Taking B(l)ack God
Mühlenstrasse: October 2019
Strolling with my best friend along the East Side Gallery in Berlin evoked a nostalgic, New York City resonance. Wall art – graffiti in this case, of which there is a copious amount in Berlin – as a medium, is nothing new: eye-catching, aggrandizing, yes, but outside intentional professional works, essentially redundant to a Bronxite. On the river side of the Berlin Wall’s repurposed remnants, I took it all in with a patient, condescending air. On the street side, when I reached the mural which had, depicted on its surface, a rudimentary, filled-in outline of a brown featureless figure, human, but with decidedly feminine proportions, I stopped in my tracks. A declaration written in letters which matched the color of the figure proclaimed, how is God? She’s black!
Among others murals I passed, this one was definitely making it into my photo album. For any who have yet to visit this landmark, it’s essentially what you’d have to navigate on a New York City sidewalk with construction on that side, and so I patiently waited for the chance. My friend took the picture and we moved on to other sights. But the experience had some after-the-fact effects due to manifest much later, after I returned to America. The first: cognitive dissonance. I never expected such a declaration displayed brazenly, in open air, in a white country however, or regardless, of the magnitude its past sins demanded perennial, vehement displays of penance. Being an American and sensitized to its particular frequency, by extension I just didn’t think it would be so. Germany and America, especially how both their ideologies and implementations regarding “race” were handled, can be compared (on its own soil and abroad; Germany is responsible for the massacre of upwards of 100,000 native Africans from 1904 to 1908 in now-present-day Namibia; this atrocity is widely recognized as the first attempted genocide of the 20th century. America is seen, via myopic lens, by many of its nationals as a “white” country which merely suffers the inconvenience of non-white peoples on her shores. Much of the exploitation and violence perpetrated by white Americans against Americans who are not, stems from this ancillary view in our “post-racial” society). In contrast, German identity is not propped on race as is the case with American identity. When their expansion was checked over the course of a costly and bloody war, they, as a majority (remnants of this ideology have survived and continue to hand down the mistakes their predecessors made and did not learn from, or rather ignored. Their contagion, homogenous to other, local hate groups, has also borne fruit on American shores) shed this skin with the destruction of the regime that promulgated it. The United States, despite losing its costly, bloody war with itself over itself, did not; even after, the belief did not die because both sides believe, still believe, the same lie.
The second, probably inspired by the first, was a strong desire to unpack that declaration. God is black – and a woman? This kind of radicalism, given where it was placed, challenged a reality to which I was resigned would never change. Looking at that mural was lots of things: reaffirming, triggering, and also an agitation to challenge another, broader path.
Christianity’s introduction into black American, formerly native African life is not an origin easily reconciled despite how many times it’s been told. As in tandem with a great many other violations of specific and general freedoms, Christianity was the coffin via which the freedoms were locked away. From inside the coffin, an ecosystem was built in the wake of their former one’s systematic deletion, and the purposes for which slaves were brought here demanded a paring down of their humanity to ensure unencumbered paths to profits. Consistent cultivation shapes all things, and the severance of the connection between former African natives and current black Americans, descendants of slaves, began with a mission of erasure of their spiritual roots, an ongoing readjustment to a paradigm which from then on would define an entire people to this day.
Many stories in the Old Testament will corroborate a suspicion that God does not want an easy alliance; a belief in Him through blood and suffering (Job, Samson, Joseph, Isaiah, Moses, to say nothing of women) is a required bond which cannot be broken by any mortal means. Here, with these new black Americans, whatever faith left in their gods could not help but be shaken as they were subjected to forces more unflinching, inexorable than any they could dream of. Psychological and physical torture are imperfect implementations. At their core, they are designed to separate a human being from his/her will. It is imperfect because it can only settle for a distant second – it can only separate a human from free choice (no, I did not forget what Kanye said; he spoke a kind of oversimplified truth which pointed to the facile, binary concepts which retrench the issues we have in our society. If the proverbial heat was indeed too hot, and if some black people did manage to escape the kitchen, many more did not). Trapped in a funnel where one’s entrance has been closed, there is but one choice.
