Blackness and a Theology of Care
From 2005 to 2010, I worked as a supervisor at the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Department in the county jail.
My mother retired as a prison guard after thirty years of working for the state of Alabama Department of Corrections.
During these combined thirty-five years of experience, we both have discovered the disparity in the value placed on the lives of those incarcerated and affected by America’s legal system.
My mother and I have often discussed how systems and institutions in America treat different people differently.
In the United States, violence against black bodies is not only interpersonal but also institutional.
Both individual actors and entire systems in America are racist and obliquely support the superiority of one race while asserting the inferiority of another.
Racism and institutional violence exist as a result of the projection of impropriety onto black bodies as a tool of dehumanization and degradation.
The United States’ racist history and anemic attempt at progress often relegate Blackness to slums, ghettos, and prisons.
In her book, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, M Shawn Copeland says, “Racism is not only ideology or only praxis, but it is both.”
Racism survives in a society, not because of the choices or actions of a few individual actors, but because racist ideologies have subverted institutions of politics, economy, culture, education, and even religion.
Understanding that racist ideologies entrench systems and structures makes it necessary to reframe Blackness to create space for change.
Blackness is not a malevolence that needs to be eradicated or a societal ill antithetical to goodness, hope, and positivity.
To establish authentic care, black identity cannot be forced to assimilate but must be accepted societally to reclaim black freedom.
A theology of care affirms that black identity is righteousness, redemption, and Christ and not immorality, criminality, and wickedness.
The historic and modern oppression of black bodies through slavery, segregation, brutal discrimination, and institutional oppression shows just how easily the value and significance of the black body have been enfeebled.
Copeland suggests that “Bodies are marked – made individual, particular, different, and vivid – through race, sex and gender, sexuality, and culture.”
The black body represents the marked body of Jesus Christ.
In his flesh, Jesus knew refugee status, unjust enterprise, colonization, social regulation, and control. Communities of care must be able to look at a black body and the oppression of black people in America and see Jesus. Blackness is a conduit through which the gospel is realized.
Through the incarnation, God was made flesh and revealed God-self in a marked body to bring about redemption – Black folks can therefore identify their plight as being chosen by God, not despite their blackness, but in favor of their decision to be identified by a term and characteristic that has marked them as oppressed and a pariah in American society.
Because some black people have chosen to claim as their identity, Blackness, and that Blackness is the source of self-love, the ability to locate God among Blackness is essential to caring with those who claim that identity.
Leonardo Boff explains in his book, Essential Care: An Ethics of Human Nature, that, “Caring is a way of being; that is, it is the way through which the human being structures itself and through which it interacts with others in the world.”
Caring is ultimately a way of being-in-the-world in which the relations that are established with all things are founded.
It means a way of existing and of co-existing, a way of being present, of navigating through reality and of relating to all things in the world.
In the American context, God is located, not with the systems that perpetrate and perpetuate institutional racial violence, but with the black bodies that have been subjugated to endemic and systemic racism.
In a theology of care, the relationship is not one that seeks to establish dominion over; it is rather a relationship of living together.
It is interaction and communion and not just intervention.
To care is to enter into synchronicity with others; it is to listen to their rhythm and to tune oneself into that rhythm.
This means that black lives must never be forced to dispense with their blackness and a theology of care must be able to identify God in that blackness.
If it cannot, then blackness may never be viewed as anything other than an evil in need of extermination, paganism in need of conversion, and a burden to American society.
To be clear, a theology of care in this context, is incomplete without reference to color or the re-imagining of blackness.
Boff states that this way of being-in-the-world, in the form of care, allows people to live the fundamental experience of value.
This is not value based only on a thing’s usefulness, but intrinsic value present in all humanity.
If God does not identify with institutional racism and systems of privilege that promote systemic violence, a theology of care cannot maintain an identity with the advantageous allowances of those systems and synonymously identify with the plight of black lives engendered by those same structures.
Instead, from a theology of care emerge dimensions of respect, sacredness, reciprocity, and complementarity.
Sam White serves as the Director of Admission at Columbia Theological Seminary.