Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian Info

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"As Martin Luther King said, we must learn to live
together as human beings, treating each other with dignity and respect,
or we will perish together as fools. There is no other choice. I choose
life."

James H. Cone is widely recognized as the founder
of Black Liberation Theology-- a synthesis of the Gospel message
embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the spirit of Black pride
embodied by Malcolm X. Prompted by the Detroit riots and the death of
King, Cone, a young theology professor, was impelled to write his first
book, Black Theology and Black Power, followed by A Black
Theology of Liberation.
With these works he established himself as
one of the most prophetic and challenging voices of our time.
In
this powerful and passionate memoir-- his final work-- Cone describes
the obstacles he overcame to find his voice, to respond to the signs of
the times, and to offer a voice for those-- like the parents who raised
him in Bearden, Arkansas in the era of lynching and Jim Crow-- who had
no voice. Recounting lessons learned both from critics and students, and
the ongoing challenge of his models King, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin,
he describes his efforts to use theology as a tool in the struggle
against oppression and for a better world.

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Reviews for Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian:

5

Nov 26, 2018

Second reading:
Summary: To understand Cone's theology, you need to understand Cone and his context.

James H Cone has been a frequent concern in many conservative white Christian circles over the past year. There are several causes for that, but one of the threads that has given rise to the discussion is that Walter Strickland, one of only a handful of Black professors at a Southern Baptist seminary, was quoted by Molly Worthen in an NYT article saying that he assigned James H Cone and found Second reading:
Summary: To understand Cone's theology, you need to understand Cone and his context.

James H Cone has been a frequent concern in many conservative white Christian circles over the past year. There are several causes for that, but one of the threads that has given rise to the discussion is that Walter Strickland, one of only a handful of Black professors at a Southern Baptist seminary, was quoted by Molly Worthen in an NYT article saying that he assigned James H Cone and found value in interacting with him. That gave rise to calls for Strickland to resign, which prompted this statement.

The controversy continued with the president of the seminary where Strickland works both defending Strickland and calling Cone a heretic and 'almost certainly not a Christian' on twitter.  Andre Henry wrote an article about the controversy. It was this background that a friend of a friend asked to discuss Cone. Over this past weekend, I picked up the audiobook and listened to it (having previously read it when it first came out.)

I am not a Cone scholar. I have not read all of his books, although I will probably read all of them eventually (there are not that many). In my lay opinion, I think that people tend to approach Cone wrong. Many people want to jump into early constructive theology, God of the Oppressed or A Black Theology of Liberation. I think that because of his theological method, heavily drawing on his personal and cultural experience, that you need to start with one or both of his memoirs.

Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody was posthumously published. The book was completed and ready for publication when Cone passed away in 2018. His earlier My Soul Looks Back was a mid-career memoir. There is a lot over overlapping material, but they are both worth reading. If you are looking for an order, I would recommend, Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Spirituals and the Blues, My Soul Looks Back, Martin & Malcolm & American and then you can move his earlier constructive theology.

