WARNING: This essay contains graphic language and images.
James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2011; Kindle edition) was a difficult read, at times excruciating for an American child of upper-middle class white privilege like myself. Yet if healing is ever to come – if we are ever to live as one race, the human race, for whom skin color is no more important than a dozen other interesting but secondary characteristics – then we must return to the scene of the crime. Reconciliation begins there.
For Americans, the crime scene spanned at least sixty years, from 1880-1940. Over that period, nearly 5,000 black Americans died at the hands of white lynch mobs (Cone, 3). The victims included a handful of women but were mostly men strung up on trees, castrated, pulled behind automobiles, flayed into unconsciousness and burned alive.
No due process of law was given to these black men often accused of raping white women. In many instances, white anger was provoked by consensual sexual intercourse between a black man and a white female (Cone, 127).
The Marion, Indiana lynching (pictured above) inspired Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allen) to pen the poem, “Strange Fruit,” later recorded by blues singer, Billy Holiday (cited by Cone, 120):
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.
Yet James Cone does more than chronicle the facts regarding the brutal oppression of black Americans during a tragic period of our nation’s history. He does what no white theologian during the period did, namely, Cone clearly and succinctly draws the parallel between the lynching of African Americans (“Negroes,” as they were then called) and the lynching death of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion. Cone concludes (p. 159):
What is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people. The cross is a reminder that the world is fraught with many contradictions – many lynching trees…When black people sing about Jesus’ cross, they often think of black lives lost to the lynching tree. Through their experience of suffering, African Americans have often found themselves existentially at the foot of Jesus’ cross, experiencing his fate, believing that only Jesus understands their lot because he suffered as they have.
To his credit, Cone is not content to merely cast a backward glance, lamenting lynching in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the final chapter of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he updates the metaphor by looking at how the hatred that once manifest itself through lynching has been re-channeled in our time to other means of oppression:
The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly a one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting their day in court (Cone, 162).
Jason Whitlock concurs with Cone. In his ESPN piece, “Why black folks can’t breathe,” Whitlock speaks of SBI (segregation by incarceration), a decades-long phenomenon that has decimated African American families, taking away fathers, uncles, and big brothers in droves, leaving young African American boys and girls economically and socially precarious.
In The Lynching Tree, James Cone recounts the gruesome story of Mary Turner, eight months pregnant. Having witnessed the lynching of her husband, she strongly condemns the crowd, only to be lynched herself, tortured and strung upside-down on a tree. Cone continues: “In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death” (p. 120).
Unfortunately, having told a powerful story that evokes forced abortion, Cone is unwilling to follow-up with the obvious application, the seemingly self-inflicted wound of assisted abortion among the African American community, sometimes labeled “black genocide.” Abortion is an issue that affects not only the African American community, to be sure, yet it appears to do so in outsized numbers. Michael Chapman notes, for example, that in 2012 in New York City – where Cone served so long as a seminary professor – there were more African American babies aborted (31,328) than there were born (24,758). For those taking to the streets in 2014 to rightfully protest the Staten Island death by strangling of African American Eric Garner at the hands of a white police officer, one might ask regarding abortion:
Is there no outrage left about the factors that produce such a high level of collective despair? Why would so many African Americans cooperate with the prenatal lynching of their own most vulnerable, the unborn?
Dr Cone, is this not also a social justice issue worthy of your learned and vocal concern? If so, how can we (regardless of our color) help you raise the alarm?
Despite this blind-spot, James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is a tour de force. It compels white Americans – especially white Americans who claim the name of a crucified Christ – to take ownership both of our ancestors’ transgressions and our own complicity in a system that still oppresses our black brothers and sisters. God, forgive me! God, forgive us! My black brothers and sisters, forgive me! Please forgive us! Let us join and pray:
“God, we come to you. By your grace, help us together – black, white, brown, and all shades in-between – to imagine and implement a more just future for all. In the name of your tortured and lynched son, Jesus, we pray, AMEN.”
Lynching in Marion – Journal of American History
James Cone – Union Theological Seminary