- The Colors of Christ in the Diaspora of Africana Religions
Staccato trumpet blasts, a lively guitar, and a beating drum introduce Roberto Angleró’s “Si Dios Fuera Negro.” The lyrics then wonder how the world would be different with a Black God. “Si Dios fuera negro,” Angleró and his band Tierra Negro exclaim, “todo cambiaría.” If God were Black, all would be different politically, culturally, socially, and religiously. There would be a Black president and a Black governor. Chalk would be Black; Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa would be Black; even “Snow White” would be Black. God’s Blackness would wash the natural and supernatural. It would flow backward and forward in time and space. Both the sun and cotton would be Black, and so would the pope and the angels. “Si Dios fuera negro,” then also “Negro Jesus Christ.”1
Angleró’s tune from the late 1970s was extraordinarily popular in his native land of Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean. It was part salsa, part bomba. It mixed musical styles from African, Spanish, and Taíno backgrounds, and its lyrics vibrated the intricate webs connecting race, religion, politics, economics, and culture. Performed with an upbeat tempo and an air of jocularity, “Si Dios Fuera Negro” entertained questions that were being asked throughout the world. From the halls of theological seminaries to Sunday school classrooms, and even on the streets of urban landscapes, [End Page 379] esteemed and everyday people were wondering what the race and color of God meant for them. With the lexical form of conditional logic and the musical arts of the Black Atlantic, “Si Dios Fuera Negro” was both a sardonic attack on the powers of white supremacy and a syncopated dream of realms beyond its authority.
“Si Dios Fuera Negro” renders lyrically, musically, and humorously many of the key themes in The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012), coauthored by Paul Harvey and me. In it, we examine, on the one hand, how the racialization of the supernatural (God, angels, demons, and particularly Jesus Christ) helped create and sustain notions and structures of racial hierarchies. On the other hand, we endeavor to show how racialized sacred figures provided race in the Western world with the moral valences, voices, and resources to weather assaults from cultural anthropology and modern science that characterized the term race as a historical, cultural, and social construct. We fixate on how notions of Jesus Christ influenced and were influenced by race and racialization in American history from the fifteenth century to the twenty-first, seeking to move among churchgoers and church haters, authors and readers, singers and songwriters, jokesters and baby boomers, children who dreamed dreams and adults who often tried to crush them.2
Beginning with Western European engagements in the West African slave trade and enterprises to South and North America, we focus on shifting representations of Jesus in material culture, visions, music, sermons, poems, children’s literature, jokes, and other sources that addressed the body of Jesus. Overall, we find that Jesus Christ did not become a power broker in the realm of race making and racialization until the late eighteenth century. European Catholics during the medieval and colonial periods, of course, had a wide array of Jesus imagery, including Black Madonnas and Christ babies, and part of the Protestant Reformation was an iconoclastic assault upon the ubiquity of Catholic imagery. But in the United States it was only when white Americans developed technologies of mass production and distribution throughout the nineteenth century that the whiteness of Jesus become a totemic principle for American nationalism. Then, in the twentieth century the United States become a primary exporter of Jesus imagery for the world. By then, though, the irony was complete, for a country settled in part by Protestant iconoclasts seeking an escape from papist imagery and ritual had become the largest producer and exporter of internationally marketed sacred imagery in world history. [End Page 380]
The Color of Christ proposes large arguments, but Angleró’s “Si Dios Fuera Negro” calls for...