I say all of this because Cone developed his theology in response to the culture of the US during the late civil rights era.
When the Detroit rebellion, also known as the “12th Street Riot,” broke out in July of 1967, the turmoil woke me out of my academic world. I could no longer continue quietly teaching white students at Adrian College (Michigan) about Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and other European theologians when black people were dying in the streets of Detroit, Newark, and the back roads of Mississippi and Alabama. I had to do something. But I wasn't a civil rights leader, like Martin Luther King Jr., or an artist, like James Baldwin, who was spurred in his writing when he saw the searing image of a black girl, Dorothy Counts, surrounded by hateful whites as she attempted to integrate a white high school in Charlotte, North Carolina (September 1957). I was a theologian, asking: What, if anything, is theology worth in the black struggle in America?
Cone trained as a theologian at Garrett–Evangelical Theological Seminary. His dissertation was on Barth. He studied all of the European theologians of note. He eventually determined that:
white supremacy is America's original sin and liberation is the Bible's central message. Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God's liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology but a theology of the Antichrist.
Cone had a response to this theology that was very similar to the response to Black Lives Matters over the past couple of years:
When I spoke of loving blackness and embracing Black Power, they heard hate toward white people. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Baldwin confronted similar reactions. Any talk about the love and beauty of blackness seemed to arouse fear and hostility in whites.
Cone viewed his work not as opposing people that have white skin, either as individuals or as a group, but opposing a system of belief that valued white skin more than black skin. In other words, Cone was not asserting the superiority of black skin over white skin in response to the historical assertion of the superiority of white skin, but both metaphorically and actually asserting that the black historical culture was more authentically Christian because it was closer to the oppressed, which is where Jesus was.
“How can I, a white [person] become black?” was the most frequent question whites asked me. “Being black in America has very little to do with skin color,” I wrote. “To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”6 To become black is like what Jesus told Nicodemus, that he must be “born again,” that is, “born of water and Spirit” (John 3), the Black Spirit of liberation. Black religion scholars would push back hard on this theological claim. Among my fiercest critics, and at the same time a devoted friend, was Gayraud Wilmore, author of the important text Black Religion and Black Radicalism (1973). But I held firm to my claim, despite his objections, because I was speaking primarily symbolically, while Wilmore was speaking primarily historically. History significantly informs what theologians say, but it's not the final arbiter in theological matters. The Word of God, Jesus the Christ, as revealed in scripture and black experience, is the final judge. I didn't see how anyone could be a Christian and not understand that.
One of the disconnects between Cone and traditional white theology is the role of rationality in theology. Cone is speaking metaphorically frequently. He is often read as if he is always speaking literally. His own dissertation advisor accused Cone of "All you have done is try to justify black people killing me and other whites." An accusation which Cone says was absurd, he was trying to assert both the image of God in black bodies and the sin of oppressing them. But the disconnect is more than just that. Cone asserts that theology is ultimately non-rational.
Theology is not philosophy; it is not primarily rational language and thus cannot answer the question of theodicy, which philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. Theology is symbolic language, language about the imagination, which seeks to comprehend what is beyond comprehension. Theology is not antirational but it is nonrational, transcending the world of rational discourse and pointing to a realm of reality that can only be grasped by means of the imagination. That was why Reinhold Niebuhr said, “One should not talk about ultimate reality without imagination,” and why the poet Wallace Stevens said, “God and the imagination are one.” Black liberation theology strives to open a world in which black people's dignity is recognized.
Cone's understanding of theology as non-rational, I think, is why his writing is littered with musical (and poetic) references. The music of both the spirituals and the blues is attempting to use the imagination to understand God in a transrational way. (Willie James Jennings uses a similar type of language in his The Christain Imagination. )
I wasn't writing for rational reasons based on library research; I was writing out of my experience, speaking for the dignity of black people in a white supremacist world. I was on a mission to transform self-loathing Negro Christians into black-loving revolutionary disciples of the Black Christ.
And
The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world's value system, proclaiming that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last. Secular intellectuals find this idea absurd, but it is profoundly real in the spiritual life of black folk.
And
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Nobody knows my sorrow, Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Glory Hallelujah! As I heard it, the “trouble” is white folks, and the “Hallelujah” is a faith expression that white folks don't have the last word about life's ultimate meaning.
I read Cone, not because I think he is the culmination of all Black theology or even particularly representative of the Black church as a whole, but because he is writing theology that is attempting to contextualize his experience of growing up in the Jim Crow south, coming of age in the civil rights era and continuing to speak to the reality of the world in what many white people think is a 'post-racial' society. The reality is that Cone is far more accurately describing theological reality than many that continue to insist that racism is not real, or those that recently were trying to say that slavery was not all that theologically bad.

_________
First reading
Short Review: I read Cone's 1985 memoir My Soul Looks Back almost exactly a year ago. Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody obviously still is a memoir and covers some similar material, but it surprisingly different. More than 40 years between the two memoirs does matter.

