Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody

The Making of a Black Theologian

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


Much like James Cone’s life and career as a theologian, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian is infused with the spirituals and the blues, and an unrelenting, unapologetic love for Blackness. This work, Cone’s final testament, chronicles his intellectual and spiritual journey from “gutbucket Jim Crow Arkansas” (ix) to Union Theological Seminary, as well as testifying to his ceaseless fight for the oppressed of the land. The fire shut up in his bones—the Black Spirit that animated his life’s work—is still burning. His fire remains in his legacy, amplifying the call for justice, calling white oppressors to account, and demanding that the cry of Black blood going up across the world be heard. 

Cone begins by recounting his roots in Bearden, Arkansas, at the Macedonia African Methodist Episcoal (AME) Church where his mother and father, Lucy and Charlie Cone, taught him to love his Blackness, and to worship the God of liberation who sustained Blacks throughout their struggle for survival and liberation. He recalls that “Black beauty was all over Bearden” (142), and it was to this beauty that he would return when he decided to take off the mask he wore to placate white America. However, before Cone removed this mask, he spent many years in the nearly exclusively white circles of American academic theology. Here, the issues facing Black America were, at best, ignored; and the theological conversation was determined by the theological currents in Europe, rather than the needs of the oppressed. 

The 1967 Detroit rebellion, and the subsequent assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., ended Cone’s masquerade and compelled him to give voice to his Black fire. This fire led him to argue, in Black Theology and Black Powerthat “Jesus and Black Power were advocating the same thing,” namely the liberation of the oppressed (37). While the vast majority of the theological establishment denounced Black Power as antithetical to the gospel, Cone recognized it as God’s movement among the oppressed to affirm their humanity, and exorcise the heresy of whiteness. In A Black Theology of Liberation (Orbis Books, 1970), The Spirituals and the Blues (Orbis Books, 1972), and God of the Oppressed (Orbis Books, 1975)—which all followed closely upon one another—Cone sought to continue to articulate this theology that “would be black like Malcolm and Christian like Martin” (60). 

In order to write, Cone returned home to Macedonia AME, and to the spirituals and the blues. “I soaked myself in blackness,” Cone recollects, “embraced it as my birthright, and let blackness recreate me” (62). This conversion to Blackness unleashed Cone’s theological genius. He devoted his life to cultivating a Black theological imagination that could affirm the paradox of God’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed in a world permeated with suffering and oppression. Cone held these truths in tension by drawing on the faith of his forebears, the best of the Black intellectual tradition, and his own experience.

In addition to being animated by the spirit of Blackness, Cone was encouraged in his pursuit of a Black theology by many leading Black thinkers, including Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and especially C. Eric Lincoln, who was instrumental in publishing Cone’s initial books, and securing his appointment at Union Theological Seminary.Cone honored those who supported him by using his influence within the academy to make room for those from oppressed communities, giving them the opportunity to find their theological voice and work towards liberation. “I have spent a lifetime pointing out the hypocrisy and mendacity of the white church in a white-dominated society,” Cone stated, “and at the same time raising up and exalting the voices and experiences of the oppressed” (132). 

The final chapter in this memoir recounts the importance of James Baldwin in Cone’s theological journey. In his theology, Cone was explicitly trying to bring the Blackness of Malcolm into harmony with the Christianity of Martin, and Cone was able to accomplish this by drawing on Baldwin. Baldwin was able to name the experience of Black suffering, and give that experience back to Blacks in a way that allowed Blacks to bear their suffering and engage with it creatively. Cone sought to do this same thing in his theology. Additionally, Baldwin was able to peer into the great contradiction of suffering in Black existence, and see “both the tragedy and the beauty in black suffering and its redeeming value” (165). Engaging this contradiction theologically led Cone back to the cross, and the lynching tree.

This brings us to what is perhaps the most controversial element in Cone’s theology, his argument that Black suffering and the cross can be redemptive, despite criticism from feminst, Womanist, and other liberation theologians. Cone would never say that there is anything inherently good or redeeming about Black suffering, yet he could not deny that throughout history, Blacks have continually created beauty out of the horrors forced upon them. The Black church that he loved so deeply, the spirituals and the blues, the genius of Martin, Malcolm, and Baldwin all came about in response to Black suffering. This speaks to why Cone cannot give up on the redemptive power of the cross. Only through the cross can Cone begin to make sense of the horror and beauty—wrapped together so tightly in Blackness. However, we can only appreciate the redemptive power of the cross when it is viewed through the lens of the lynching tree. In the divine contradiction of the cross, and the inversion of values it effected, Cone could make some sense of the terrible beauty of the Black experience in America, even the “strange fruit” of lynched Black bodies.

Cone’s life was a series of “risks of faith,” and through his boldness he helped open the academic world, not just to Black theology, but to liberation theology more broadly, Womanist theology, LGBT theology, and the theology of any number of oppressed communities. He states that “imagination is the only way to talk truthfully about ultimate reality” (122), and his imagination—infused with the spirit of Blackness—has forever altered the field of theology and has invited new generations of scholars to find their voice and challenge the systems of domination that persist in our world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David C. Justice is a doctoral student in Theology at Saint Louis University.

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

James H. Cone (1938-2018) was the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. His books include Black Theology of Liberation, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, and The Cross and the Lynching Tree, winner of the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. This year he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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