No other choice, but certainly another way. Once the role was learned, what occurred was a syncretism in reverse: black Americans modified the Lord of their new land to fit their greatly modified, but original-in-spirit customs; community in lieu of communal solemnity and private communal shame; a familial, universal, pain-wracked catharsis in place of stoic reaffirmation of the burden of self-absolution. To this day, religion, Christianity, serves, even if in name only, as this panacea in black life as it did then, and this definitive aspect is what marks the great divide between how white Americans have viewed worship.
The burden and blessing accorded to womanhood occupies a dual place in our society, and within religion, the female being has seen pendulous shifts in importance through Time. Most live-giving entities or protectorates, from ships to land masses to celestial bodies have been accorded female designations. But black women have existed as an element of power strictly from within the substance of black lore from, not just black, but from a multitude of mouths. Depending on the speaker, or listener – for they influence each other – you can get a different interpretation (as my friend prepared to take the photo, a man – white, or white-adjacent – eyed the mural as he passed, and within the time it took for a shutter lens to blink, he sneered and scoffed, self-assured, an erasure of any possibility the statement held. I’ll remember his reaction for as long as I live).
Via the dim intention of automaticity, the black female’s inner and outer attributes are interpreted primarily within the sphere of oppression and trauma, and so her waking challenge – whether she is present to it or not – is to be observed and interpreted by her society outside of that. The dissociation of unity from duality (woman birth men, no?) further pushes away, not without struggle, the idea that God would take on that form. If the patriarchal order of the day would concede God as female, the tradition, left to its own cognizance, would predictably extend within its own borders to a white female. Present social concessions aside, this is not an unfounded statement, for within the strata of the oppressed group of women as a whole, white women are hierarchically placed, as they were for centuries, at its apex (Google the social media backlash Octavia Spencer got for portraying God in everything but name in 2017’s film The Shack, for starters). Iconography; social values, fashion, body type (to quote Ludacris circa 2003: “plus I’m the new phenomenon like white women with ass!” – this phenomenon has disseminated exponentially). Outside of fetishization and appropriation often disguised as pop culture, there are examples where black women can, in many concrete ways, be cross-referenced with a holy presence.
As in their native land, they were the caretakers, but here, akin to God, a perverse modicum of their former stature. Here they were keepers of open secrets – the cultivated weakness of their men and the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of their masters, the pack mule for the lust, violence, hatred and fragmented identity crises of their country. The largess of the black female’s suffering has produced literal riches for this society through the portal of her vessel, against her will, and she has fought long to reclaim some of it for herself (I recommend the book Where And I Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings).
Or not. If the traditional, popularly depicted God is taken in His entirety – His jealousy, His selective hearing, His suspiciously base, human emotions and hasty acting, His seeming disinterest in how some of His children exercise their will on the planet – then a black woman cannot be God. For black women are not assessed and accessed holistically, they are compartmentalized, taken piecemeal. Their bodies, not their souls or minds; their words, but not their intelligence; their strength, but not their will; their power, creativity, and poise, but not their self-actualization. Their Word and Deed are not chronicled in a holy tome, but their anger and flaws and breakdowns, both mental and physical are magnified and held up to light as the golden calf and worshipped, their cries of frustration and pain the sounding horn for the commencement of the feast on their flesh, identities. This, their humanity, is used as an excuse to hollow out their forms and inhabit them, like a cannibal wearing the skin of a victim.
