Written by Paul Easterling
Given the dubious history of Christianity with respect to African people throughout the world, many thinkers have logically been forced to question the place of the religion within the African American community (as well as other marginalized communities). Many have done so while clinging fervently to the tradition, such as James Cone, who argues that the religion is meant for seekers of freedom and fighters for justice. However, those of this camp have had to work hard within the academic community to focus on the redeeming qualities of the Christian tradition in part because of the actions of those who have used the tradition for racial oppression, or in the very least, they have had to think around that problem. As W.E.B. DuBois theorized in the Souls of Black Folk with the notion of double consciousness, not only to be Black and American, but more so to be Black, Christian and American creates a very complex and for some an extremely uncertain character that seems to be constantly struggling for a sense of identity and personhood.
Double consciousness is a problematic and stagnant state of being for many in the African-centered academic community. DuBois states that, “ One ever feels his twoness, - an American, a negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” However, Molefi Asante in the article “Racism, Consciousness and Afrocentricity,” counters this idea and argues that he “was never affected by the DuBoisian double consciousness… Since I was a child I have always known that my heritage was not the same as that of whites.” The problem of a divided consciousness also makes itself painfully apparent with regard to the Christian religion, being that Christians have been the progenitors and many times are the preservers of anti-African sentiment and action within the United States. Some of the more prominent examples are the Ku Klux Klan whom proudly proclaim themselves as a Christian organization, as well European American enslavers used the religion of Christianity to keep their captive African population docile and obedient. So the problem that is presented in this context can be boiled down to the question: is it possible to maintain an African-centered cultural consciousness and be Christian?
Double consciousness can be a problematic approach towards identity because one who wars within their own soul can cause trauma to the entire beingness of the person. Some African-centered psychologists, such as Na'im Akbar argue that this crisis of identity is pathological and eventually destructive to the African being. In his book, Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery, he argues that spiritual enslavement “captures the mind and imprisons the motivation, perception, aspiration and identity in a web of anti-self images, generates personal and collective self-destruction, is more cruel than the shackles on the wrists and ankles.” Again raising the question, is the identity of an African-American-Christian ultimately destructive? Or is the religion like a sword, to be used to maim and kill as well as defend and protect, because for many the Black church in America has been a beacon of hope: providing community and sanctuary for those that need it, as well as endowing the necessary motivation to fight against the evils of racial oppression. Nevertheless, how does the average person reconcile the differences in the approach? For many, the Christian tradition has a love/hate relationship with the black community; on one hand, there are the fervent believers who carry the tradition close to heart and pass the philosophy down through the generations, on the other, many completely leave the tradition for other belief systems, such as Islam, or dismiss religious belief entirely because of the sordid involvements amid Christians concerning people of African descent.
To flesh this out a bit, in the book, Christianity on Trial: African American Religious Thought before and after Black Power, Mark L. Chapman argues that Black religious thinkers of the 20th century have maintained a common ethos in regard to Christianity. This common thread, as Chapman claims, is a consistent critique by Black religious thinkers of white racism within the Church and in society. This criticism has created space for the creation and evolution of Black Liberation Theology. Chapman also argues that despite the respective critiques of the white church and Christianity, Black Liberation theologians have “sought to make black faith a powerful resource in the struggle against oppression”. This notion begs the question again of cultural context: if the religion can be rescued from its problematic history by viewing from an opposing cultural and historical context then it is not the religion that makes the people, it is the people who make the religion.
To this theoretical end author Will Coleman, in the text Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics and African/American Ways of “Telling the Story”, theorizes that African sensibilities, modes of expression, and ways of being survived the Middle Passage along with the Africans who endured the journey from Africa to the “New World”. He maintains that these sensibilities both affect and manifest themselves in African American religion. By extension they are a critical source for Black Liberation Theology, he argues, and what creates the differences between European American and African American Christianity. In his text Chapman desires to re-envision Black Liberation Theology in ways that de-center and deconstruct European and Euro-American categories of theological discourse, and he seeks to loosen the stronghold of African American dependence on the sources of European and American theologies. Moreover, the text is a critique of Black Liberation Theology in the sense that its nascent stages were not sensitive to the indigenous (African) sources of theology that were inherent in the African-American slave narratives. On the other hand however, Coleman wants to extend and enliven the discourse Black Liberation Theology through hermeneutical and literary-critical approaches to narratives of the enslaved, which, for him, contain vital first-hand information about the lives of the ancestors during slavery as well as insights into their African religious sensibilities.
The authors, Chapman and Coleman, are attempting to find what is uniquely African (or at least non-European) about Black theology. However, Black theology by itself is not simply a colorized version of European American theology. It is a reflection of the experiences of African American people. It is true that Black theologians have had to do some rethinking with respect to their chosen tradition, given the history of interaction with Christianity and African people, but Black theology is itself unique because it is a manifestation of African experiences from an African perspective. Despite arguments that Black theologians are simply attempting to darken the “white man’s” religion, it must be noted that this would be an impossible task without the ability of African Americans to reach into their ancestral memory to find the cultural and experiential truths that make Black theology unique to African people. To word it plainly, Black Christian thought and Liberation Theology is African-centered.
Furthermore, Black spiritual belief, despite the religious veneer, is unique to Black people because it is based on the uniqueness of Black experience. As it will be demonstrated this is also the case for the African American Islamic, Judaic and Humanistic traditions as well. Experience is what defines culture and by extension culture shapes, dresses and delineates religious belief regardless of its name or origin. European Americans do not have a monopoly of the Christian religion any more than they have control of history itself. The same tradition that Creflo Dollar uses to procure himself a Gulfstream jet is the same tradition Nat Turner used to procure his freedom from the enslavers he beheaded and mutilated. This is to say, religion is only a tool that will be used to destroy or defend depending on the desires of the wielder.
 W.E.B. DuBois. The Souls of Black Folk. (Chicago: Dover Publications, 1994)
 Ibid., (pg. 3).
 William Banks, ed. The Anthology of African American Social and Political Thought. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 136.
 It must also be noted that while trying to reconcile a divided consciousness of being, W.E.B. DuBois was one of the early theorist of Pan-African thought in the United States.
 Na'im Akbar argues that double consciousness is a psychological trauma that requires healing just as African people must heal from the trauma of the Maafa. See the Mind Productions website: www.naimakbar.com
 Naim Akbar. Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery. (Tallahassee: Mind Production and Associates, 1999), v-vi.
 See Nat Turner and Martin Luther King, Jr.
 Mark L. Chapman. Christianity on Trial: African American Religious Thought before and after Black Power. (New York: Orbis Books, 1996).
 Ibid., (pg. 7).
 Will Coleman. Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of “Telling the Story.” (University Park: Pennslyvania State University Press, 2000).