In this piece I attempt to reconsider James Cone’s contributions to theology, especially his theologizing on blackness, as a way of theorizing gender. This is not to diminish the critiques of patriarchy Womanists raise regarding Cone’s theology, but in order to interrogate the narrative that has emerged around how those critiques function and to argue that Cone’s conception of blackness might already hold some key to undoing the patriarchal elements of his theology. I wonder, finally, if we might stop teaching Black Liberation theology as if it primarily lacks a gendered critique unless done under the banner of Womanism.
These thoughts developed, in part, from a trip I took to New York City recently for a talk by critical race theorist, Frank Wilderson, and journalist Esther Armah, on Lars von Trier’s film Manderlay, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and gender violence. In his paper, Wilderson made the argument that blackness ought to be understood as a form of gendered violence–a reading that made me curious to reflect on whether the problems James Cone’s early work often gets reprimanded for–its lack of a gender analysis and failure to attend to the particularities of black women’s experiences–are so clear cut when one conceives of blackness as a form of inscribing gender on the body. That is, are the conditions of being black and being gendered so discrete that Cone’s analysis is decidedly ungendered and must be superseded by a black theology that considers gender?
I want to be clear that there are clearly patriarchal aspects of Cone’s theology. But what usually follows from the critique of patriarchy is the performance of a black analysis + gender analysis = womanism, equation. That is, an intersectional analysis is put forth as the solution to the limits of Black liberation theology and White Feminist theology. Black women as situated at the intersection of multiple oppressions (race, gender, and class) become the starting point for doing this theology. This move seems to suggest that blackness, which Cone defines as “ontological symbol” and “visible reality”, is limited as a starting place to liberative theology because it is not particularly gendered. It is interesting, then, that womanist theology is often cited as a way of both intervening in and disabling discussions of race, gender, power, and theology which seems to have the unintended effects of recentering white women as proper subjects of gender analysis and black men as the proper objects of racial analysis. I wonder, though, if Cone’s failure to gender blackness actually does point to these utilization of black women that fails to attend to the situation black women inhabit. To the particular gendered violence that blackness itself represents–that is, the ungendering of the black body through the violence of captivity. What Cone’s work calls attention to is the arrangements of bodies that race portends.
If one takes seriously the condition of blackness that Cone outlines in A Black Theology of Liberation1, one is able to read the condition of being racialized as black as a process of being gendered. The gendering blackness performs occurs through the undoing of subjectivity. Blackness represents this non-subjectivity. To be black is to be captive–it is to be taken up within the the property relations that enable a life to be bought and sold with no respect to familial relations or other ties of kinship and land. Indeed, when one considers how the maintenance of black life as property occurs, it is precisely through blackness’ work on gender2. That is, the affective bonds of gender that are ascribed to male and female (white) subjects, are impotent when applied to black life and relationality. Black women, men, children, families, have no bonds that can not be severed, no motherly affections that can’t be exceeded by the situation of being chattel, no marriage bond that can’t be broken by the the sale of a spouse. Thus, the gendering that attends white bodies, that organizes white social structures, civil society, family life, and economic realities, is incapable of rendering black life recognizable within these conceptions of gender. Instead, blackness represents a kind of gender failure. A failure that occurs through the situation of chattel that blackness inhabits. A situation that characterizes black captivity–not simply in slavery–but within modernity as the objects whose violation enables the intimacies, desires, and fears of whiteness to be moved out of fantasy into real life.
