Radical theologies

I was thinking about Iran’s rhetorical and military response to the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The Iranian political leadership and civilians called for vengeance. This is quite a contrast to the penchant of American Negroes to forgive, almost reflexively, those who do ill to us.

I have wondered about the conceptual underpinnings of these differences. Many say that Christianity is at fault here. That Black people have been sedated by a very powerful opiate–a religion that compels fixation on the hereafter rather than the present world. Often we know better than this, that is that African Americans’ relationship with Christianity has been more complex than this, but nonetheless, such rhetoric persists–especially in the context of asymmetrical and racialized violence in America.

Then I was in a bookstore tonight and saw a book titled, “Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans” by Gayraud S. Wilmore. I glanced over it, didn’t buy it, but it stimulated a necessary reevaluation of some of these premises.

I recalled Nat Turner and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who though Christian, were advocates of armed insurrection or armed self-defense. Turner, for his part, reportedly said that his rebellion began with a sign for God. Bishop McNeal Turner famously declared that “God is a Negro”. He would go on to argue in favor of armed self-defense. He stated: “We have had it in our mind to say this for over seven years, but on account of our Episcopal status we hesitated to express ourselves thus, fearing it would meet the disapproval of the House of Bishops. But their approval or disapproval has done nothing to stop the fiendish murderers who stalk abroad and are exterminating my race, so we have now said it, and hereafter we shall speak it, preach it, tell it, and write it. Again we say, Get guns, negroes! get guns, and may God give you good aim when you shoot.” Turner’s instruction is a historical echo of the 20th Century group, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, whose commitment to armed self-defense, reminds us that Christianity has also been an idiom of armed struggle or armed self-defense.

At a certain level I think that this suggests that African people have been sufficiently ingenious so as marshal a range of conceptual vehicles as mediums of radical thought. Hence we find that the idiom of revolutionary or insurrectionary struggle has variously been that of “New World” African spiritualities (as in the case of Haiti), Christianity (as in the case of Nat Turner), Islam (as in the case of Malcolm X), to say nothing of non-religious voices. The imperative for resistance has, at times, been of greater import than the medium of its articulation, which has variously become malleable in the hands and minds of those who see its utility for radical ends.

Nat Turner and the (re)birthing of historical memory

I just watched The Birth of a Nation with a local rites-of-passage program that I help to coordinate. The film is quite riveting. I did not watch it expecting a historically accurate rendition of the life of Nat Turner. I expected it to do what I have seen similar films accomplish such as Malcolm X, Panther, Quilombo, Besouro, and so on–that is to offer a depiction of historical events based only partially on the documented history, while providing a generous degree of creative embellishments. One benefit that films like this offer are that they often provide a basis for communal dialog. In this sense this film has not disappointed.

As it relates to the plot, the film does a great job of capturing the depth to which Africans struggled to sustain their humanity within a monstrous system. The beauty, complexity, and tragedy of African life during the period was captured in ways that were deeply compelling. The dramatization of the fictionalized Nat Turner moving from being a child possibly destined for war, to learning how to read, to his growing disillusionment within the institution of enslavement, to his ultimate choice to take up arms against it was wonderfully dramatized. The depiction of this particular journey is augmented via the clear struggle of Nate Parker’s Nat Turner between finding comfort and nominal acceptance within the barbarity of chattel enslavement or becoming a voice and instrument of his people’s deliverance. The emotive dimension of armed struggle as a process of not only the exacting of vengeance, but asserting one’s collective right to self-determination was captured in ways that unfolded rather vividly.

The film employed a range of visual devices that captured the dynamic expression and retention of traditional African cultural practices in the Americas. Though the historical accuracy of these as it relates to the life of the historic Nat Turner is questionable, this portrayal is situated within the actuality of African spiritual, language, artisan, artistic, and cosmological retentions in the Americas. These depictions, particularly the ones of traditional African spirituality that intersect with the young Nat, are a reflection of the paths of the many other men and women who viewed enslavement as wholly illegitimate and intolerable, and as such resolved to confront and destroy it, whose works and deeds were often preceded by invocations of various African ancestors and divinities reflective of war and bravery.

Though their victories were incomplete, after all few victories were as complete as the Haitian revolution, they did serve to inspire subsequent generations. The names of these determined ancestors were spoken on the tongues of the living, giving resonance and relevance to their spirits among those who would follow in their footsteps. They, as Nat Turner, became more than martyrs for the cause of African redemption, they become symbols of backs unbent, minds not destroyed, and souls not broken. They became symbols of resistance. They illustrated the words of Fred Hampton, that “you can “kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution”. Their ascension to the realm of symbolic representation made them immortal. Thus their works, their deeds still stir the imagination. They remain exemplars of ancestral instruction.

This is not a perfect film. But it is one that may yet keep the thought and spirit of African liberation in our hearts and minds. The historic Nat Turner was compelled to move against the dehumanization of his people by what he witnessed, what he knew to be true, and his faith that the struggle for justice would inevitably be rewarded by victory. His struggle existed in the liminal space between that which was improbable and that which was imperative. The improbable eradication of an intolerable reality was an imperative that he did not, could not ignore. All missteps aside, The Birth of a Nation makes this unequivocally clear. It reminds us of Nat Turner’s sacrifice and symbolic significance today. The historical Nat Turner’s legacy challenges us to both ask and answer “What future, if any, do African people have outside of the mandates of the oppressive system that began in chattel slavery, continued under state-sponsored racial subordination (Jim Crow), and on to the system of mass-incarceration today?”