take up part of the answer now.


“Bitterness is a beast. It warps us. Stay soft, friends.” – Ekemini Uwan

In recent years, movements for Black lives and manifestations of White supremacy have acted as catalysts for conversations about the collective experiences of racial and ethnic minorities in White Christian spaces. In response to the apathetic postures of White Christian spaces, many Black Christians are understandably responding by personally deciding, or actively promoting others, to leave White churches and organizations. Yet for others, leaving is not the only option. There are those who choose to stay.

Whether we leave or stay, we all can cycle through what is described as the “encounter” stage in our racial identity development–a scale authored in part by William E. Cross to measure an individual’s attitudes about their racial identity. Initially referred to as the psychology of “nigrescense” (i.e. “to become black”), this scale maps the attitudes Black people may have about their Black identity across five stages.[1] The first two stages, however, are especially relevant for us as we engage the theme of hatred. In the first stage, the pre-encounter stage, it is common for Black people to hold one of two types of attitudes—either explicit negative attitudes about being Black (i.e. self-hatred) or an assimilatory posture towards being American that considers one’s Black identity of little importance.[2] [3] In either case, as Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum says, “stereotypes, omissions, and distortions are breathed in” by Black people.[4]

The second stage is the encounter stage. In this stage, an event or series of events force Black people to acknowledge the reality of racism in our immediate context. This acknowledgement causes us to reassess our relationship with our social group—the Black community. The challenge in the encounter and post-encounter stages is to break the grip of the pre-encounter stage (characterized by a desire to assimilate to majority culture) and move on to develop healthy attitudes toward our own racial identity and a part in the shared community of other Black persons. Breaking the grip of the pre-encounter stage includes breaking free from the grip of White supremacy—the lie that White people and their culture are superior to that of Black people and Black culture. It is a vital step for us as Black Christians if we are to reimagine our place in the broader Christian community and America at large.

The difficulty often lies in what this resistance looks like practically for the Black Christian. What does it look like to live a life free from the grip of White supremacy? In Begin Again[5], author Eddie Glaude Jr. shares what such freedom looked like for James Baldwin. In his work, Baldwin used Black America’s past to envision a path towards a different America— one characterized by “the transcendence of the realities of color.” Glaude writes of Baldwin’s vision:

The point [of such transcendence] wasn’t to declare ourselves colorblind. We would have to fight it out in order to finally rid ourselves of the assumptions about who was valued more than others. That may have to involve black people celebrating their blackness, because it shatters their interior agreement with the lie [of White supremacy]. In this sense, one can only transcend color by passing through it, and uprooting the lie along the way.

Through Glaude, Baldwin’s writings offer what I believe can be an exhortation of sorts for all Black Christians: the celebration of our Blackness is a personal and communal act of resistance against the lie that Black people are inferior. And just as the point of transcending color is not colorblindness, the point of celebrating Blackness is not racial idolatry. When we downplay our racial identity and condemn it’s celebration for fear of idolization, we center the sinful legacy of White supremacy that idolizes a man-made social construct rather than celebrating Gods creation. As we (re)encounter our racial identity, we must simultaneously do the work to rid the lie of White supremacy from our understanding of it. Baldwin adds to this line of thought in his book No Name in the Street.[6] “To be liberated from the stigma of blackness by embracing it,” he says, “is to seize, forever, one’s interior agreement and collaboration with the authors of one’s degradation.” Baldwin reminds us that freedom from the grip of White supremacy begins within. It begins with a transformation of the ways we see ourselves and each other– the recognition that our Black identity is God’s design, not a mark of inferiority. Seeing in one’s Blackness God’s image is a form of resistance taken up by Black Christians across every generation. It’s what inspired Martin to shout “I’m Black and I’m beautiful,” why Jesse urged us to declare “I am somebody,” and what lies at the foundation of our cry that “Black lives matter.”

Breaking free from the grip of White supremacy requires our resistance. We must resist the inferior value ascribed to our blackness, but we must also resist conforming to the communities which perpetuate notions of Black inferiority. This form of resistance requires a more external work. As mentioned in “A Hound of Hell,” a part of the expected behavior of Black Christians in White Christian spaces is a rejection of the theological, cultural, and social beliefs and practices often associated with one’s Black ethno-racial identity. Because of these expectations many of us are, or have been at one time, detached from the deep well that is the Black Christian expression. Maybe you’ve never read Jesus and the Disinherited because you’ve been warned, like I was, to stay away from “mystics” like Howard Thurman. Or maybe you’ve never engaged the work of Anna Julia Cooper, James Cone, Toni Morrison, or bell hooks. Perhaps you’ve rarely, if at all, heard the Bible preached from the lips of a Black preacher or witnessed the Black social gospel in action as you submit yourself under Black leadership as a member of a Black church. Breaking the grip of White supremacy means unlearning the harmful legacy of White Christian communities that would have you believe the Black church and Black theology are inferior. It means reading Black authors to learn from them rather than refute them. And listening to Black preaching to become a better Christian, rather than be entertained. But most importantly, breaking the grip of White supremacy means planting yourself in the shared community of Black people. It requires the breaking of bread and the brushing of bodies.

The stages of our racial identity development are certainly not linear, but in our cyclical movement between them we often find ourselves wrestling between conformity and self-realization— between assimilation to White spaces and immersion in our own cultural community. It is here where the temptation to hatred is often its strongest, and where our resistance efforts must be focused. Resisting the temptation to turn to hatred means turning the love ethic of Jesus inward as Black Christians, towards each other, stirring up one another to remember our freedom in Christ.


Notes:

[1]Vandiver, B. J., Cross, W. E., Jr., Worrell, F. C., & Fhagen-Smith, P. (2002). Validating the cross racial identity scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49(1), 71-85. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.49.1.71

[2]Vandiver, B. J., Cross, W. E., Jr., Worrell, F. C., & Fhagen-Smith, P. (2002). Validating the cross racial identity scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49(1), 71-85. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.49.1.71

[3]Vandiver, B.J., Fhagen-Smith, P.E., Cokley, K.O., Cross, W.E., Jr. and Worrell, F.C. (2001), Cross’s Nigrescence Model: From Theory to Scale to Theory. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 29: 174-200. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1912.2001.tb00516.x

[4]Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum

[5] Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. – Penguin Random House

[6] No Name in the Street by James Baldwin – Penguin Random House

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Tryce Prince

Tryce Prince

Tryce Prince lives in Chicago with his wife Erin and their daughter Nanyori. He is a sociologist-in-training at the University of Illinois-Chicago where he researches status hierarchy and Black authority in predominantly White spaces. Tryce also serves as a research consultant for the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action and a research assistant to the Black Midwest Initiative. He and Erin are members of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago. Reach him on Twitter @TrycePrince

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