I could easily have a quote review, but I resisted. I did probably quote too much in my blog post about it, but Cone is quotable.

I think this is important as context to the rest of Cone's writing. It is not that Cone doesn't give context for why in his other books, but this extended reflection really is helpful for the broader context of Cone's whole career. I think this is probably even more important for people that want to reject his theology out of hand. There is much to grapple with here.

My longer review is on my blog at http://bookwi.se/cone-memoir/ ...more
5

Nov 28, 2018

How do I even talk about this book? James Cone is probably the single most important theologian in my life. I often refer to reading him for the first time as my second conversion experience. His thought infected me and Ive spent the better part of a decade trying to get the words he put inside of me out into the world. He reinvigorated Christianity for me. He showed how white supremacy had so infiltrated my religion and indicted me for participating in that. He challenged me. He pissed me off. How do I even talk about this book? James Cone is probably the single most important theologian in my life. I often refer to reading him for the first time as my second conversion experience. His thought infected me and I’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to get the words he put inside of me out into the world. He reinvigorated Christianity for me. He showed how white supremacy had so infiltrated my religion and indicted me for participating in that. He challenged me. He pissed me off. He rebuked me. And I fought back and disagreed and yelled and eventually shut up and sat at his feet.

I remember the moment it happened. I was writing a chapter about Cone for my first master’s thesis. On one half of my computer screen was the Word document, on the other half was a live stream from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. On one half of the screen was a paper where I was saying that Cone was too angry and militant (the most common critique whites level at him) and on the other half were peaceful protestors shouting “hands up don’t shoot” as police snipers placed laser sites on their chests. I was livid. I felt an anger inside of me that I didn’t know what to do with. And suddenly I got it. Suddenly I disagreed with all of my critiques against Cone. The chapter was due the next day. I had to email my supervisor and tell him why I couldn’t submit it. I had to scrap the chapter altogether and it took another 4 years before I felt like I could write about Cone.

So I have an emotional connection to Cone that I don’t have with any other thinker. And that connection is exacerbated by his recent death. To pretend that I am in any way capable of objectively assessing his posthumously released memoir is laughable.

This book is a miracle. It’s challenging and elucidating. Cone goes book by book, talking about what he was thinking and feeling as he wrote each of his treatises. He discusses what he learned from critics and students. He talks about his intellectual trinity of Martin King, Malcom X, and James Baldwin. He remains a prophet, boldly and unabashedly calling out white supremacy and complacency. And he offers more grace and forgiveness than I’ve ever seen in his writing. This book is a must read for anyone reading Cone. It illuminates and grants clarity to his entire corpus. And it’s a damn good read too.

I loved this book. I want everyone to read this book. I want to teach this book. I can’t say enough good things about this book. ...more
5

Nov 25, 2018

WOW! Powerful, powerful book about the black and white persons in America. Invaluable read. I will read more by Cone and also reread the Autobiography of Malcolm X plus books and stories by James Baldwin. Should be required reading for whites people in America.
4

Dec 27, 2018

Are you white, like I am? Well, perhaps you should read this one. The founder of Black Theology has a thing or two to say. Essentially, if you're white, you're not going to understand what's going on. I can respect that. I don't know what the hell is going on. All I know is that something is seriously messed up, but nothing about this messed-up-ness has impacted this white boy personally. That -in the end- is what's wrong.

It's Cone's assertion that any Christianity that doesn't condemn white Are you white, like I am? Well, perhaps you should read this one. The founder of Black Theology has a thing or two to say. Essentially, if you're white, you're not going to understand what's going on. I can respect that. I don't know what the hell is going on. All I know is that something is seriously messed up, but nothing about this messed-up-ness has impacted this white boy personally. That -in the end- is what's wrong.

It's Cone's assertion that any Christianity that doesn't condemn white supremacy is not Christian. It's the antichrist. His point is that Christ would have been on the side of the oppressed. So when you see Billy Graham's kid up there endorsing the racist Trump, you have to think... is this what Jesus would do?

