Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.
Soul Liberation swayed onstage at the University of Illinois arena, rocking colorful dashikis and Afros that shot up like balled fists—an amazing sight to behold for the eleven thousand college students in the audience. Soul Liberation appeared nothing like the White ensembles in suits who’d been sounding hymns for nearly two days after Jesus’s birthday in 1970.
Black students had succeeded in pushing the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the U.S. evangelical movement’s premier college organizer, to devote the second night of the conference to Black theology. More than five hundred Black attendees from across the country were on hand as Soul Liberation began to perform. Two of those Black students were my parents.
They were not sitting together. Days earlier, they had ridden on the same bus for twenty-four hours that felt like forty-two, from Manhattan through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, before arriving in central Illinois. One hundred Black New Yorkers converged on InterVarsity’s Urbana ’70.
My mother and father had met during the Thanksgiving break weeks earlier when Larry, an accounting student at Manhattan’s Baruch College, co-organized a recruiting event for Urbana ’70 at his church in Jamaica, Queens. Carol was one of the thirty people who showed up—she had come home to Queens from Nyack College, a small Christian school about forty-five miles north of her parents’ home in Far Rockaway. The first meeting was uneventful, but Carol noticed Larry, an overly serious student with a towering Afro, his face hidden behind a forest of facial hair, and Larry noticed Carol, a petite nineteen-year-old with dark freckles sprayed over her caramel complexion, even if all they did was exchange small talk. They’d independently decided to go to Urbana ’70 when they heard that Tom Skinner would be preaching and Soul Liberation would be performing. At twenty-eight years old, Skinner was growing famous as a young evangelist of Black liberation theology. A former gang member and son of a Baptist preacher, he reached thousands via his weekly radio show and tours, where he delivered sermons at packed iconic venues like the Apollo Theater in his native Harlem. In 1970, Skinner published his third and fourth books, How Black Is the Gospel? and Words of Revolution.
Carol and Larry devoured both books like a James Brown tune, like a Muhammad Ali fight. Carol had discovered Skinner through his younger brother, Johnnie, who was enrolled with her at Nyack. Larry’s connection was more ideological. In the spring of 1970, he had enrolled in “The Black Aesthetic,” a class taught by legendary Baruch College literary scholar Addison Gayle Jr. For the first time, Larry read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Amiri Baraka’s wrenching plays, and the banned revolutionary manifesto The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee. It was an awakening. After Gayle’s class, Larry started searching for a way to reconcile his faith with his newfound Black consciousness. That search led him to Tom Skinner.
Soul Liberation launched into their popular anthem, “Power to the People.” The bodies of the Black students who had surged to the front of the arena started moving almost in unison with the sounds of booming drums and heavy bass that, along with the syncopated claps, generated the rhythm and blues of a rural Southern revival.
The wave of rhythm then rushed through the thousands of White bodies in the arena. Before long, they, too, were on their feet, swaying and singing along to the soulful sounds of Black power.
Every chord from Soul Liberation seemed to build up anticipation for the keynote speaker to come. When the music ended, it was time: Tom Skinner, dark-suited with a red tie, stepped behind the podium, his voice serious as he began his history lesson.
“The evangelical church . . . supported the status quo. It supported slavery; it supported segregation; it preached against any attempt of the Black man to stand on his own two feet.”
Skinner shared how he came to worship an elite White Jesus Christ, who cleaned people up through “rules and regulations,” a savior who prefigured Richard Nixon’s vision of law and order. But one day, Skinner realized that he’d gotten Jesus wrong. Jesus wasn’t in the Rotary Club and he wasn’t a policeman. Jesus was a “radical revolutionary, with hair on his chest and dirt under his fingernails.” Skinner’s new idea of Jesus was born of and committed to a new reading of the gospel. “Any gospel that does not . . . speak to the issue of enslavement” and “injustice” and “inequality—any gospel that does not want to go where people are hungry and poverty-stricken and set them free in the name of Jesus Christ—is not the gospel.”
Back in the days of Jesus, “there was a system working just like today,” Skinner declared. But “Jesus was dangerous. He was dangerous because he was changing the system.” The Romans locked up this “revolutionary” and “nailed him to a cross” and killed and buried him. But three days later, Jesus Christ “got up out of the grave” to bear witness to us today. “Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind” and “go into the world and tell men who are bound mentally, spiritually, and physically, ‘The liberator has come!’ ”
The last line pulsated through the crowd. “The liberator has come!” Students practically leapt out of their seats in an ovation—taking on the mantle of this fresh gospel. The liberators had come.
My parents were profoundly receptive to Skinner’s call for evangelical liberators and attended a series of Black caucuses over the week of the conference that reinforced his call every night. At Urbana ’70, Ma and Dad found themselves leaving the civilizing and conserving and racist church they realized they’d been part of. They were saved into Black liberation theology and joined the churchless church of the Black Power movement. Born in the days of Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, and other antiracists who confronted segregationists and assimilationists in the 1950s and 1960s, the movement for Black solidarity, Black cultural pride, and Black economic and political self-determination had enraptured the entire Black world. And now, in 1970, Black power had enraptured my parents. They stopped thinking about saving Black people and started thinking about liberating Black people.
In the spring of 1971, Ma returned to Nyack College and helped form a Black student union, an organization that challenged racist theology, the Confederate flags on dorm-room doors, and the paucity of Black students and programming. She started wearing African-print dresses and wrapped her growing Afro in African-print ties. She dreamed of traveling to the motherland as a missionary.
Dad returned to his church and quit its famed youth choir. He began organizing programs that asked provocative questions: “Is Christianity the White man’s religion?” “Is the Black church relevant to the Black community?” He began reading the work of James Cone, the scholarly father of Black liberation theology and author of the influential Black Theology & Black Power in 1969.
One day in the spring of 1971, Dad struck up the nerve to go up to Harlem and attend Cone’s class at Union Theological Seminary. Cone lectured on his new book, A Black Theology of Liberation. After class, Dad approached the professor.
“What is your definition of a Christian?” Dad asked in his deeply earnest way.
Cone looked at Dad with equal seriousness and responded: “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.”
James Cone’s working definition of a Christian described a Christianity of the enslaved, not the Christianity of the slaveholders. Receiving this definition was a revelatory moment in Dad’s life. Ma had her own similar revelation in her Black student union—that Christianity was about struggle and liberation. My parents now had, separately, arrived at a creed with which to shape their lives, to be the type of Christians that Jesus the revolutionary inspired them to be. This new definition of a word that they’d already chosen as their core identity naturally transformed them.