"Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are We Bastard Kin?": Images of Christ in African American Painting

by Kymberly N. Pinder
"Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are We Bastard Kin?": Images of Christ in African American Painting
Kymberly N. Pinder
African American Review
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"Our Father, God; Our Brother, Christ; or are we bastard kin?":Images of Christ in African American


0n August 31,1924, in New York City, the Fourth International Convention of Ne~roes of the World closed with a unique ceremony that celebratedva Blessed Black Man of Sorrows and the Blessed Black Mary. With much fanfare and to a hall filled to capacity, a group of African American ministers declared Jesus to be black (Negro World 6 Sep. 1924: 4). This event indicated the growing need to clarify the color of God in the African American religious community. The heightened racial awareness spawned by the Harlem Renaissance brought the color of everyone, including Christ, to the fore. This need began with the first converted slaves in the seven- teenth century and reached its height in the 1920s and '30s. Minister Henry McNeal Turner addressed this issue in a sermon in 1898:

Every race of people since time began, who have attempted to describe their God by words, or by paintings, or carvings, or by any other form or figure, have conveyed the idea that the God who made them and shaped their destiny was symbolized by themselves, and why should not the Negro believe that he resembles God as much as any other peo- ple? We do not believe that there is any hope for a race of people who do not believe that they look like God. (Jones 37)

The black Christian's struggle to accept fully God and His "other- ness" is greater and less easily reconciled than that of the white Christian, because of the black's need "to cope with a Western concept of God which implied that God is white" (Jones 38). Most believers assume they are made in God's image. However, as the black theologian Major J. Jones writes, "In a pro-white culture where one was treated less than human because of color, it became psychologically impossible for Black people not to have problems with God's color" (viii). Events such as the "canoniza- tion" of the Black Man of Sorrows and the Black Madonna attempted to recycle and remake white Christianity. Some blacks wholly rejected Christianity because of its connection with white oppression, and they converted to Judaism or Islam. For others, to reject this deeply rooted element of black culture was too painful, and they either ignored the hypocrisy or, like the thou- sands in Liberty Hall, remedied it.

Many black artists, such as Archibald Motley, Jr., William H. Johnson, Romare Bearden, and others, addressed this struggle in their art by depicting racialized biblical subjects or by including religious imagery in black genre scenes. The motif of the suffering Christ in their paintings engages issues of African American cul- tural identity which were relevant then and still are today. From depictions of the crucifix in black genre scenes to the conflation of the crucified Christ and the lynched black man, these images pre-

Kymberly N. Pinder

received her Ph.D. in Art History from Yale University in 1995. She is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at The School of the Art lnsitutute of Chicago. She teaches cours- es on African American art, American art, and museum studies, and is currently researching murals in Chicago's African American churches.

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 2 0 1997 Kymberly N. Pinder

sent Christ as a symbolic device food, a brooch with a picture of her

charged with racial/religious meaning. only daughter and her Bible-the blue

The poignant and intimate depic- table cloth may even represent her hus-

tions of African American life by band's Native American heritage (77).

Archibald Motley, Jr. (1891-1980), both Other clues relevant to the Motley lin-

in the States and abroad were among eage are also present. Motley was

many such works of art stemming raised in a middle-class family in New

from the Afrocentricism of the New Orleans. His Creole heritage is repre-

Negro Movement and the sented by the cropped por-

Harlem Renaissance. The From trait of a fair-skinned

plethora of candid and depictions of woman in the upper left. sympathetic representa- The tentative position of tions of blacks by blacks in the crucifix in this picture compositional- the twenties and thirties black genre 'Y bd~ncesthe work while

it projects a sense of mys- responded to a tradition of

derogatory imagery by scenes to the tery that possibly alludes

white artists in both the ~0nflafi0n of the that was

often a part of the mixed- fine and popular arts.l

Black artists had seen the crucified race lineage of Southern

black families. The juxta- enough of minstrels, Sam- Christ and the position of the well-coifed, bos, and mammies and re-

presented the African lynched black well-dressed mulatto and

American to themselves man, African the wizened darker-

skinned woman is striking.

and the white public.


Is this a comparison of a The 1924 painting artists present privileged life to one of Mending Socks (Fig. 1) is adversity? Like the range one of Motley's best-Christ as a

of hues in many black fam

known works. In the lower symbolic ilies, this pair reflects a fact right section of the paint- of the Motley family histo- ing sits an elderly black device ry that reminds the viewer

On charged with of slavery and its lasting the sewing in her lap. A

effects on African vertical shadow in the cen- raciallrel ig ious Americans. It is still a bit-

ter of the composition meaning. ter reality in black slices the painting in half.