Cone would have said no. And that's what I say. Christianity is not about rejecting others, it's about accepting them... no matter what. ...more
5

Jan 03, 2020

This was my first book I have read by Cone and this, his memoir written just before he died, served as a wonderful introduction to this important theologian. Yes, Cone was an angry black man, but in a prophetic sense that gave voice to the heretical wrongs of racism and in service to an enabling vision of a new, whole, and just future. He is one of the few theologians I have read that actually helps us negotiate our present and future (since so many theologians remain stuck debating past and This was my first book I have read by Cone and this, his memoir written just before he died, served as a wonderful introduction to this important theologian. Yes, Cone was an angry black man, but in a prophetic sense that gave voice to the heretical wrongs of racism and in service to an enabling vision of a new, whole, and just future. He is one of the few theologians I have read that actually helps us negotiate our present and future (since so many theologians remain stuck debating past and mostly dead issues). ...more
5

May 19, 2019

James Cone is amazing and I am wondering why I have never read him before this year, coming from a Christian school, Christian college, and then Christian seminary. Never had him and that's a gigantic miss. Read one of his books today.
4

Feb 25, 2019

James Cone is a fascinating theologian and the pioneer of black theology. I always enjoy the challenge of reading Cone and this was no exception. His perspective is important and though he writes specifically TO the black community, his works should be read widely by white folks as well. To hear his theological and personal journey through this short autobiography really helps to trace his development which really happened through the criticism he faced with colleagues and students. A worthy James Cone is a fascinating theologian and the pioneer of black theology. I always enjoy the challenge of reading Cone and this was no exception. His perspective is important and though he writes specifically TO the black community, his works should be read widely by white folks as well. To hear his theological and personal journey through this short autobiography really helps to trace his development which really happened through the criticism he faced with colleagues and students. A worthy read about an inspirational man. ...more
4

Jul 02, 2019

Really helpful read for me, including the depressing experience of reading the critiques/resistance he received in 1968 and knowing I still hear the same (too angry, too black, too political, too personal) in 2019. For those familiar with feminist and womanist critiques of Cone, he also tries to make peace with some of his theological foes. Its not clear that he totally hears and receives those critiques (and in fact he narrates disagreements with a gay student in the 1980s and with younger Really helpful read for me, including the depressing experience of reading the critiques/resistance he received in 1968 and knowing I still hear the same (“too angry,” “too black,” “too political,” “too personal”) in 2019. For those familiar with feminist and womanist critiques of Cone, he also tries to make peace with some of his theological foes. It’s not clear that he totally hears and receives those critiques (and in fact he narrates disagreements with a gay student in the 1980s and with younger black seminarians late in his career, neither of which encounters portrays him in any wondrous light), but there is an effort that strikes me as greater than the average academic (or person) in their late 70s. A strong final book from an incredibly important theological and human figure. ...more
3

Nov 10, 2019

I gained even more empathy for Cones life and work, and Im still listening and learning. To be fair the historical backdrop is always what shapes and forms a persons theology and thought. There was absolutely NOBODY in his time period speaking to ills of white supremacy, racism, and the black struggle in a crucial period in our nations history on theologically academic level. None. Hence the formation of black liberation theology. Though there is much that I disagree with, I completely I gained even more empathy for Cone’s life and work, and I’m still listening and learning. To be fair the historical backdrop is always what shapes and forms a persons theology and thought. There was absolutely NOBODY in his time period speaking to ills of white supremacy, racism, and the black struggle in a crucial period in our nations history on theologically academic level. None. Hence the formation of black liberation theology. Though there is much that I disagree with, I completely understand and am challenged by the sentiment. ...more
5

