Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Curse of the Loud Negro

   This is the first of a series of essays aimed at pressing theological questions advancing liberation. These essays reflect the theology of Carl W. Kenney II, curator of this blog and founder of Liberation Station, home of the Underground Church, a new faith community plant in Durham, NC. For more information on Liberation Station email us at:         

             It started on yesterday during a conversation at Bean Traders, a locally owned coffeehouse in Durham, NC.

            “Racism will never end because it’s a generational curse,” a new friend offered in response to a question from an open-minded white dude who wanted to know “if we can all just get along. I interjected a few thoughts from Derrick Bell’s book Faces from the Bottom of the Well: The Permeance of Racism to refute notions that we will someday soon experience a post-racism society.

            Like Bell, I’m not down with talk from progressives involving the pursuit of enlightenment that will lead to justice for all people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s view regarding advancement toward inclusion via a strategy of black kids and white kids walking together no longer satisfies my urge for an enduring fix.

            That was strike one. Strike two happened later that night during talks involving the formation of a ministry designed for black men.

            “We need to talk to men about the curse. We can’t make progress because we are trapped by a curse,” a potential leader of the ministry offered.

            Check please.

            As grueling as it has been for me to listen to black people talk about being cursed, there are thoughts implicit in these discussions that expose thoughts and actions pertaining to black identity. These nuances affect how black people speak about communal sin and the “curse” as a manifestation of God’s judgement and displeasure of black people. The construction of these thoughts reflects both internal and external theological presuppositions that complicate efforts aimed at achieving authentic wholeness.

            Conceptions of contemporary ideas of the “curse” are contrived from poor interpretations of African religion. The “curse” fits within the cosmology of Vodu, Vodum, Voodoo and other religions of the African diaspora, but notions that relate the “curse” as judgement against an entire race reflect the theology of the antebellum South. In addition, more contemporary views related to the “curse” reflect the theology of White Evangelical Christian formation.

            Philosophies that advance the generational curse of black people are used to promote the goals of White Evangelical theological views aimed at demoralizing efforts to liberate black people from self-hate and subjugation. These theories arouse suspicion of people offering alternative theological claims. The “curse” is the enemy of freedom.

            The Curse of the Loud Negro is the label given the men and women advocating for liberation, justice and peace, versus a gospel that preaches salvation without an accounting for the impact of evil systems.

            The curse follows Assata Shakur’s speech.  It’s the consequence Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Harry and Harriette Moore, Martin and Malcolm endured for speaking. The “curse” is the perceived punishment for speaking. Speaking resulted in Malcolm X’s father’s death. The generational curse was his own death. Dr. King’s death is followed by his mother’s death. What happens when the perception involves their activism being punished as part of an ongoing generational curse?

The Epistemology of the Generational Curse

Vodum in the American Christian Context

Black people talk a lot about curses. Some of it relates to the influence of Vodum, a traditional African religion which influenced the development of the religion of the slaves. Al Raboteau, in Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, argues the slaves merged Vodum with Christianity to create a unique expression of their faith. The religion of the slaves reflects the faith of activism and freedom. Vodum uncovers the faith of retribution. Put another way, the Lord gonna check the white man for all he done to us.

The notion of giving and receiving curses is deeply rooted in the faith and culture of the Africa diaspora in Haitian Vodou, Dominican Vudu, Cuban Vodu, Brazilian Vodum, Puerto Rican Vudu and Louisiana Voodoo. Understanding the faith and practice of black people necessitates an examination of African religions and their influence in advancing black religious thought in the Americas. It uncovers the faith of a people who believed in vengeance for the evils of slavery.

Understanding Vodum cosmology is an important step in helping black people understand the distinction between the theology and practice of white versus black Christianity. It is also important to stress how giving and receiving curses isn’t restricted to African religion. Theological suppositions centering around curses used to punish disobedience is taught as a theme among most faith traditions.

Black people should own teachings that affirms Vodum spirits governing the earth in a hierarchy with major deities governing nature and humans to minor spirits that manage trees and rocks. Vodum is a celebration of our relationship with nature, our ancestors and unity. The curse, in Vodum, is used as a response to someone who has wronged you. It’s used to obtain justice. These curses are passed down through the family for generations, but we should be careful in relating messages that support notions of generational curses based exclusively on race.

The usage of terminology defining systemic evil as a generational curse minimizes institutionalized sin. We should be careful with language used to justify actions and suffering prolonged for multiple generations. The curse explains generational poverty, incarceration, health disparities, substance abuse and other mental illnesses. It justifies these maladies as a curse thrust upon black people due to generational sins.

The curse, as understood in Vodum, isn’t a generational curse aimed at punishing a race. We should avoid theology that asserts the curse of a race. It’s a practice aimed at attacking a slaveowner or anyone who causes damage.

The Curse of Ham

The story of Noah’s vilification of his son Ham was used by Southern slave advocates to justify slavery as the punishment for all black people. Ham and his descendants are blamed for a variety of crimes and evil conduct. Ham is framed as a sexual offender, heretic, supporter of demons and blasphemer.