American societ today

Directly to the right of this division that lighter-skinned and darler-

is a large cross with a white, crucified skinned members of the race are often Christ who hangs so close to the at odds, adhering to white standards of woman that it almost touches her fore- racial superiority. Motley's statement

head. The elderly figure is Motley's here was probably less insightful and eighty-two-year-old grandmother political than this African American Emily, who was culturally and person- cultural critic in 1997 would prefer. ally significant as the strong black However, the artist was fascinated matriarch who had outlived all of the with people of mixed-race heritage. He men. Because she had lived most of her did a number of portraits of mulatto life in the nineteenth century, she rep- and octoroon women, an exercise that resented black history and culture he referred to as "not only an artistic itself. As an ex-slave and the daughter venture but also a scientific problem," of slaves, she was a living link to past and he often noted the superiority of oppression and traditions. their features over those of "dark,

As Jontyle Robinson and Wendy purer Negroes" (qtd. in Robinson and Greenhouse have noted, Motley has Greenhouse 9). surrounded Emily with objects impor- In the context of these racial juxta- tant to her: her favorite shawl and positions in the painting, the contrast


ahead with His hands clasped together deep in thought or prayer. Tanner avoided illustrating passages with con- flict. All of his images of Christ are con- sistently calm and introspective. Like his cool, blue-grey palette, Tanner's serene compositions soothe the viewer and serve as true devotional imagery with a deep spirituality. The race of the artist's biblical characters was of defi- nite interest to him. Obsessed with cre- ating "authentic" Middle Eastern sce- narios, Tanner traveled to Algeria and Palestine specifically to do research for his paintings. As Johnson was in pur- suit of a racial identity for himself and his art in North Africa, Tanner's sojourn was to capture the racial types, clothing, interiors, and landscapes spe- cific to the biblical past of his works. Tanner made numerous studies of Jews in Palestine to get the race of Jesus and his followers right in his paintings. Tanner wrote, "My efforts have been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting. . . but at the same time give the human touch 'which makes the whole world kin' and which ever remains the same" (qtd. in Hartigan 106).

Tanner clearly saw a universal aspect to his religious works. It is pos- sible that he was most interested in the potential of these Middle or Near Eastern types to transcend the black and white polarities that so plagued his life and career as an African American artist. His own closeness to these peo- ple is reflected in his inclusion of him- self in the 1912 version of Christ at the Home of Lazarus (now lost). Although Johnson saw himself as a martyred Christ, Tanner was more modest and less dramatic. In biblical costume com- plete with turban, Tanner sits solemnly to the far right of Christ. The artist's wife, Jessie as Mary, sits beside him. Tanner painted himself as the obedient disciple listening to his Lord with bowed head and clasped hands.

I n many ways the contrasting presentations of Christ by Tanner, Johnson, and Bearden strive to reach a common goal, one of inclusivity and universality. The race of Christ was an important aspect for each artist. Tanner sought to paint an "authentic" savior, while Johnson and Bearden explored race in the context of the Afrocentric legacy of the New Negro Movement. During the twenties and thirties many people were questioning God's rele- vance to the African American commu- nity. The works of W. E. B. Du Bois, Countbe Cullen, Langston Hughes, and others are laden with the nagging problem of the white God of black Christianity. Du Bois poignantly articu- lated the anger and the confusion in "A Litany at Atlanta," written in 1920:

Keep not thou silent, 0God! Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our suffering. Surely Thou, too, art not white, 0 Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing! (Dark Water 27)

In "Heritage" Cullen confronts the irony of the alienation from his African roots "three centuries removed," and the way in which these distant racial ties still separate him from so many aspects of the dominant white American culture, especially Christianity:

Lord, I fashion dark gods, too Daring even to give You Dark despairing features where, Crowned with dark rebellious hair, Patience wavers just so much as Mortal grief compels, while touches Quick and hot, of anger, rise To smitten cheek and weary eyes. Lord, forgive me if my need Sometimes shapes a human creed (Locke 253)

The "need" to shape "a human creed" for God, as expressed here by Cullen and so clearly found in Johnson's paintings, found popular expression in such events as the aforementioned "canonization" of the Black Man of Sorrows in 1924, which according to an article in the Negro World, "correct[ed] a mistake of centuries and brace[d] the Negro" (6 Sep. 1924: 4) The rise of African American cult followings, so prominent in the 1930s, was also a


1. For more on the representation of blacks by white artists in America, see McElroy Notes

2. For more on black Christ~an imagery, see Afrtcan Zion.

3. Also see Harper.

4. For more, see Parker.

5. For more on Garvey, see Burkett, Martin.

6. See Cone, Witvliet.

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McElroy, Guy C. Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940. Washington: Corcoran Gallery, 1990. Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. New York: Rizzoli, 1991. Parker, Robert Allerton. Incredible Messiah: The Deification of Father Divine. Boston: Little, 1937. Powell, Richard J. " 'In My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition': William H. Johnson's Jesus and Three Marys." American Art 5.4 (1991): 21+. "William H. Johnson: Expressionist and Artist of the Blues Aesthetic." Diss. Yale U, 1988. Robinson, Jontyle, and Wendy Greenhouse. Archibald J. Motley, Jr. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991. Schwartzman, Myron. Romare Bearden: His Life and Art. New York: Abrams, 1990. Since the Harlem Renaissance: Fifty Years of Afro-American Art. 13 Apr. 1984-1 Nov. 1985. The Gallery, Bucknell U. Witvliet, Theo. The Way of the Black Messiah: The Hermeneutical Challenge of Black Theology as a Theology of Liberation. London: SCM, 1987. Woodruff, Hale. "My Meeting with Henry 0. Tanner." Crisis Jan. 1970: 7+.


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