Written by Paul Easterling
There are many different approaches to understanding the diversity of African American Christian thought in the academy, because it is not safe to assume all Black Christian theorists think alike. For instance, Josiah Young’s book A Pan-African Theology: Providence and the Legacies of the Ancestors, is an interesting attempt to fuse traditional Christian thought with traditional African religious symbolism. Though he begins the focus of this study on Alexander Crummel and Edward Wilmont Blyden of the late 19th century, Young argues that they are more European-centered attempts to alleviate this problem by being more African-centered in his approach and discussion of African American Christian thought. Pan-African Theology for Young is a liberation theology centered on the Africanization/African-Americanization of Christian theology which “means that [B]lacks in quest of liberation must do theology by way of ancestral symbols that structures their essential humanity. Pan-Africanization embodies social analyses, but is defined by religio-cultural analyses that also reflect the relativity of the Pan-African experience.”
In Young’s attempt to be more African-centered Jesus is placed in the role of a divine ancestor focused on the ideals of liberation. Jesus becomes God incarnate who suffers with Black people as they work towards a sense of freedom from oppression. This approach is centered on the experience of African people in the United States and it uses elements of African culture by situating the character of Jesus as “ancestor” rather than “savior.” However, apart from this there is little in the way of the use of African symbols to display Christianity. By symbols, I am referring to the use of different representations of the African culture to exemplify the Christian religion. The use of the term “ancestor” is one element he does make use of, but this by itself is not uniquely African. What about replacing the symbol of the cross with the Ankh (an ancient Kemetic symbol), or perhaps, connecting the icon of Jesus with the figure of Heru (Kemetic deity) or God/Jehovah with Shango (Yoruba deity)? These symbols of African religions share many characteristics with the icons of Christianity and translate easily from one tradition to the other.
There is historical precedence for the approach of transposing religious icons in the spiritual practices of Vodun, Santeria and Candomble. In these traditions, the Catholic God and Saints are replaced or supplanted by the Yoruba pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. This is how Africans of Haiti, New Orleans and Cuba kept their spiritual traditions alive while they remained under the yoke of enslavement by Catholic captors. Captive Africans did not have to work too hard to maintain their spiritual integrity. They only had to employ the double-voiced aspects of their culture. In this case, Africans not only could maintain the spiritual practices of their African homeland but they could do so while avoiding physical punishment at the hands of their European enslavers.
In the same vein, author Theophus Smith in the text Conjuring Culture brings very interesting analysis to the realm of Black Christian thought with respect to the maintenance of cultural integrity. His text highlights the significance of conjure as both a means of transforming reality, through the use of the Bible as a magical formulary, and as a new conceptual paradigm for understanding Black spirituality. Further, he states, “In this regard Conjuring Culture argues for African spirituality as a potent source of black North American religious experience.” Moreover, with his approach he goes further than the use of African icons to maintain cultural integrity to the use of African spiritual practices for cultural maintenance. Smith is not so concerned with swapping European traditions with African figures and icons but instead a kind of Africanizing the practice of Christianity itself by using the Bible as a conjure book. In this case the Bible is a book of spells that Africans can employ to shape their given reality to suit their spiritual needs.
To elaborate, the primary issue within Smith’s text is the aspect of conjure. Conjure as he defines it is a system of magic that deals with “mapping and managing the world in the form of signs.” He argues that the conjuror in the African American tradition acted as a homeopath for the community, in that s/he had the power to heal. Furthermore, the conjuror also had the ability to cause harm through the management of signs, symbols and words. For Smith, the study of conjure illuminates its’ pharmacopeic qualities, that is, its’ mystical and medicinal qualities, that are evident in the Biblical traditions of Africans in America.
What this demonstrates is use of the Bible with African spiritual methods of manipulation of reality. This, in essence, is taking the reinterpretation of text from an African experiential perspective to the next level. This is where experience meets with the redefinition of reality. It is one thing to interpret a given text with respect to one’s own experience, it is another to take that same text beyond the point of elucidation to the level of altering one’s own reality. The outcomes can be very similar but there is nuance to the difference in the approach. On the one hand the subjects interpret different meanings of the same text, on the other hand the subject actively uses the text to influence reality to suit the needs of a given situation.
Albert Cleage’s approach may help to clarify this further. To explain, Cleage is considered one of the fathers of Black Christian Nationalism. His essential message in his collection of sermons, The Black Messiah, argues that Jesus Christ was a revolutionary Black messiah who came to fight against white Roman oppression and bring freedom to the Black Hebrew people. For Cleage, Black people in America must unite as a nation and fight against oppression and individualism, as taught by Jesus Christ, to build dignity and strength so that Black people can advance collectively. It can be argued that Cleage had a certain read of the Bible, where Jesus was interpreted as a Black revolutionary figure that fought against white Roman oppression. In juxtaposing Cleage’s interpretation with Smith’s understanding of the Bible as a pharmacopeic analysis, Jesus would not be read as a black revolutionary, Jesus’ words would be used as spells that would be cast to strengthen the Black power movement. So, Jesus is not just a symbol of Black revolutionary struggle but his actual words would be incantations (spells) that are repeated during black revolutionary struggle to strengthen the movement.
Not so much energy is given to reinterpret the Christ figure, rather the energy is used to strengthen the magic in his words. For instance, Jesus’ quote, “if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” Approached from Smith’s perspective these words are an incantation to help summon strength at a point of great peril. This goes beyond interpreting Christ as a man of African descent (Africanizing the Christ figure) to using his words from an African cultural departure where they become spells to be weaved to manipulate the present and future reality. Jesus’ words become spells to summon strength which I argue goes beyond the blackening (Africanizing) of a religious icon to using African culture as a weapon for African liberation with a Christian veneer; again, as Africans of the Yoruba tradition kept their culture in tact using the Catholic veneer to create Voodoo, Santeria and Candomble. They did not forsake their African roots, they played a folksy shell game that hid their spiritual tradition in plain-sight and were able to maintain a measure of cultural integrity in the process.
 Josiah Young. A Pan-African Theology: Providence and the Legacies of the Ancestors. (Africa World Press: Trenton, NJ, 1992).
 Alexander Crummell. Civilization and Black Progress: Selected Writings of Alexander Crummell on the South. (Sourthern Texts Society: University Press of Virginia, 1994).
 Edward Wilmont Blyden. Chrisitanity, Islam and the Negro Race. (Lushena Books: Bensenville, Il, 2014).
 Josiah Young. A Pan-African Theology: Providence and the Legacies of the Ancestors. (Africa World Press: Trenton, NJ, 1992), 18.
 This approach shares a lot of similarities with James Cone’s approach in Black Theology and Black Power.
 Stephen Gregory. Santeria in New York City: A Study of Cultural Resistance. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999).
 Theophus Smith. Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formation of Black America. (Oxford Press: New York, 1994).hus Smith. Conjuring Culture:…99). TYPE of
 Ibid., pg. 4.
 Albert Cleage, Jr. The Black Messiah: On Black Consciousness and Black Power… A Strong and Uncompromising Presentation by one of America’s Most Influential Black Religious Leaders. (Los Angeles: Africa World Press, 1989).