June 17, 2013
Jesus Was Lynched
Posted on Dec 23, 2011
By Mel White
There was no opportunity for black Americans to protest, let alone defend themselves from the violence that permeated their lives. In public, where a black man could be lynched for looking a white man in the eye, they had to play the subservient coward. But on Saturday nights, by singing the blues in the privacy of their “juke joints” where the whole community gathered to dance, drink, clap, stomp and “hollar,” these “cowards” expressed their courage and their determination to overcome. Those nights brought a measure of joy and a lot of relief to black Americans. To the white man all that “noise” must have seemed tribal and orgiastic. But if those same white men had been capable of truly listening, they would have realized that the poetry of the blues was in fact restoring the souls of black Americans and renewing their determination to resist despair.
As a child, Cone remembers hearing the blues echoing at night from “Sam’s Place” near his home in Arkansas. The author recalls tapping his feet and moving his body to the sounds of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man.” There is no question, however, that Billie Holiday holds a special place for the author. In 1939, on the stage of New York’s Café Society, Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” the first of many songs that would help mobilize the civil rights movement. Time magazine called “Strange Fruit” “the best song of the century,” and Holiday “history’s greatest jazz singer.” The song was written by Abel Meeropol, the white Jewish communist who later adopted the two sons of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution. “Strange Fruit” was inspired by an appalling photo Meeropol saw of a lynching in Mississippi:
On Sundays a different kind of music was heard. Cone uses the familiar spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” to show how the black poetry of those lynching years reflected both suffering and certainty. The spiritual begins with a mournful lament but ends with an almost inexplicable shout of praise: “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow. Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen … Glory Hallelujah!”
Black poets and musicians brought hope in times of despair. They were not blind to the fact that white Christians were in large part the cause of their suffering. With scathing sarcasm, black poet Walter Everette Hawkins called lynching “A Festival of Christendom” alongside the festive days of Christmas and Easter:
In spite of their anger at white Christians, they spoke of Jesus’ life and death with increasing reverence. Black poet Countee Cullen writes, “How Calvary in Palestine, extending down to me and mine, was but the first leaf in a line of trees on which a Man should swing … ” Cone points out that in this poem Cullen is claiming “that Christ, poetically and religiously, was symbolically the first lynchee,” and by this close association with Jesus “turned lynch victims into martyrs.” Cullen wrote, “The South is crucifying Christ again,” and this time “he’s dark of hue.” According to Cone, Cullen and many of his fellow poets and musicians could not help but see “ … the liberating power of the ‘Black Christ’ for suffering black people.”
“Ordinary blacks” survived those lynching years, Cone says, because their Jesus too had been lynched. He too had suffered exactly as they were suffering. They were not alone when they walked into the valley of death because Jesus walked that way before them. “Jesus walked this lonesome valley,” a spiritual begins, “He had to walk it by himself. Nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself.” African-American Christians were absolutely certain the Christ who died on a cross understood their suffering and would see them through it.
Cone understands that although black art and music helped foment the civil rights movement, “ … the blues and the juke joint did not lead to an organized political resistance against white supremacy. But one could correctly say that the spirituals and the church, with Jesus’ cross at the heart of its faith, gave birth to the black freedom movement that reached its peak in the civil rights era during the 1950s and 1960s. The spirituals were the soul of the movement, giving people courage to fight, and the church was its anchor, deepening its faith in the coming freedom for all.”
Cone makes it clear that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—with spirituals as its soul and the church as its anchor—saw an end to segregation but not to white supremacy. At its heart, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” is a powerful indictment of white supremacy, past and present, and a challenge to white Americans to have “the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation.”
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