Color of Christ at the Newberry Library

This was originally posted at Origins, the blog of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. It features an interview with Edward J. Blum and myself about our book, in preparation for our appearance and lecture at the Newberry Library on Jan. 22.

The Color of Christ: An Interview

Posted on Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Color of Christ: An Interview

In the history of America’s religions, perhaps no figure has been more central than that of Jesus. With nearly three fourths of the population still self-identifying as Christian, Jesus remains central to large swaths of the nation. But from the moment Europeans first brought Christianity to the New World, Christ’s presence here has been contested. The Scholl Center’s own “Out of Many” program has been showing how Christianity has always been a religion-in-relation in America. But in an important new book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward Blum and Paul Harvey chart how the image of Jesus in America has been a crucible for much of the nation’s history. From justifying the atrocities of white supremacy to inspiring the righteousness of the civil rights crusade, Jesus has been woven into American life. On Tuesdauy, January 22 both Blum and Harvey will be visiting the Newberry to give a“Meet the Author Talk” at 6pm in Ruggles Hall. The talk is free and open to the public. In anticipation of their visit, the Scholl Center reached out to the co-authors to learn more about their work and get a sense of what they hope to share. We hope to see many of you there.

Scholl Center: Give us a glimpse into the intellectual process leading up to this book, its argument, and what you hope it contributes. What’s at stake in writing about the color of Christ?

Edward Blum & Paul Harvey: It began with us thinking about how characters of the sacred world (God, Jesus, angels, Satan, demons, and the whole gang) have been racialized throughout American history. We centered on Jesus because he is where heaven, earth, and hell collide in the Christian tradition. When Americans mapped racial characteristics upon Jesus by paying special attention to his skin tone, his hair color and length, and his eye color, they were translating their worldly obsessions with the body onto a figure who had lived in this world but who transcended human time and space.

The relationship between race and religion, however, moved in both directions. The sense that Jesus had a particular race rebounded into how Americans lived their religions. Native Americans and African Americans had to consider what it meant for a white man to be their savior (when other white men opposed them). White Americans had to confront their sense of spiritual entitlement in appearance but against the biblical tale of Jesus teaching that the “least shall be first” and then being imprisoned and crucified.

The stakes about the color of Christ have been and are tremendous. Historically, the color of Christ has played a role in what peoples could join particular religious organizations (such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints); it has been invoked in court cases to prove one’s whiteness (and hence fitness for citizenship). It has been used to denounce interracial marriage and to try and stop presidential candidates.

Just as the color of Christ influenced broad political and religious problems, it has also figured in the everyday spiritual lives and experiences of Americans. Christ’s color has deeply influenced how people relate to God and to others. In very personal ways, many people have close emotional attachments to the Jesus they first beheld in children’s Bibles or Sunday School walls or in their bedrooms. When confronted with questions of that Christ’s physical appearance, it creates a divide between cognitive approaches to faith (what I know about religion) and emotional links (what I feel toward the deity). So the stakes run from the profoundly intimate to the powerfully political.

SC: Jesus obviously coexists with a host of sacred figures in the history of Christianity: angels, saints, demons, Mary, etc. Do these religious figures have their own, possibly alternative and subversive histories of racial embodiment? Or is Christ’s centrality to American Christianity so strong that his construction as white impacted the racial coding of sacred figures more broadly?

EB & PH: All of those other figures are definitely critical, especially the Madonna. We think Jesus has been especially important, though, because of the incarnation. Most Christians consider Jesus Christ the human form of God. His body, then, can become a particular window into thinking about the presence of the divine. At times when Jesus has been rendered as a white man, it has been followed by a claim that only white people could be saved and get to heaven. We have never heard of a comparable case for other figures like saints or angels.

A definite case could be made for depictions of the devil as the closest counterpoint for our description of Jesus. Claims that link “darkness” to sinfulness (and hence dark skin color) have been made through considerations of the body of Satan. The main difference, however, is there is no central incarnation of Satan in human form that has allowed Americans to gravitate to the body of the devil in the same ways they have done with Jesus.

SC: You note an intention of your work is to dismantle the pervasive “myth” that humanity makes God in its own image; that the complicated relationship between race and the sacred in America limits people’s ability to envision a divinity in diverse. But where you open the text emphasizing the impact social inequality played shaping Jesus’ racial embodiment, you conclude the book by considering Christ’s remarkable mutability on the web. Has the digital age finally made narcissism the sacred’s hue? Or is the proliferation of Jesus imagery online still bound by the constraints of race?

EB & PH: Both. The proliferation of sacred imagery, digitally and elsewhere, is in part a by-product of the pluralization of American life since the 1960s. It’s a result, too, of the role technology can play in making creation and dissemination accessible to wider groups of people.

And yet: because the “default” image of Jesus is white, so deeply rooted in American life since about the 1830s or so as we argue in the book, all other images in a sense “refer” to that one, in the same sense that jokes and parodies depend upon knowing the referent. And too, Jesus is often “white without words,” as we suggest in the book, with people such as Billy Graham suggesting that no one knows what Jesus’s color was while the products put out by his evangelistic association give the traditional portrayal of Jesus, or when comics accompanying a song such as “Jesus loves the little children of the world” show Jesus touching all of the children except for the black one. So the power of technological production and distribution has yet to overcome the “constraints of race” entirely, in large part because those constraints are often unspoken, unacknowledged, and even unconscious.

SC: Co-writing anything is difficult, but I imagine co-writing a text that spans centuries presents an even broader set of challenges.

EB & PH: Challenges there were, to be sure, but opportunities as well, because the relative weakness of one scholar can be offset by the strength of the other, and one author may be able to delve more deeply into a particular topic knowing that the other author will be the one primarily to “handle” another topic, and that kind of collaboration can enrich a text beyond what a normal single author could do. In our case, Paul’s close attention to music was matched by Ed’s focus upon visual imagery in print culture and films. It is a trite word, but “synergy” best describes The Color of Christ. It is a better work than we could have written individually.

Perhaps the biggest challenge came when rewriting the text after shipping the first version out to peer reviewers and getting some excellent advice about how and why the entire text should be restructured. In that particular case, we found it helpful to have one author “take the lead” on the reorganization, with the 2nd author then responding and making his own edits once the initial reorganization and fairly massive shifting around of material had been done.

Historical scholarship by and large has been understood as a solitary endeavor, but we had some excellent models – such as The Kingdom of Matthias – to build upon in terms of seeing what was possible with a co-authored text. And in this current age of electronic sharing and the digital humanities, it’s clear the the humanities can, must, and will move much more in the direction of the sciences in terms of teams of collaborators working on projects. What you are doing here at the Scholl Center, and what Edward Ayers did with his team for the pioneering Valley of the Shadow project on the Civil War, are just two examples of how humanities collaborations may produce work far beyond the capabilities of the heroic solitary scholar model.

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