[H]e looked like da Vinci’s Christ—a fair-skinned Italian with long, well-conditioned brown or blonde hair and blue eyes.
I don’t think I noticed Christ’s race in that painting until one of my aunts, home from college where she was studying anthropology, said something like, “Why is that picture of a white Jesus still on the wall?”
Still. Meaning it was the same image of Christ she and her five siblings had grown up seeing. They also had seen a similar “Christ” at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church where they had professed their beliefs as children and teens. I attend the same church until I left home for college. A tapestry (as I recall it) replica of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” rested prominently on the wall at the front of the church, centered perfectly between the choir stands. That Jesus always looked a little swarthy to me, but maybe the fabric just needed cleaning. His hair looked like he could’ve starred in a Salon Selectives commercial from the 80s, which means he was white or he had a really good curling iron.
I was somewhere between nine and 14 when my aunt posed her question, and I hear underlying sentiments now that I didn’t hear then. Does my mother have no consciousness about how detrimental this is to the psyches of all the Black children who come through this house? Does she not know that a white Jesus is historically inaccurate and theologically unsound?
And those questions make me ask uncomfortable questions, like, what other theological and historical specifics were missing, overlooked, or unknown in the teachings coming from small, southern, black churches? How has the unknown affected African Americans in my grandmother’s generation and their perceptions of whites and of themselves? What would change if they—we—had learned the truth?
I wonder specifically how the image of a white Christ affects the politics of respectability that still pervades our discourse in the 21st century. I wonder if my grandparents’ generation’s thought process, consciously or subliminally, was something like: Christ is the only perfect man to ever walk the earth. >> We do the right thing by imitating Christ. >> Christ is a white man, so imitating a white man is doing the right thing. >> Imitating whiteness leads to perfection. >> Imitating whiteness leads to earthly reward just as imitating Christ leads to heavenly reward.
A part of me thinks this is silly because, as theologian Kelly Brown Douglas noted in this unique take on the race of Jesus controversy, to existentially imitate whiteness would be to do just about everything Christ stands against. It had to be obvious to the second post-emancipation generation that the things white supremacists were doing (lynching black folks, for example) and complicit whites were doing (like, nothing) were un-Christ-like. But the marketing of whiteness as the best is so effective, I have to wonder. We people of color change our hair, bleach our skin, get nose jobs, and alter our vernacular to try to attain it. And for African Americans, if we would do all that and just behave—do the right things, make good grades, don’t use drugs, keep our knees together, work hard, don’t wear hoodies, be perfect as Christ was perfect—we wouldn’t get shot by neighborhood watchmen, harassed at Barney’s, go to prison in disproportionate numbers, or have a persistent wealth gap.
My mom claims that I broke away in first grade from the pattern of schools all the other children in my then all-black (<95%) neighborhood went to because my grandmother was convinced a slightly whiter elementary school was better and encouraged her to send me there. I thought about that as I was writing the NCR piece, but I shook it off and didn’t want to dwell on it. For someone struggling to maintain my excitement about Christ right around his birthday, it was a bit too much to think that, on some level and at some time in the past, my grandmother thought she—and her husband, children, and me and my cousins—would never quite be good enough because we weren’t created in Jesus’s image.
I don’t think she believes anything like this now, but I know the legacy of white Jesus and perceived white perfection remains. And if there are any da Vinci Jesuses still mounted on the walls of predominantly black churches or of black grandmama’s houses, replacing them with Black Dreadlocked Jesus could make us see him as the Jesus who, as Douglas described,
“passionately rejected the conventions and supremacy of social, political, religious and cultural power in his own day” and who “consistently affirmed, empowered and befriended those who were the outcast, marginalized, oppressed, and rejected.”
And if all Christians imitate that Christ, there would be radical change ahead.