This captivity primarily means that black life is available to be used however whites fancy. Blackness, then, symbolizes a radical openness to death and non-being–an openness to being visited by violence and being used to constitute white subjectivity. This vulnerability of blackness to violence is a crucial part of why Cone makes an argument for black theology as a survival theology: “By white definitions whiteness is ‘being’ and blackness is ‘non-being.’ Blacks live under sentence of death. They know whites will kill them rather than permit the beauty and glory of black humanity to be manifested in its fullness (A Black Theology of Liberation, 12).” Here, Cone acknowledges that blackness that is life is under threat of death by whiteness that depends on blackness as death to derive its being from. Thus, in being sentient-objects in modernity, there is no place black folks can go to escape the risk of death. The very existence of the black places one under the threat of violence: “ ‘To be or not to be’ is thus a dilemma for the black community: to assert one’s humanity and be killed or to cling to life and sink into nonhumanity.(ibid)” Either way the black chooses, black life is always a condition of being met by death and non-being. Black theology’s task, then, is to confront and undo the white theo-logic that deals death to black bodies through struggle for liberation–a struggle that is one and the same as salvation because of Christ’s becoming black (13). This struggle for liberation is a struggle for survival in a world where one’s being marked by blackness is a sign of one’s availability to be violated and exploited.
Thus, I would argue that Cone’s situation of blackness as central to the theological task is not so easily cordoned off as not-gendered (as in not having to do with gender). It is precisely because blackness is gendered as ungendered that the violence of violation and exploitation that constitutes black bodies is worked. Instead, of saying Cone’s theology doesn’t have anything to say about gender, we might say that Cone highlights the ungendered nature of blackness primarily through his engagement with blackness as a struggle against the gratuitous violence that visits black bodies on the regular.
Cone’s conception of blackness here, then, refuses being read simply as a plea for a narrow contextualism that is primarily aligned with black men of a radical brand of politics3. Instead, because Cone argues that death is the ontological symbol blackness represents in its visible reality, he points to the processes by which white supremacy is maintained–through arrangements of intimacy, desire, gender, and power that make white being from the black body. Attending to the workings of white supremacy on black bodies can never be a matter of reading blackness as divorceable from gender because gender is what is undone by blackness in order to enable the radicalization in the first place. Thus, even while Cone is silent on gender in particular, his conception of blackness as a condition of social death points to the ungendering that constitutes blackness writ large–to the arrangement of bodies that enable civil society to operate as it does, through the sanctioning of gratuitous violence against black bodies.
Attending to the seriousness of Cone’s critique and his articulation of what blackness means for theology necessarily requires that we recognize the ways sex and gender are caught up in the maintenance of black bodies as black. While we may have to go outside of Cone’s texts to find ways of naming the gendered character of blackness, reading these texts alongside Cone, his work becomes, not one to be superseded by more nuanced gendered critiques put forth by Womanists (as some narrate the story), but one whose reading of blackness is crucial to be able to understand how the gendered nature of blackness as a condition of violence and social death gets constructed through theology in the first place.
In closing, I wonder if the way of narrating womanist theology and black liberation theology as not able to do the same work says more about the desire of white theology to manage the ways in which we are able to think the two. That is, thinking race and gender together. The narrative of womanist theology as a nuancing of black liberation theology, especially Cone, primarily serves to repeatedly establish black women as an addendum and intervention into theology. An intervention frequently deployed by some as a way of shutting down serious attention to Cone or womanist’s contributions. Instead, one is able to easily recite the dominant narrative of womanist usurpation of Cone without actually working with what womanist and Black liberation texts means for how theology constructs whiteness through the maintenance of various arrangements of race and gender or how the two work together.
In short, many folks use womanism over and against Cone as a way of occluding the alliances many black men and women hold that transgress white conceptions of how gender ought to enable bonds to be formed. That Cone may be both one who articulates patriarchal views while at the same time holding promise for thinking about gender seems to upend dominant white feminist conceptions of how gender ought to make us think about power and alliances. But, for folks marked by blackness, gender, as theorized by white feminists (male and female identified), frequently becomes another vehicle for the assertion of white subjectivity at the expense of black bodies and bonds. What would it mean for folks to refuse narrating the story in this way? What would it mean to attempt thinking gender and blackness together–not just as discrete entities that intersect?4
1. A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone
2. Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe by Hortense Spillers
4. I’d Rather Be A Cyborg Than a Goddess by Jasbir Puar
3. Paradox and Tradition in Black Theology by Vincent Lloyd
The Lady with the Whip | Frank Wilderson and Esther Armah on Gender Violence in Manderlay and Django Unchained