Dec 17, 2019

I could not recommend this more. It may be the best autobiography I've read. Besides being a clear storyteller, Cone brilliantly and honestly outlines his life work, the reasons and experiences behind it, and gives a brief look at the work itself. While this work is far from a theological book or essay, it will set afire the desire to be an anti-racist, while illuminating and seriously challenging any audience who has not shared in Cone or other Black American's experiences. Cone pulls no I could not recommend this more. It may be the best autobiography I've read. Besides being a clear storyteller, Cone brilliantly and honestly outlines his life work, the reasons and experiences behind it, and gives a brief look at the work itself. While this work is far from a theological book or essay, it will set afire the desire to be an anti-racist, while illuminating and seriously challenging any audience who has not shared in Cone or other Black American's experiences. Cone pulls no punches, for which all readers should be grateful. ...more
4

Dec 15, 2018

An interesting, even if not an essential, read. It covers two things in detail--the period in the late 1960's when he was getting started in academia and writing his first books of Black theology. It emphasizes the sources of his passion in his small Black community growing up, his church, and music--spirituals and blues--about which he later wrote a book. And the the period in the 2000's when he was writing the Cross and the Lynching Tree. In the last chapter he discusses the tremendous An interesting, even if not an essential, read. It covers two things in detail--the period in the late 1960's when he was getting started in academia and writing his first books of Black theology. It emphasizes the sources of his passion in his small Black community growing up, his church, and music--spirituals and blues--about which he later wrote a book. And the the period in the 2000's when he was writing the Cross and the Lynching Tree. In the last chapter he discusses the tremendous influence of James Baldwin on his thinking. ...more
5

Apr 11, 2019

If you care about theology, church, and/or people of color; you need to read this book. It is powerful and eye-opening especially for white people.
In matters of theology and God, we (White people) assume that our experience is the norm and really, the only experience. This book will broadened that understanding.

This is a great book if you have never read any of James Cones books before. It will introduce you to him and his theology. It will whet your appetite to read more! If you care about theology, church, and/or people of color; you need to read this book. It is powerful and eye-opening — especially for white people.
In matters of theology and God, we (White people) assume that our experience is the norm and really, the only experience. This book will broadened that understanding.

This is a great book if you have never read any of James Cone’s books before. It will introduce you to him and his theology. It will whet your appetite to read more! ...more
5

Mar 21, 2019

Highly insightful!

This book is by far Cones crowning work. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to discover the mind and heart of a masterful writer and the masterpiece of our time, a black liberation theology. I am better after having come in contact with Dr. Cone, black theology and this current project! Highly insightful!

This book is by far Cone’s crowning work. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to discover the mind and heart of a masterful writer and the masterpiece of our time, a black liberation theology. I am better after having come in contact with Dr. Cone, black theology and this current project! ...more
5

Dec 25, 2018

As I am in process of reconstructing my theology and hermeneutic, Ive found this book to be a catalyst in lighting that fire. My respect for Dr. James Cone has widened and deepened. I hate that my love for him and his writing has occurred posthumously. As I am in process of reconstructing my theology and hermeneutic, I’ve found this book to be a catalyst in lighting that fire. My respect for Dr. James Cone has widened and deepened. I hate that my love for him and his writing has occurred posthumously. ...more
5

Jan 17, 2019

I reread The Cross and the Lynching Tree last year and it reminded me how much I learned from Cone over the years. Im so glad to find this new insight to his work. Powerful doesnt begin to capture what James Cones voice was. I reread The Cross and the Lynching Tree last year and it reminded me how much I learned from Cone over the years. I’m so glad to find this new insight to his work. Powerful doesn’t begin to capture what James Cone’s voice was. ...more
5

Sep 09, 2019

I love James Cone, I love his analysis, I love what he's offered to theology and I loved everything about this book.
5

Feb 03, 2019

This is a remarkable book -- a must-read for anyone interested in theology and/or racial justice issues. Cone is a compelling writer.
5

Jun 07, 2019

James Cone's final book is a passionate, eloquent, and inspiring memoir of his theological journey to finding his prophetic voice.
4

Really helpful read for me, including the depressing experience of reading the critiques/resistance he received in 1968 and knowing I still hear the same (“too angry,” “too black,” “too political ...Full Review

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