When did you first know that you were black?
That’s a question I remember being asked by a professor when I was a Duke Divinity School seminarian. It was a question about racial identity and formation, a question that points toward what W.E.B. DuBois called the “problem” of blackness.
Growing up in a Mississippi railroad town that didn’t get the news that America was in a post-Jim Crow era, I guess race was always part of my formative experiences. My father devoted his adult life to civil rights litigation, suing governors and legislators and city officials in order to make the Magnolia State a more racially equitable place. And my mother, who long experienced the triple jeopardy of being a poor-black-woman, constantly reminded my little brother and me that the world was a mean place for black boys like us.
But it wasn’t until the first grade that I really knew down in my bones how bad it was to have been born black. Prior to Christmas break (we called it that back then) my first grade teacher gave our class a picture of the nativity to color. The nativity, made up of those cherub-faced Hallmark people, included Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus; there were angels and wise men too. Already, at the age of six or seven, I had a vivid imagination. And so in my first grade mind, I envisioned the nativity scene as what Josiah Royce and Martin Luther King called the “beloved community”. I looked around the classroom and saw all these variations of brown: chocolate and coffee, chestnut and bronze, mahogany and sepia, coal and copper.
And then there was my teacher, not really snow white but the color of sand. No, peach, that was her color. Peach. And so, with all shades of brown and one peach I gathered the appropriate Crayola crayons and colored the people in my picture in a way that reflected to colorful diversity in our classroom. And I was proud of my work, my labor of love.
“You have to do yours over,” my teacher scoffed. I was confused, somewhat dismayed. I thought I did a great job. I thought she would like it. But she informed me that my picture was historically and biblically inaccurate because Jesus and the angels and Joseph and Mary were white, and I had colored each of them various shades of brown.
Now, I didn’t fully grasp her complaint. It would be some years before I truly understood the science fiction of race and all of its horrors. It would be decades before I knew how pseudo-religious and pseudo-scientific forces conspired to make black inferior and collaboratively construct a racialized world through conquests and colonization and slavery and genocide.
What I did know at the time, and readily stated to my teacher, was that everyone in the room was some kind of brown and that she was the only peach person in the room. So I made Mary peach (I guess I also offended her by making Joseph and Mary an interracial couple). My teacher was not amused. Nor was I. She insisted that I do it over, color Jesus and his family and the angels white, or I would have to see the principal, who was a black man.
I saw the principal (I inherited both my dad and mom’s stubbornness) and he too insisted that change the color of the holy people in the picture. And after protesting further, rejecting his insistence that I color the lovely picture over, my parents got involved. My mother gave my teacher and principal a piece of her mind, letting them know that she and my father taught us to respect and honor our racial and cultural heritage and that there was nothing wrong about her son’s creative license. My dad, too, got involved, writing my teacher a six-page letter expositing theological, biblical, cultural, and historical arguments for why I was to be defended in my interracial imagination displayed on cherubic Hallmark faces.
This Christmas season reminded me of that rather interesting teachable moment. When FOX News’ Megyn Kelly said that Jesus is white, it sparked a firestorm of debate on cable news and on social media. It made plain the basic assumption of a certain racial imagination in this country: that a Palestinian Jew from the Near East was a pale figure from Europe; that the incarnate Son of God has a preferential option for white America. To be sure, when Michelangelo painted Jesus, he did so in his image, not as the Lord truly appeared two millennia ago. But throughout the world many see Jesus as a white man and to demand otherwise is to commit a heresy, as it were. In one very significant sense, it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was. In Evangelical parlance, it’s Christ’s atoning red blood, not the color of his body, that matters most. But anyone familiar with how whiteness has been deployed to dehumanize other races, and how a white Jesus has been exploited to divinely sanction white superiority and European domination of the world will note that the conversation about Jesus’ skin color is more than a conversation about phenotype. For behind it is an anthropological idolatry and an ecclesial heresy.
The corrective isn’t just putting dreadlocks and dark skin on Jesus, making him into the image of a Rastafarian. The corrective, at least to me, is to take the power out of white supremacy and its religious zeal and anchoring. It is to show it to be a lie from the pit of hell, a Luciferian doctrine that diminishes the image of God in some for the false exceptionalism of a few. I still believe that Jesus was some shade of brown, maybe olive or wheat or something, and that he looks more like an Arab than an Aryan (a la German nationalism), and that whatever his color, he loves us all. And one day, soon and very soon, white and black and everyone in between will be able to sing in the words of that old hymn:
Red, brown, yellow, black or white
We’re all precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world