The Imagination of the Late Dr. James H. Cone: a Tribute to the Founder of Black Liberation Theology

James Cone was giggly, he loved to laugh. He had a high-pitched voice that absolutely everyone could mimic once they’d heard it a few times. This theological giant, who drew people from across the globe to study with him at Union Theological Seminary, had a slight build and eyes that shined. You could see him jogging along Riverside Park on the Upper West Side with the old sweatpants that had elastic at the ankles. He was always friendly, even if he didn’t know who you were.

For two of my three years in seminary, he didn’t know who I was, because I didn’t take his almost-but-not-quite-mandatory theology classes. I was doing an internship, and worried I wouldn’t have time for it, which is how I was. But in my last-ever semester, I took a class in which we studied Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. I learned with both amusement and fear that his style of teaching was to call on people at random, let them talk for a minute before stopping and tell them he didn’t want to hear that. Nobody could digress, ramble, or say anything that didn’t hit on the point Dr. Cone was after. He could shut down a bullshitter like someone who had half a century’s worth of them filtering in and out of his classes, and indeed he had.

It was fun to watch. I sat next to him in class and, though I was quiet, we bonded energetically, if you can get any sense of that. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a lot to say, but I was better at saying them in my papers, which was all right because he liked my papers, so that saved me. Over a period of months, we said a few warm things to one another and, though it wasn’t much, we built up a small kinship.

When one of the other professors retired, I sat next to him at her retirement ceremony and we had this rare, odd hour or two of seeing no one but each other. He clasped my hands and hugged me, and we talked intimately the entire time. He asked me why I didn’t speak more in class, and I told him I was shy. He was instantly sympathetic. He said, “you know what? I’m shy too,” which made me laugh. I remembered the many times I had heard his voice reverberating through the hallways. No class failed to get him heated up, no matter how many times he taught it. But I could also imagine this bright-eyed theologian from Arkansas feeling awkward every once in a while. He was different, and it must have made him feel funny sometimes in gatherings of ordinary people, bricklayers, and shopkeepers; if he ever found himself in gatherings like that. It was fortunate for all of us that he found his home as the founder of Black Liberation Theology and in the gothic hallways of Union, writing books, giving speeches, and letting everyone know that God was on the side of the oppressed — specifically, black people. Experiencing the brutality of whites in the Jim Crow-era South shaped his entire being. He had a lot to say about it, and he said it loudly, and as often as he could.

He was a champion not only for his people, but also of the idea that God and the gospels were on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors. It was a radical idea. The Ku Klux Klan considers itself a Christian organization, as an example of how far afoul American Christianity could venture on the subject. He challenged white theology and theologians who said nothing during slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching or any other brutality. He called out white Christians who were silent on race, and with a fierceness that commanded attention. And yet, if you met him in the hall, or on the street, or in class, he was unfailingly sweet, a bubbling effervescence of a man. 

His class came at a time when I had just started to feel truly uncomfortable about race. As a white woman, I had learned it wasn’t enough to decide you weren’t racist. You had to witness the damage it had done, at close range, to people you loved. It was like a forensic scientist having to examine the trajectory of a lethal bullet that tore into the skin of someone dear to you: once you felt it, you could never be comfortable again. Dr. Cone’s classes forced us to witness that pain, the psychic, and spiritual struggle that came from it. And it was sitting in his class that I realized the discomfort I felt was a fraction of what black Americans spend their lives feeling. I realized I could bear it, and that I could remain in that discomfort; I knew that I would.

After I told him I was shy, Dr. Cone never called on me again, even though I sat right next to him. He continued to praise my work though, and when I won an award for writing at graduation, he congratulated me and said, “I told you so!”

And when he died — I had only barely realized he was sick. But I had that vivid, visceral memory of this loving experience we had with one another, which encapsulated all that was transformative, sweet, and unexpected in seminaries. Those years were what we would call liminal space, magical in its transitory, uncertain nature, and Dr. Cone was the magician at the center, imagining himself and us past our preconceived notions and comforts, and into a place of fierce truth, unlimited possibility, and a non-negotiable 60-second limit on bullshit.


Cover photo via NYTimes