Harlem Renaissance Neighborhood

Today, there is a resurgence of Black Art in America. Along with such talks, discussions about establishing an African-American art museum have been at the center. And this should not be surprising. For anyone who knows anything about art, it does not take them long to figure out that Black art is pretty hard to find in mainstream public art forums. What makes matters worse is that an appreciation of Black art is even more marginal in American culture.

Here’s a few excerpts of what a last month, Atlanta Journal Constitution column, Black art at last gaining visibility, momentum had to say:
“African-American art is such a vibrant part of American art that it should be an integral part of any American art museum,” said Andrea Barnwell, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. “On the other hand, it’s a rich and exciting tradition that deserves a full treatment on its own.”

A national museum chronicling the history of African-American art would be “amazing,” she said. “But would we be promoting a separate and unequal attention?”

In lieu of a national museum, Barnwell plans to “keep putting pressure on mainstream museums to have a full-time, a full-time, curator for African-American art.”

A comprehensive museum of African-American art could produce “wonder things,” said Michael Harris, consulting curator of African-American art at the High Museum (a part-time position). But he questions whether it would be wise to segregate it from the whole of American art history.

Still, he believes a comprehensive African-American art museum would attract a wide audience.

Asked why history museums have become so popular while African-American art museums have not, Harris said, “My experience has been that the visual arts are seen – not just in the African-American community but in general – as an appendage or amusement. That’s disappointing to me. We know a lot more about the ancient Greeks or ancient Egyptians through the art that articulated who they are, rather than their business or government, those things that are more ephemeral.”

“I don’t think African-American art has ever been fully appreciated or studied, even in the art world of our society.”
Integration of Black Art to American Art Museums

So what do Black Art and Black Theology have in common? Just as Black art should be an integral part of American art museums, so should Black theology be an integral part of American theologizing and theological institutions. In other words, to do theology in America without the theological tradition of Blacks is just like talking about art history in America without dealing with the Harlem Renaissance. This is because much of the dominant theological traditions in the West minimize the contributions of Blacks in the theological enterprise. I wonder is this due to the belief that Black theological traditions are inferior or not true “theology” and consequently, not worthy of study and appreciation? Moreover, could the issue be if our (black) theology or art in this case, is not painting the same picture of the world around us as our Anglo brethren see it, then our artwork is wrong and/or not needed? If yes, that would be like saying Picasso and van Gogh have the only valid universal expression of reality and truth through their paintings that William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence of the Harlem Renaissance must conform to and reproduce. But certainly, Black artists’ visions of truth and God’s world are not any less true and helpful because they are not seeing and painting the same piece as Salvodor Dali? And if that is true, then shouldn’t Black art and by extension, theology play a more important role in American art/theological history because it will also enable us to see our God in ways in which we could not see Him before?

Promoting Separate and Unequal Attention?

It is often asked, “Do we need anything “Black” because that would bring separation?” My response is that there is already separation and the point of Black art or even theology for that matter is not to promote separation, but rather a magnification of our God-given “blackness,” which glorifies our multifaceted God. Our God is not only one, but he is also many. Therefore, our theologizing should not only reflect the one (i.e. unity), but also many (i.e. diversity) in order for it to be truly good theology. Let me put it another way: A theology that minimizes the diversity of a particular people's perspective on God is a theology that is deficient in its understanding of God. I think probably one of most troubling evangelical myths is that there is only one (perspective on) theology, which is really an over emphasis on the unity. To put the myth more plainly, the only perspective on theology or the only “true theology” is a theology that is non-Black or in reality, white. Basically, we are comfortable with a theology that masquerades as if it is not racialized. Therefore, theology is particular ethnic groups theologizing from their particular existence and experiences.

So when white people do theology, then theology will look white necessarily. And there is nothing wrong with that. We just need to be conscious of it. The point is they cannot do theology apart from their experiences as a White person and the same is true for Blacks or any other ethnic group. In other words, you do not know God or theologize divorced from who you are as a Black person and to think otherwise is utterly non-sense because you do not step outside of yourself to know God, but rather it is you, in all of your socio-economic-cultural-psychological-geographical-emotional-etc totality and uniqueness who know God, not a robot or someone else. Or it could be said this way: you know God as yourself, as the person who God made in his unique and diverse image that you bear.

To come at this from another angle, Black theology is no more separatist than a romance novel is to a western. Both the romance and western novel are painting a beautiful portrait of reality in ways in which the other one do not. So which one is right? Both are part of the body of literature that is known as fiction. So they are both right in their understanding of the world. One is just highlighting an aspect that the other cannot do as well. Moreover, you need both of them in order to understand the world more fully.

What would the world or more specifically, literature be like without biographies? Imagine if we only had fictional writings (e.g. engineering textbooks written only as fiction), how would we talk about physics, or understand instructions on putting together an entertainment unit for our homes? We would only be able to describe and understand our world in a limited fashion. For that reason, we need more than one form of literature to adequately reflect the world in which we reside. In a similar way, a Black theology will properly express all of the dimensions of what it means to theologize about God. To put it another way, I believe black theology is what genre is to literature. Therefore, any understanding of literature (theology) that focuses primarily on a certain genre (particular theological tradition) at the exclusion of others is parochial and malnourished.

Socio-Theological Insights

Returning for a moment to the comment by Michael Harris above when he said, “…We know a lot more about the ancient Greeks or ancient Egyptians through the art that articulated who they are, rather than their business or government, those things that are more ephemeral.” Similarly, if we can know more about Blacks through their art because of its enduring character, then we should be able to understand the lives of Blacks better. And to better know Blacks is to know God better because to know who is God is to truly know who I am as a Black person. This is critical because if a part of knowing God is knowing His people, including ourselves as Black people through our art that is more lasting, then this raises the prominence of art in learning about God. And with that being the case, we should have a greater need for and appreciation of Black theology because it too is like art in that it theologizes in an impressionistic fashion.

From the theology of Black folks, there are vivid and colorful insights into the multidimensional lives of Blacks and God's world. In other words, a Black theology is a theology that emphasizes critical estranged dimensions of human existence that is necessary for everyone to understand God and his world properly. It is a theology that at least embodies the human struggle in the face of systemic evil while maintaining a rich doxological stability. Therefore, we ought not be afraid of Black (Reformed) theology because it can teach us what it means to be human and know God in much richer ways dominant Western theology cannot since it too is but a limited perspective on God and human existence.

Co-Founder Xavier Pickett