When did the word "black" become a curse word?

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In a previous post, I mentioned that I thought Obama’s speech on “A More Perfect Union” was an attempt to elevate America’s discussion on race. I still believe that is the case, but let me emphasize that it was an attempt that may prove futile if people of conscience and those who work for reconciliation remain silent. There are many more voices seeking to pull us all back into the gutter of fear, stereotype, petty prejudice, and broad generalization that has no interest in discovering truth or understanding.

Dr. Jay Carter at Duke Divinity School recently commented that we are living in interesting times for the Christian theologian. Recent national discussions on race, religion, and politics have led media and news reporters to the doors and hallways of divinity schools and seminaries looking for quotes, perspectives, and input. It is an unusual position for many who spend their life studying divinity – the larger culture actually caring and expressing interest in what they do and teach.

On the whole this is probably a good thing, but it has its downside. In the wake of the Jeremiah Wright/Obama controversy, some investigative reporters have turned to various theologians to gain perspective, but the majority have bi-passed that step and turned to the theological quackery so prevalent on internet websites. It is a strange and odd time. I never thought I would turn on CNN or other news channels for my evening news and hear talking heads discussing “black theology” and “James Cone” or “liberation theology.” In a different context, I might rejoice that such things were being covered, but not like this. Each time I hear them, whether from CNN or some extreme right-winged radio personality, the words escape their lips like curse words, as if by some brilliant reporting work, someone has uncovered a secret black conspiracy recently revealed to white America. Such is the latest rush to ignorance.

A couple of things strike me about this state of affairs. First, can one imagine the news media behaving similarly if the issue was about a rare disease or debilitating illness? In other words, a subject matter that requires nuance, context, and experience from a physician or researcher who has devoted their life to its study and understanding? I doubt it. A quick cut and paste report from the internet on such a subject could be potentially life threatening, but America doesn’t see religion the same way. What is there to know? Nuance, doctrine, history, context, Church tradition – all of that stuff is really immaterial in a radically individualistic environment where what you believe is your personal business, unless of course, you are running for president. Then you need to be accountable for everything your pastor says. I am still waiting for Clinton to have to answer for everything Dr. Wogaman said at Foundry UMC or his successor Dean Snyder for that matter, who has done nothing but praise Jeremiah Wright.

As for black liberation theology, I would like to put a moratorium on anyone using the word unless they complete a required reading list on the subject. I don’t want my car mechanic prescribing medications for me when I am sick and I likewise don’t want media talking heads from radio or television explaining black theology or black liberation theology. In both cases, I think the results can cause illness of different sorts. Take this illuminating quote from a recent interview on CNN:

Well, ever since the hateful racist words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright finally saw the cold light of day for just a brief second. We`ve been talking about it on this program and my radio program. We`ve also been talking about radical black liberation theology. I had never heard of it before.

He had “never heard of it before” – but that didn’t prevent him from drawing some quick conclusions:

What you need to know about it is its aggressive anti-white foundation. This is hate speech, pure and simple.

Of course, Beck did claim to have a theologian backing up his claims, but it is interesting to note that it was not James Cone, often described as the “father” of black liberation theology, nor a figure like Dwight Hopkins. In terms of misinformation about black theology and black liberation theology, the cases are legion -NO – let me rephrase – EPIDEMIC:

  • Take this guy, from an unaccredited school of his own founding
  • or this entry on Wikipedia that gets it wrong right from the top, not distinguishing the difference between black Muslims, The Nation of Islam, and Christian black theology and liberation
  • or this exchange between Sean Hannity and Rev. Wright, where Sean wants to bash all things that would ever relate the word “black” to “theology” – and Rev. Wright keeps asking if he has read anything to have drawn such conclusions
  • or even this more “reasoned” approach by Neuhaus that still seeks to lay “inadvertent” blame on Obama who he says launched an “exercise in the demeaning of black America that is, in consequence, very ugly” – instead of laying blame on white posturing, fear, and ignorance.

As someone who spent a lot of time reading both black theology and liberation theology, I am more than a little incensed at the race baiting and deception. I feel like I am in a time warp where the old arguments against such thinking back in the 60s and 70s are being reheated in the microwave for people who weren’t aware of how the meal was first cooked in the kitchen. I remember the words of a “liberationist” priest (a curse word back in the 70s) who once said:

I fed the poor and they called me a saint. I asked how they got that way and they called me a communist.

I also remember putting a quote from Gustavo Gutierrez, often referred to as the father of liberation theology, in my ordination papers on the sacraments – mainly because most people dismissed his orthodoxy because of his advocacy for the poor. Who would of thought that in his seminal work, “The Theology of Liberation” he would say something as radical as “The Eucharist is the first task of the church.” Wow – look out for the revolution. The irony is, it is a revolution but the weapons are bread and wine, not guns and missiles.

So now we are “cursing” again with words like “black,” “black theology,” and “black liberation theology,” and I for one am getting sick of it. The only thing I am really learning in all of this is that most white people have never stepped foot in a black church or dialoged with black theologians, or read much on history or theology of any sort. As my pastor colleague has put it, there is a prevailing “fear of blackness.”

As for the rest of us who are consumers of the drivel on TV and radio, when it comes to race-baiting I suggest a simple solution – DON’T BITE.


  1. >Folks have been waiting for an opportunity to find a problem with Obama’s “blackness.” Up to this point in the election, however, it was too politically incorrect to bring it up. Now that they can use Pastor Wright’s words as “evidence,” they are jumping on the opportunity to covertly (or in some cases, overtly) question Obama’s racial allegiance. What bothers me about this is the same thing that bothered me in 2004. Strategically selected soundbites should NOT an election make … instead, the totality of a person’s character, background, and experience should determine its course. In our microwave, fast food-crazed nation, that rarely happens though. Thanks for your bravery and courage in speaking truth, Kevin. If I were ever to run for president, I’d be glad to claim you as MY pastor:)!

  2. >What? That has so much spin it, it don’t even make sense. There is racism but it is reverse racism and more than you are sick of it. I just hope that America don’t take too bad a beating.

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