Frederick Dalcho wrote Practical Considerations Founded on the Scriptures Relative to the Slave Population of South-Carolina in 1823. Dalcho argues the Bible proves black people forfeited immortality due to Ham’s sin. "And, perhaps, we shall find," he writes, "that the negroes, the descendants of Ham, lost their freedom through the abominable wickedness of their progenitor…Canaan’s whole race were under the malediction. These people were peculiarly wicked, and obnoxious to the wrath of God."

Robert L. Dabney, a Presbyterian minister, added commentary to the curse on all black people in A Defence of Virginia published in 1867. He called black people ‘wicked, ‘depraved” and “degraded in morals” and argues slavery as God’s "punishment of, and remedy for . . . the peculiar moral degradation of a part of the race.” He argues the disgraceful actions of Ham is a serious transgression that dictated the terms of his, (and his son Canaan) being cursed. Genesis Chapter 9 is interpreted as a prediction of social fatality and retribution for all descendants of Ham and Canaan with a form of punishment that reflects the impact of the sin.

This reading of Genesis 9 honors the life and witness of Noah (white people) while attacking Ham (black slaves). It assumed Ham, as the ancestor of Africans and slaves, lacked honor worthy of defeating the consequences of slavery. Slavery is understood as a generational curse inherited from Ham.

Self-imposed Curses

It’s the next step after the “name it, claim it craze”. After enduring assumptions that black people are cursed because they are black, we now have a theology that asserts the curse is their fault.

You asked for it by speaking it into existence. Your words evoke the power of life and death. This is the new language of the curse.

All of us can gain from critical lessons involving the miracle of old-fashioned positive thinking. Most of us have gained insight after avoiding all of that stinking thinking. Beyond the forming of theologies that blame victims for their pain, what is the merit in conjuring a theology that promotes the damage of self-imposed curses? Even more, what are the consequences related to assuming the presence of a curse based on what a person says? What happens to the life and dreams of those who speak with prophetic urgency the will to overcome institutionalized obstructions?

What happens to loud Negroes who spew negative words to advocate for change? Are they cursed for speaking loudly? If so, can we assume their death, both physically and emotionally, to be a curse rooted in their screaming? If so, thoughts related to assumptions involving being cursed force the proliferation of silence. The curse of the loud Negro fosters a culture of silence.

These notions involving being cursed - as a generational matter, as factors driven by race or a consequence of what a person says – bring to the forefront perceptions of black identity. When theology is used to rationalize human pain, left out is critical space to examine what it means to be made in God’s imagine outside the norms of white normativity. Black people aren’t suffering because of historical communal sin factored by race. Black people aren’t suffering due to a failure to abide by the rules of respectability. Black people are suffering due to institutions created to advance the goals of white supremacy.

We need to say all of that.

The curse isn’t being black. The curse is a derivative of the counter-culture black people create to advance beyond the systems formed to keep them trapped in spaces reserved for black people. Crime is a response to subjugation. Laws are created to maintain control. Ham’s proclivity for sinful behavior, an assertion not found in the text, isn’t the result of his black DNA.

Black people aren’t cursed due to how they dress. Culture is not a reflection of immorality. It’s an expression of communal identity.  Black people aren’t cursed due to what they eat, how they speak or by their music. Black people aren’t cursed because of Hip-Hop music.

Self-imposed curses are presented as what we bring upon ourselves by the words we speak. In this sense, the curse is what black people receive for speaking their truth. One blogger wrote, “we are actually cursing ourselves. When we say “I am no good” or I am useless” or I will never be able to overcome this sin or problem” or” let this misfortune happen to me” we are pronouncing a curse on ourselves..

Only if it were that simple

It may be true that circulating negative messages can produce unhealthy outcomes. When faced with the realty of institutionalized evils, claiming those outcomes as a self-imposed curse shifts the culpability on what people say versus the institutions and practices used to damage the souls of black people.

The Curse of the Loud Negro

Language matters. How we talk about sin and punishment reflects fundamental theological views. It matters when theological messages assert pain as the burden of race or the corollary of an historical family sin. Applying principals of personal salvation (your own “come to Jesus” moment) in the face of theology that continues to hold you hostage for sin beyond your realm of control, deflates and confuses the message of the Gospel. If suffering is a construction of a “root” placed on a long dead family member, or the function of the Biblical curse of all black people, there is the absence of places to apply the message of grace. Even more significant is the forfeiture of a message calling for prophetic utterances aimed at addressing institutionalized evils.

If the naming and embrace of truth as evident in the daily lives of hurting people triggers a traumatic – self-imposed curse – then the witness of the Church is diminished by a theology promising a curse for conjuring negativity. This type of theology leads to a feel-good faith reflective of televangelist who spread the good news with no comfort for those lingering in the madness of their bad news.

The curse of the loud Negro is the silencing of messages that liberates people to move beyond the assumptions of White Evangelical theological views.