While black Americans have certainly given it a long attempt, the appropriation of mainstream Christian mores has produced a deep schism in the perspective of the culture across generations. Appropriation in of itself is a cognitively dissonant act for a people who fought bloody, spiritual and physical battles of attrition against a monolithic absolute to achieve baseline consideration; who historically never took anything that wasn’t given, if the word “given” can be made to truly capture the magnitude of disdainful afterthought this monolith gave to things it no longer needed. The appropriation perpetuates the cognitive dissonance that simmers violently beneath the surface and has created its own pathology within the collective black mind. To quote James Baldwin:
“Their faith may be described as childlike, but the end it serves is often sinister…but also, and much more significantly, religion operates here as a complete and exquisite fantasy revenge: white people own the earth and commit all manner of abomination and injustice on it; the bad will be punished and the good rewarded, for God is not sleeping, the judgement is not far off. It does not require a spectacular degree of perception to realize that bitterness is here neither dead nor sleeping, and that the white man, believing what he wishes to believe, has misread the symbols.”Notes of a Native Son, Part Two: The Harlem Ghetto
The above is a great point for the necessity of bringing to light how Christianity has for white people, by example, in relation to how black people revere it, lost its real force and charm; it is merely a husk they wear for habit or tradition and not devoted practice, a pharisaism as old as the country itself, and black Americans have been attempting to disseminate the gold lining in this tradition for nearly as long – I think, for so long, that to stop would mean far more disastrous consequences than the accumulated history surrounding its protection. It must be noted with respect, however, that a rough sort of social mobility and subsequent class distinction was afforded black Americans who followed suit: the American God was the wedge that black Americans used to win, incrementally, some of its most important battles against the country for their humane existence. They had their hands full. There was no time then. What about now?
To acknowledge American history – the deeds of immigrants and indigenous peoples alike – is to acknowledge that black attitudes, style and interpretation are deeply woven into our country’s zeitgeist and continue to dominate it. I remember in the early 90’s, one of the first woke waves (the cross pollination of commercial pop culture assets with cultural i.e. black interpretations) ushered in fashion products that seemed revolutionary at the time. The Simpsons and Looney Tunes inexplicably discovered and ran through the gauntlet of black experience, emerging with cornrows, backward pants and caps, oversized jerseys; Bart and Homer came to light five shades darker than their cartoonish approximation of white skin, sporting high-top fades, Nike sneakers and gold jewelry, staring out from the shirts they were drawn on with unconcerned expressions which conveyed a hidden “knowing.” A black knowing. We can argue that it might have been an unlicensed proponent of the cause – to incite inclusion and representation in the mainstream – but it pushes further the increasingly demanding question: do black Americans continue to, like the Simpsons and Looney Tunes, put their own spin on it?
This is a barrier prohibiting a true transformation, a new, fertile ground for a black God to flourish. And new ground is certainly needed; unlike the tradition which enslaved the previous generations, the current one, particularly the youth, cannot be engaged by crisis (as there is in every era; we certainly do have one now) and rote indoctrination, no matter how diverse from white practice. The tools of the trade that proselytizes religion in the black community are outstripped by the common, available tools which enable them, the youth, a muddled, though expedited (by comparison), self-actualization. They have music which stirs in them a religious attention; the songs reflect the truth of their existence – their follies, their weakness, and their stubborn adherence to blazing their own paths – better than any hymn could. Their peers, no wiser or mature or older, have provided solid (I didn’t say necessarily thoughtful, moral – a nebulous concept in of itself – or sustaining) evidence by the proof of their existence that they can make a way, their way, through the treacherous valleys and alleyways of their fears and insecurities which have proved more reliable than any bible or sermon.
And most importantly of all, the role models of the appropriated faith are no clearer examples for all of this; “black people” are only human, and no more immune against human failings than any other humans. Issues of xenophobia, ignorance, homophobia, corruption, greed, intolerance, sexual abuse, and racism plague the black religious body as well. These ailments have been visited upon them, the new generation, by their loved ones, parents, elders without ever having to set foot in a church. All this culminates in a pathological insistence reared from the muck of the trauma, and status, of the oppressed group. A symptom of the trauma passed down through generations is the defiance of any further wrongdoing – for the black American has been made wrong enough – and their essential wrong, expounded throughout American history, is the misfortune to be born on the “other” side of the color line, where all this unfortunate hubbub seemingly started.
