Black Theology and Black Power

50th Anniversary Edition

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James H. Cone
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , February
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian (Orbis Books, 2018), James Cone wrote that the publication of his seminal text, Black Theology, and Black Power (Orbis Books, 1969) “save[d] my life as a theologian, allowing me to fulfill the true purpose of my calling.” The true purpose of his calling as a theologian became clearer as he began to deconstruct and dismantle the “white theologies” that blinded him to the “rich treasure in the Black religious tradition.” For Cone, writing Black Theology and Black Power was a recovery or, maybe I should say, a discovery project that not only centered Black lives and blackness, but in so doing, opened a whole new avenue of theological thinking and writing.

It is hard to imagine now, but before Cone, theologians hardly said or wrote anything denouncing slavery, racism, segregation, and lynching. These subjects were not part of any theological analysis. Theologians did not consider them sins. However, Cone challenged many of those assumptions, as he was one of the first to argue for a contextual reading and understanding of theology. He also became, as I argue, one of the first theologians that dismissed the more preferred philosophical style of writing from many in the theological community to one that is more rhetorical. In one of the first theologians to engage in what is now call “rhetorical theology,” Cone put forth that theology “arises from the contexts in which people live. Thus, Cone recognized that theology speaks to the people within a certain context. Theology, then, at its best, is soulful and moves its audience to a better understanding of the Deity” (“The Prophetic Persona of James Cone and the Rhetorical of Black Theology”, Black Theology Journal, 2010)

The 50th-anniversary edition of Black Theology and Black Power comes at a time in history not unlike the moment in history in which Cone originally wrote. Just a cursory examination of the six chapters in the book reads like a clarion prophetic call for us to reexamine our own theological presuppositions. For instance, in the public imagination, there was a lot of misunderstanding of the term Black Power. So, in chapter 1, Cone defines Black Power as the “complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means Black people deem necessary.” Black Power, for Cone, was a “humanizing force because it is the black man’s (person’s) attempt to affirm his being.” In short, argued Cone, Black Power was an “attitude, an inward affirmation of the essential worth of blackness” (4, 7, 9).

Proponents of Black Lives Matter (BLM) use the same language today. Created in 2012, BLM “grounds itself in the “experiences of Black people who actively resist de-humanization.” BLM “is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, [their] contributions to this society, and [their] resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” BLM challenges the “very foundations upon which Americans claim their democracy is built: that we are all created equal, that all are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Amanda Nell Edgar and Andre E. Johnson, The Struggle Over Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, Lexington Books, 2018).

In chapter 2, Cone connects the gospel of Jesus, black people, and Black Power. Cone also argues that the heart of the gospel and Black Power is liberation. “For the gospel proclaims that God is now with us,” writes Cone, “actively fighting forces that would make man (a person) captive.” He surmises that the “task of theology and the church is to know where God is at work and join God to fight against evil.” God is at work against racist structures of oppression, not unlike Black Power. Black Power, then is an agent of good in history because they are “righting the wrongs done against God’s people.” For Cone, Black Power is not alien to the gospel—it is the gospel of Jesus Christ (43, 54).

While Cone was one of the first to see a connection of religion and spirituality to Black Power, others today are making the same connection to BLM. Scholars such as Leah Gunning Francis, Elise M. Edwards, Hebah H. Farrag, and a host of pastors and religious leaders are seeing the spirituality emanating from BLM. Channeling Cone, I have publicly declared that Black Lives Matter is the gospel. Drawing from the work of Cone, it is surprising that many more have not made the connection.

Chapters 3 and 4 are critiques against the white and black churches. Just a cursory reading of both chapters will, sadly, remind us that many of the critiques are still valid today. Cone’s reading of the white church as the “Anti-Christ,” suggesting that it has ignored issues of race and that its theology does not “confront society with the meaning of Christ,” still speaks volumes today (84-85). His critiques of the Black church capitulating to white supremacist theology and doctrine still resonates among many activists of BLM who critique the Black Church as being indifferent towards the movement. 

Chapters 5 and 6 close the book. We learn from Cone’s autobiography that these last two chapters were later additions to the book at the suggestion of his mentor, C. Eric Lincoln. We all should be glad that Cone heeded this advice as it gives us a glimpse of what would become the life’s work of Cone. These two chapters help us to see the beginning of Cone’s theological thought in developing Black Theology. Especially noteworthy is Black Theology’s position on reconciliation. Cone first places reconciliation in its proper context when he claims “reconciliation on white terms is impossible since it would crush the dignity of black people.” For Cone, white people are “incompetent to dictate the terms of reconciliation because they are enslaved by their own racism and will inevitably see to base the terms on their right to play God in human relationships.” Cone argues that “reconciliation cannot happen until full emancipation has become a reality for all black people.” 

It has now been fifty years, and much of what Cone wrote still is true today. It is a reminder that we all have work to do, but unlike Cone, we are not starting from scratch.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andre E. Johnson is Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies at the University of Memphis.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James H. Cone (1938-2018) was Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary.


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