Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: books

I Like Listening to James Cone

I just began reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone and I am instantly amazed by the comprehensive description of the pervasive and pernicious power of the lynching tree in American History. I love Cone’s lyricism, and his love for the blues as a means of painting that terrible picture — how did it feel to be Black in the Jim Crow South with the very real threat of torture and death swaying over your head at all times? How did it feel (does it feel elsewhere and now?) I also love Cone’s affinity for Richard Wright, the Harlem Renaissance author who I read and loved in college. The prose in Black Boy and Native Son is absolutely gorgeous. Wright’s description of becoming a writer and his attraction to the joy of well placed words has often inspired me as a writer. This is a total tangent but I must put this quote here:

“I would write:
“The soft melting hunk of butter trickled in gold down the stringy grooves of the split yam.”
Or:
“The child’s clumsy fingers fumbled in sleep, feeling vainly for the wish of its dream.”
“The old man huddled in the dark doorway, his bony face lit by the burning yellow in the windows of distant skycrapers.”
My purpose was to capture a physical state or movement that carried a strong subjective impression, an accomplishment which seemed supremely worth struggling for. If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative.”

Quoting Richard Wright in Black Boy, James Cone draws out the power of the lynching tree on every Black person living under its influence “I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings.” (Cone, 15)

In his first chapter, Cone quotes a whole bunch of spirituals and blues songs and artists. He really communicates his love for the medium. Cone wrote a whole other book about the blues, The Spirituals and the Blues, 1992, by the way. I can feel the investment in the brief summary found at the beginning of The Cross and the Lynching Tree. 

Cone writes:

The Blues expressed a feeling, an existential affirmation of joy in the midst of suffering,  especially the ever-present threat of death by lynching. B.B. King, who saw  a lynching as a child in Mississippi, gave a powerful interview on the meaning of the Blues:

“If you live under that system for so long, then it don’t bother you openly, but mentally, way back in your mind, it bugs you… Later on you sometimes will think about this and you wonder why, so that’s where your blues come in, you really bluesy then, y’see, because you hurt deep down, believe me, I lived through it, I know, I’m still trying to say what the Blues mean to me. So I sing about it.” (Cone, 17-18)

I cannot know how that feels not having experienced it myself which is why I am so grateful for Cone’s evocative, if difficult to read, description.  I’m sitting with it.

And this was not a long time ago (the Jim Crow South).

And this is not a long time ago (Washington DC, yesterday, January 6).

One of several nooses used by demonstrators at the “Save America” Rally in Washington DC that resulted in insurrectionists storming the Capitol building on January 6, 2020

I keep confessing how shocked I am by this sort of appallingly blatant hatred. This symbol of a lynching rope is impossible to separate from this legacy described so well by Cone. My surprise is surprising me. How often do I just look away? I can totally look away from this. I am a white man who can forget about this stuff. I don’t have the conditioning Wright describes– it doesn’t bug me way back in my mind all the time like B.B. King. I recognize that drastic difference and I mourn it. I and we need to keep turning toward it because this is not “back then” this is right now. The legacy would be real even if it weren’t erected on the national mall on Epiphany, January 6, 2021.

Another wonderful writer, Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, led his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, to create The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018. According to eji.org , “[It] is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” I’m convicted that I need to go to Montgomery to see it.

Cone goes on in the book to demonstrate that just as we are not separated from the lynching tree by time or location, the lynching tree is not separated from the cross. I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet, but I might write about it again when I’m done. I just had to put this appreciation out there now to whomever is reading this today, in the wake of what happened yesterday in Washington DC. This is what I am gleaning from Dr. Cone: the signs of the times and the signs of Cone’s writings are matching up. May we keep listening to him in his writing (may he rest in peace), and to those who take up his challenge to create a liberation theology that is “black and Christian — at the same time and in one voice” (Cone, xvii). When American Christians who are white look away from the cross and the lynching tree for too long, as I am confessing I could conceivably do, they lose their way and come up with terrible news for everyone instead of the Good News that Jesus offers us all.

Beach Reading: Good Christian Fiction

Summer is for many of us a time to unplug and relax. Tons of people love a good beach read. But let’s be honest, most of us aren’t reading several different books at a time. We’re reading one book at a time and it might take us a while to get though it. There are ways to unwind and relax, but at the same time learn and grow. Why not read a book that edifies your soul on the beach? Why not let your imagination be filled with the depth of human experience and the often untouched longing for God? Sounds great, right? But too much of media labeled as “Christian” is heavy handed or cliche. I’ve found some legit English literature for your summer reading list. Here’s my top 3 authors:

1) Marilynne Robinson: I have fallen in love with the town of Gilead, Iowa. Marilynne Robinson has written three novels about the complex interior lives of 2 families living in a small town in Iowa in the 1950s. The families are led by two pastors. Rev. John Ames and Rev. Robert Boughton. The New York Times Book Critic A.O. Scott said in 2008, “Gilead” (2006) and “Home” (2008) stand together, in part, as twinned portraits of these godly, elderly patriarchs.” The stories of the 2 novels occur during the same chronology but from completely different perspectives and are filled with beautiful language and sage observations of life with God. The third novel, Lila (2014), tells the story of Rev. Ames’ wife. It superbly describes the fear and shame of being known by an intimate partner and by the Intimate Partner.

2) Penelope Wilcox: You may have heard one of the pastors at Circle of Hope demanding that you read the Hawk and the Dove trilogy (which now has nine volumes). The Hawk and the Dove centers around a 14th century monastery in England and the men that work and pray there. The main character, Father Peregrine, who is known for his hawkish severity, learns through tragedy the gentleness of the dove and of Jesus. The love he learns to kindle in his community is tearfully brilliant.  Penelope Wilcox really gets the human heart and the heart of Jesus. Not as masterfully written prose as Marilynne Robinson, but more explicitly Christian. She says, “My aim in writing is to make goodness attractive.”

3) Flannery O’Connor: She is probably best known for her short stories, which may be the perfect beach read because they do not require a prolonged attention. The themes in her stories revolve around morality and Jesus, but in a strange and revealing way. The feel is often dark and the meaning is not always clear but she is definitely tugging on the strings of the heart and soul. She captures the terrible beauty of many points of Christian Theology. “The River” which can be found in the collection “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is probably one of my favorite stories, but its goodness is too hard not to spoil. Just read it! If you must have a novel, her novel “Wiseblood” is on my list for beach reading next week. I’ll tell you how it goes.

Happy Reading!