The perpetuation of the Christian faith is in part to continuously deny the slave, or non-Christian roots from which black Americans hail; before Christianity, black people were a part of a pagan ecosystem that, in their modern, Europeanized thoughts, got them captured in the first place (the black Israelite theory condensed: Africans are the chosen people who are especially punished for turning against God, as interpreted from a passage in Deuteronomy). This denial of the past places the modern black American a comfortable (but certainly not remote) distance away from the “embarrassing” image of the former African, who in the eyes of white America, the black American is perpetually but a stone’s throw away from. The intricacies of this generational issue may not be obvious or articulable to the youth, but the discrepancy between pride in an institution and pride in oneself, one’s existence, is obvious. They can’t trust what you say because they see what you do.
I was not given the time to establish a relationship with God through Christianity. As a youth I was harried, pulled through the tunnel of indoctrination with the obedient fervor of the hopeful and half-informed, with no opportunity to include intelligent inquiry or wonder. Into the light-speed crash, I was pulled, of the live band and the tear-inducing soulful melodies; the authoritative speech of the pastor; the brimstone promises of wayward living; the nightmare-inducing totems of Evil – and of Good; the judgmental censure and diaphanous moral superiority, as if God barely had to break a sweat over the spirit and life of this or that particular “believer” before he or she saw the full circle of grace. The memory of a time when I was thirteen, the last time I was to be in a church as a child, comes to mind: I, amongst others, waiting at the bottom of a small step for the pastor to address us in assembly-line format, to be “saved” – that symbolic extirpation of a person’s current sins, enabling a tabula rasa – and I was the only youth in that batch of congregants. The band was in a hypnotic rhythm, egging on the spectacle/transaction, creating this surreal haze about the whole scene. Soon, it was my turn. I was anointed with oil and made to fall back, supine. I remember practiced, heavy hands willing me to surrender, guiding me until I was on the carpeted floor, privy to nothing else but the vibrations of the music and the ceiling glaring down at me. I felt nothing except for the lingering, gouged-out feeling in my chest, gotten from unwillingly obeying the absolute command of my mother, who bade me go to the pastor. The rest of this world got along just fine without me, for I had ceased to be an essential part, and had become merely an attaché; proof of the past miracles worked and gone. The faithful crowded past my stretched-out body, awaiting their turn to receive their cleansing. I didn’t stay on the floor long enough to find out if anyone would have stepped on me. When I regained my feet I stomped back to my place in the pews, furious, inconsolable. I later realized, with some bitterness, that for all that – because of that final act – my God died in the womb.
To this day, my God does not exist – but retrospectively, out of those experiences, I know that God exists, separate and apart from my inadequate means, intellectual and spiritual, to fixate a form or gender. I believe it’s better this way. I cannot pick God up or put God down at will, nor can I command or entreat God like an employee after a raise or good recommendation. God is neither white nor black, two mutually inclusive terms created specifically within, or because of, a fundamental deficiency in understanding the very concept of God, terms that continue to hobble our spiritual path as a country and its moral foundations. God is whatever kind of force which will serve to guide humans to ultimate freedom and expression – which is the love of all things upon this earth.
Taking b(l)ack God will not hasten this eventuality, and it’s been proven ad nauseum the failure of a white one. God exists as an appeal for humanity to be human – the intrinsic fever to become better than you were today, tomorrow, until the day your soul – the unquantifiable, immeasurable energy at the root of Life’s propulsion – joins God. To this point, we should put God back in the right place in our lives; as an impossible measuring tool with which to judge our basest natures and habits against the unfathomable horizon of our limitless potential. God is not a partition, nor is God a monolith. God is conscience, consciousness of all kinds, and the paragon of – whether we know/knew it or not – everything we are striving for.
When I look at the photo my best friend took of me kneeling beside the mural, I still smile at the smile that I had on my face. It was a goofy, triumphant smile, paradoxically free of the history and strife that long went into making such a heretic statement possible in open air. That satisfaction was short-lived, as all satisfaction is, but the declaration of God being a black woman, aside the point, is still a comforting, encouraging one. For the declaration in the sun, for all to see, hints to – it is hoped, at least for me – the precursor to the next evolution of God in the eyes of the “true race” whom God helped create; the human race.