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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What All Those Jesus Jokes Tell Us

Those of you visiting here from the link in the piece at the CNN Belief Blog by Edward J. Blum and myself, What All Those Jesus Jokes Tell Us (CNN Belief Blog, Sunday, November 11), welcome!

This piece on Jesus and contemporary humor is just a brief summary of a much longer discussion of that subject in our book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in AmericaPlease follow the link to learn more about our book, or go here to purchase the book on amazon.

Or click here for a list of, and links to, my other books and publications.

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Color of Christ Makes Publisher’s Weekly Top Books of 2012

Paul Harvey

I’m pleased to announce that The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America has been named one of Publisher’s Weekly “2012 Best Books,” one of five named in the category of “Religion.” Read all about it here.

About the book, the citation notes:  “This model of academic inquiry and analysis is clearly written, deeply researched, socially engaged, ambitious in the intellectual scope of its questions about race and religion, and methodical in its answers.”

In the toolbar at the top of this page, click on “Color of Christ” to learn more.

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Jesus Loves the Little Children

Our friends are having fun on facebook posting photographs of their young children with our book The Color of Christ. Here is the best one yet:

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Fighting Over God’s Image

That’s the title of my New York Times editorial piece, co-authored with Edward J. Blum, published Thursday, September 27, available online here. The short op-ed tries to contextualize contemporary controversies over representations of the divine (specifically, the violence abroad over the stupid film about the Prophet Mohammed). A short excerpt:

THE murders of four Americans over an amateurish online video about Muhammad, like the attempted murder of a Danish cartoonist who in 2005 had depicted the prophet with a bomb in his turban, have left many Americans confused, angry and fearful about the rage that some Muslims feel about visual representations of their sacred figures.

The confusion stems, in part, from the ubiquity of sacred images in American culture. God, Jesus, Moses, Buddha and other holy figures are displayed in movies, cartoons and churches and on living room walls. We place them on T-shirts and bumper stickers — and even tattoo them on our skin.

But Americans have had their own history of conflict, some of it deadly, over displays of the sacred. The path toward civil debate over such representation is neither short nor easy.

Read the rest here.

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Color Blindness: Racialized Images of Christ

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America

Robert Elder, a postdoctoral fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso University, has written a very nice, thorough, and challenging review of The Color of Christ for the periodical Books and Culture; you can access it here.  A brief excerpt is below:

In September 1963, a bomb went off in Birmingham, Alabama, claiming the lives of four little girls playing in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Upstairs, one of church’s stained glass windows depicting an image of a white Christ remained perfectly intact save for the face, which was neatly excised by the blast. In the wake of the bombing, observers struggled to comprehend “what it meant for the white Jesus of a black church to have his face blown out.” Writer James Baldwin called the missing face “something of an achievement,” one that freed black Christians from the depredations of an “alabaster Christ” and gave them license to give their God a “new face.” The window in Sixteenth Street Baptist was eventually replaced with one featuring a black Jesus, but the ambiguity of the missing face remained.

Blum and Harvey don’t resolve the deeper meaning of that missing face. Instead, they set out to answer a set of historical questions it raises. What was a white Jesus doing in a black church in the 1960s? What did this figure mean to a black congregation locked in a struggle for their civil rights against a white power structure? Why, for how long, and by whom had Christ been pictured as a white man? In many ways, their book is a history of the nation and race told through the changing ways in which Americans conceived of Christ’s color.

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Race, Place, and Jesus in American History

Over at the Historical Society blog, Randall Stephens and Hilde Løvdal conduct an interviewwith Edward J. Blum and myself about The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (UNC Press, 2012). In it, we try to hit some of the main points of the text. A little excerpt below; click here for the rest.

Løvdal and Stephens: Could you say something about the malleability of the image of Jesus? How can Jesus appear so different depending on who is using his image?

Harvey and Blum: Great question, and that is really the heart of the book. We can best answer that by mentioning the three main myths our book explores about Jesus imagery and shifting appearances. First, there is a myth that humans create God or gods (especially Jesus) in their own image. This myth claimsthat people invariably represent Jesus to look like themselves. So whites make a white Jesus, blacks a black one, Asians an Asian one. But American history shows this is not true, and the myth hides how much racial groups have interacted and affected one another throughout U.S. history. No racial group in the United States has been separate enough to form distinct and impenetrable religious cultures. Moreover, lots of people have worshiped Christ figures that look nothing like them. For centuries, African Americans and Native Americans embraced white images of Jesus, debated them in their midst, and tried to replace them but generally did not. The myth hides the powers of money, of technological access, and of production capabilities. . .

The second myth is that the United States has always been a “Jesus nation” or a “Christian nation.” When we take seriously discussions of the race and color of Christ, we find that Jesus has been a lightning rod for struggle, conflict, and tension. For every occasion where someone makes Jesus into an icon of entrepreneurial salesmanship, as Bruce Barton did with his bestselling book of the 1920s The Man Nobody Knows, there are other Americans who have made Jesus a lynch victim (like W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes did in the 1930s), as a Native American who promised the defeat of the whites and the return of the Buffalo (as Wovoka did), or as a socialist who would get beat up by American mobs (as muckraker Upton Sinclair did). Jesus has not defined American culture; he has purely been at the center of the titanic and oftentimes bloody struggles over what the culture would be

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