As a young girl, I loved flipping through children’s illustrated Bibles. I’d often accompany my grandmother and aunt to the Christian bookstore, where they’d peruse the aisles, picking up materials for Sunday school lessons and other church activities. I was always happy to pass that time in the kids’ section with Bible characters coming alive on the page.
Following one such sojourn, we visited an older lady from church on the way home. Looking around her living room, I noticed a painting and asked who the subject was. The lady told me that it was Jesus. Later, as we headed back to the car, I turned to my grandmother and asked in bewilderment, “Why was her Jesus white?”
As an African American millennial who grew up in the Baptist church, I always believed that Jesus was Black. I grew up surrounded by people who believed the same; in fact, nearly every African American Christian I have met shares this belief.
In my household, all of the depictions of Jesus centred around a Saviour whose skin was the colour of mine. My favourite piece of art in our home was a large painting of a Black Jesus benevolently watching us from above the fireplace, his tight, jet-black curls falling softly on his shoulders. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to understand the long path tread by many to bring that framed image of Black Jesus to our home.
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In 1924, Warner Sallman of Chicago sketched a portrait of Jesus for a magazine cover. The dean of Sallman’s Bible college, who inspired the sketch, opined that the existing images of Jesus were too effeminate. He suggested that Sallman’s rendering should portray a more manly Christ. Though the masculinity of his features were at issue, it’s no surprise that Jesus would be depicted as white; colonization constructed a society in which the white majority would not abide a Saviour of any other race. Sallman’s drawing, entitled the Head of Christ, went on to become the most reproduced image of Jesus. It is estimated to have been duplicated over half a billion times — including in my great-grandmother’s Bible.
I can recall flipping through her Bible years after her death. Pages full of birthdates and death dates, the history of our family, were carefully etched out in her handwriting. When I reached the middle of the Bible, a series of images appeared and Sallman’s Jesus stood out immediately.
What did imagery of a white Jesus mean for African American Christians? What did it mean for my great-grandmother, who was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Black, female and poor in the segregated South, toiling under the brutal system of sharecropping and fighting for survival? I can imagine it must have been very difficult to see those drawings candidly showcased in the middle of the Word that she so believed in. For her, Sallman’s portrayal would look less like the son of God, and more like the sheeted mob who burned down her barn and murdered her cow for daring to attempt to purchase land as a Black person. How could Sallman’s Jesus be reconciled as Saviour to those being terrorized under the harsh, unrelenting regimes of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws?
The publisher listed on my great-grandmother’s Bible is the now-defunct World Publishing Company. At one time, it printed more Bibles than any other publisher in America. This Bible, containing Sallman’s Eurocentric rendering of the living Christ, represented the only type of Bible that she, and everyone else, would have been able to access during that era. People couldn’t find Bibles with imagery of a Black Jesus in the 1940s.
“I do recall images in perhaps all of our Black churches of this European Jesus,” states Rev. Nilous Avery, pastor of the historic Mount Zion Baptist Church in Salisbury, N.C. (and related to me). “Some of the members of the Black community did not want to make any waves and cause life to be more uncomfortable, because they were afraid of the powers that be.” African American demand for imagery of a Black Jesus could lead to backlash, he says, so Black churches and their members adopted the mainstream imagery as an act of self-preservation.
Sallman’s Jesus is a depiction grounded not in historical accuracy or research, but in the foundation of colonialism and white supremacy. This lens, rooted in the dogma that “white is right,” does not allow any alternative for the physical depiction of Christ, as it rigidly advances the status quo of the western world and promotes ideas of white superiority. Manifest destiny also warrants a mention here. The belief that God called white men to conquer and rule the entire world needed a Jesus that physically embodied the traits desirable to that particular group: white, blond and blue-eyed.
Malcolm X famously proclaimed Christianity to be a “white man’s religion,” advising African Americans that “the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus! We’re worshipping a Jesus that doesn’t even look like us!…The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter, when we’re dead, while this white man has his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars right here on this earth.”
As race relations in the South rose to a breaking point, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement took shape, Black theologians recognized the increased need to unequivocally relate the Gospel, both spiritually and historically, to the African American experience. Though Black preachers had long relayed sermons rooted in hope and healing on southern plantations throughout slavery, on through the unmitigated violence perpetrated against Blacks during the post-Reconstruction era, this emerging civil rights period represented an opportunity to outwardly and deliberately combat the white-supremacist version of Christianity while boldly empowering Black churches.
In 1966, Black liberation theology emerged with founder James H. Cone at its helm. This school of thought called upon Black people to fiercely love themselves despite living in a hostile country that showed no love in return. “For me,” writes Cone in Black Theology and Black Power, “the burning theological question was, how can I reconcile Christianity and Black Power, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea of nonviolence and Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’ philosophy?”
Black liberation theology provided a reinterpretation of Christianity with Black empowerment at its centre. Free from the suffocating gaze of white supremacy, it offered African Americans self-affirmation, provided cultural relevance and focused on Christ as the liberator of the oppressed. As Avery of Mount Zion church remembers, liberation theology “caused sort of a shift….There began to be an identity of people who wanted to know more about their Blackness.”
This shift ushered in a change in the Black church, as Black people became more intentional about decolonizing their spaces and increasingly eschewed Eurocentric representations of Jesus the Christ. Though African Americans had always been active participants in their own battles for freedom and equality (through the Underground Railroad, Black contributions leading to the defeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Great Migration and countless individual acts of resistance that may forever be lost to history), the revolutionary period of the 1960s buoyed acts of expression that were bolder than ever before. One need only recall a famous 1968 James Brown song for an example: “Say it loud — I’m Black and I’m proud!”
A colleague of mine possesses a vast collection of vintage fans garnered from Black churches and funeral homes. Hundreds of fans, hailing from all over the South, line her walls in a glorious display of tradition. Looking at them, I immediately notice a marked difference. Most of the 1960s fans prominently feature King, but starting in the 1970s, they begin to depict the previously elusive Black Jesus. As Avery summarizes: “Over a period of time, this Blackness of the Bible became acceptable, and it became realistic when people decided to do their theological study, their historical study, and marry the two.”
In 2018, the Pew Research Center published a study that found roughly eight in 10 African Americans identify as Christian, and most are associated with historically Black Protestant churches. Black Americans are more likely than the general public to be Christian and to read scripture at home. Today, we can easily find depictions of a Black Jesus in many Bibles. As I pick up my own Bible, I can’t help but think of how pleased my great-grandmother would be to see the rendering of a Black Christ throughout.
J. Nailah Avery is a trained lawyer and Black history scholar currently working in technology. She is based in Raleigh, N.C.
This story was first published in Broadview’s April/May 2021 issue with the title “A Portrait of Liberation.” It was updated on March 24, 2021 to reflect that Rev. Nilous Avery is, in fact, related to the author.
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