I gave myself a treat this evening: I went to a book reading (at an actual bookstore). And it was packed! The book in question was Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody, the autobiography of Black liberation theologian James Cone. I was interested because, as someone once interested in liberation theologies, Cone should have been one of my heroes. Nevertheless, I didn’t read him. His works weren’t assigned in theology class and I wasn’t on good terms with anything related to the Black church due to my misguided conviction that Black Christians were more hopelessly homophobic than Christians in general.
The readings, short selections from the autobiography, were read by renowned Princeton religion professor Elaine Pagels, equally renowned Princeton religion professor Eddie Glaude, and a stunning, young, Black woman who had earned her PhD under Cone. Each of the readers gave short reflections on the person and legacy of Cone, then took questions from the audience which were as eloquent as the presenters, themselves. (I don’t know what else I expected, this was, after all, Princeton.)
I’d like to discuss the work of James Cone at some point in the future, perhaps as I am reading his autobiography, but I’d like to mention now one message that I found empowering: each person’s story matters. There is no whitewashing the human experience. There is no one-size-fits-all. Our particularity matters. Our individual voices matter. Anytime we try to speak for all people and silence voices different from ours we set up a kind of fundamentalism which is neither accurate nor true. We need to hear each other’s voices, which means we must speak our own truth.
This speaking our own truth is no trivial matter. James Cone wrote about wearing a mask as the respectable Negro for all of his early life and through graduate school. When he was able to take off the mask he was, as Elaine Pagels described him, one of the fiercest men she had ever met.
I remember the respectable, non-threatening, Negro mask. In fact, if I’m honest, I wear it quite a lot in my daily life and hide behind its false sense of privilege. But my mask is beginning to slip over time, and I sense a fierceness of my own waiting to be unleashed.
Perhaps this writing space is a place to try out living without a mask. It is a readily-accessible space for doing so. Perhaps I will be encouraged by reading Cone and others to live my truth and speak in my own voice boldly.
Perhaps, with me, you will be able to let your own mask slip and speak boldly in your own voice, too.
Thank you for your time and attention.
I’d love to know your thoughts on what you’ve read.
Please comment, below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May God richly bless you on your journey.