Can America survive if it doesn’t reckon with the legacy of White Supremacy?

I needed a break from Kendi’s “How to Be An Antiracist” (I seldom am able to read books the whole way through at once), so I picked up my first book by James H. Cone, “Black Theology & Black Power”. I haven’t even made it past the introduction, but I’ve already hit a quote that seemed extraordinarily relevant.

In the introduction West is giving context for the book, and he’s beginning to describe how Cone wrote it, among other things, in response to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. He writes:

After 212 uprisings on the night that the bullets went through the precious body of Martin Luther King, Jr., America can no longer deny the fact that either it comes to terms with the vicious legacy of white supremacy, or the curtain will fall on the precious experiment in democracy called America[.]

Cornel West, Black Theology and Human Identity (reproduced in the introduction to James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power)

I’ve been feeling this. I’ve been feeling like, as people describe our increasing fragmented country, we may be seeing the death throes of a nation unwilling to address one of its deepest internal fractures.

In this introduction he also addresses the anger I know so many of us have felt in response to the white people and white churches in our lives; he quotes Cone when he wrote:

This work… is written with a definite attitude, the attitude of an angry black man, disgusted with the oppression of black people in America and with the scholarly demand to be ‘objective’ about it. Too many people have died, and too many are on the edge of death…. Is it not time for theologians to get upset?

Black Theology and Black Power, 2-3

The big question I have, and which I’ve been asked often recently, is, “Is there hope for white people?” Obviously, as a white person, I think there is hope for individuals, but the question, as asked, is talking more about society. Is there hope that the mass of white people and white institutions and organizations and politics and white society can change, fast enough, that everything around us doesn’t fall apart? Again, West writes:

Professor Cone raised a fundamental question that has pervaded the entire black freedom struggle: namely, whether there actually are enough intellectual, political, and cultural resources in American life to fully undermine the vicious legacy of white supremacy in America. I discern in this text a death of faith in the promise of American democracy […] What makes us think that America has the capacity to produce a full-fledge multiracial democracy in which people of African descent are treated as kindly and equally as anybody else[?] What evidence do we have?

Cornel West, Black Theology and Human Identity (reproduced in the introduction to James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power)

One of the biggest limitations I’ve experienced from my time in White Evangelicalism is not allowing myself to feel hopeless, or really even often sad, because that’s not the “correct” response in a world where God is control, etc.

But there’s something… freeing, I think?… about allowing yourself to fully experience whatever the natural next step of your emotional and mental state is. I do feel hopeless. That doesn’t mean there is no hope, or is hope, but just that that’s how I feel. And I think that’s one of the things I’m most hopeful about in reading this intro. In another point in the intro, West writes (emphasis mine):

[Cone is] also dealing with the death of something in him; it is the death of the “Negro” and the birth of “blackness”. It is the death of a certain kind of deferential disposition to white supremacy in the hearts and minds and souls of black people themselves and the birth of a certain kind of self-assertiveness—a courage to be.


West’s final quote from Cone about this piece of the conversation, sad because it’s from fifty years years ago but still hugely relevant today, describes what our country feels like today:

Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see, but we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable […] The decision lies with White America and not least with white Americans who speak the name of Christ.

James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 143

It feels like, as much as this is just a catchy phrase, America is once again at a point of reckoning. How we respond to the moment we’re in is so vital to the future of our country. As West quotes Farrakhan as saying during the Million Man March, “White supremacy must die in order for America to truly live.”

And, to finish with yet another quote, we choose how we will respond:

[…] Professor Cone has asked us to dip our intelligence into the world of pain and trouble in order to emerge with a response to the fundamental question: energy or despair, courage or complacency, love or might? Professor Cone says quite explicitly that it is all about energy, it is all about courage and, in the end, it is all about love and justice.

Cornel West, Black Theology and Human Identity (reproduced in the introduction to James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power)

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