Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian
By James H. Cone
Orbis Books, 2018
On May 7, 2018, the historic Riverside Church in New York City was the site of the homegoing service for James H. Cone, the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. Among the congregational songs was the old gospel favorite, “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” which we learned would be the title of Cone’s final work—an autobiography. The song is an up-tempo hymn, and much of the congregation assembled that day knew it well, so they joined in by clapping their hands and patting their feet. We were gathered in joyful recognition of a life well-lived, an academic and scholarly giant. And as I sat with Keri Day and Monica Coleman, two of my womanist theologian colleagues, I could not help but reflect that we were witnesses to a tribute for a pioneer, a man who had created an academic discipline which made our own scholarly work possible.
When I received a copy of Cone’s posthumously published 2018 autobiography, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian, I found myself once again humming the song, even singing it out loud as I read Cone’s final words, written during a period in which he knew that his mortal life was soon to be over. How do you tell the story of your life, in its beauty and its pain, when you are acutely aware that your earthly time is coming to an end? What stories do you include and which do you exclude? Whose names do you recall in print, knowing that this may be your last chance to thank some people—or your last chance to rebuke those who refused to affirm your vision? James Cone does both in his last written work. He calls the roll, naming almost every major theological voice he encountered over an almost 50-year career, and firmly inserting himself in the midst of how the story of theology in America is to be told for future generations.
Cone’s autobiography is extremely readable, written in his clear and precise prose. Like the man himself, there is not an ounce of rhetorical fat. And while there are glimpses of Bearden, Arkansas, and Macedonia AME Church, the formidable spaces which shaped the younger Cone, this autobiography considers the James Cone of Union Theological Seminary fame. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody is the story of James Cone, the scholar; a man aware of his rightful place in the canon of American theology. Cone dedicates his memoir to the “students and faculty of Union Theological Seminary, who challenged and inspired” him for nearly half a century. It is the story of how, as Cone writes, “black theology found me and gave me voice.”
Cone insists that it is hard to write about oneself and that his autobiography is an act of resistance. In choosing to write less about his personal life, and primarily about how the field of black theology was birthed, Cone gives us insight into the man who learned from childhood to “wear the mask,” whose young life consisted of him trying to be a “Christian Negro with good manners and no resentment against white people.” This early Cone is in sharp contrast to the Cone who later emerges and insists that his primary vocational call was to create and produce a black theology, “a theology accountable to the black struggle for dignity.” And despite acknowledging the need to “wear the mask” during his undergraduate and graduate years, Cone speaks of the simmering anger brewing beneath the surface as he unsuccessfully tried reconciling what white Christians said about God with how white Christians treated black Americans. Cone builds his career on naming the contradictions and hypocrisy of white Christianity, never backing away from his claim that “white Christianity was not the gospel of Jesus. White supremacy, in fact, is the Antichrist!”
Noting that “black pain runs deep, wide, and long,” Cone acknowledges that there were times he could not “contain [his] rage.” Not content to create theology divorced from the cultural context of oppressed people, Cone writes that it gave him pleasure when he “brazenly broke every theological rule … created.” In taking his reader on a journey through the writing and production of his first four books between 1969 and 1975, we are witnesses to Cone’s anger and black fire, but also his unrelenting love for black people. You cannot read Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody without coming to terms with a man who publicly loved black people in every word he wrote. He also loved the black Christian tradition from which he emerged, even in his criticism of it. Each chapter of his autobiography engages a musical line from the hymn of its title, taking seriously the words and the theology penned by some unnamed and unknown black ancestors. Cone writes that it is “love of black people” which enabled him to “find the language, the words” to create a theology that was liberating to black people.
Cone does not shy away from naming his critics or recalling his academic debates with fellow scholars (living and dead), most significantly his ongoing disagreement with religionist Charles H. Long, whom he accuses of being “more interested in winning a debate” than participating in intellectual engagement. Neither does Cone shy away from listing the famous and the infamous characters he encounters throughout his life, detailing Reinhold Niebuhr’s response to his first book; an unexpected dinner with Howard Thurman; and his meetings with the Black Panthers during the Black Power movement.
Within his autobiography, we sense a man who is well aware, and quite comfortable, with his powerful influence on the theological academy. Cone’s work is a genealogy of how American theology came of age during the past five decades. The reader longs for more personal details, more references to family and friends, more knowledge of Cone’s intimate life. But Cone’s final work is ultimately about his scholarly corpus, the body of his academic work that will neither die nor fade away.
Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody ends abruptly; the reader may sense that Cone was rushed to finish his final thoughts. There is a short conclusion to his autobiography which reads more like a final sermon. Cone references the blood of Jesus and the blood of black people; the twin concepts of resilience and hope; Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community”; and James Baldwin as prophet. I would argue that if James Cone had a sermonic theme, if Cone had a favorite text, it would be his powerful and often repeated refrain that “the truth of the gospel is always offensive and unpopular because it expresses solidarity with the powerless and those on the margins.” Cone spent a lifetime preaching a gospel that was offensive and unpopular for much of his career, even ending his last published words with the reminder that “the blood of black people,” including Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice, “is crying out to God … from the ground in the United States of America.” Cone’s conclusion gives us a glimpse of the preacher who emerged during his seminars at Union and the often thunderous applause which greeted him after one of his lectures.
It was the preacher I encountered at a quiet lunch spot in Harlem while dining with James Cone, during a semester I spent teaching womanist theology at Union. As a younger scholar struggling (still) with whether theological education can make a difference, I was searching; Cone offered me reassurance, not with any particularly profound words, but with a simple message to “keep working until the work is done.” You come to the end of Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody wishing there were more chapters to read; wishing there were a few more stories to be shared; wishing for a more complicated narrative arc. But you also arrive at the end of Cone’s memoir with the refrain “well done, good and faithful servant” on your lips. He kept working until his portion of the work was done. And once you’ve wrestled with the work of James Cone, you won’t be able to keep what you’ve learned and experienced to yourself.
Yolanda Pierce is the dean of Howard University School of Divinity and a professor of African American religion and literature. Follow her @YNPierce.