About the author: Nicholas Chik is a 4th-year undergraduate student at UC Berkeley majoring in history with a concentration on 19th and 20th-century African American history. He is writing this article on behalf of the Black Sociological Alliance.
Growing up in Hong Kong, I always saw images of a white Jesus at church and wondered why he didn’t look like the people worshiping him. In my quest for answers, I discovered that the method of the portrayal of Jesus has a very significant political background.
Although there is still no provable historical evidence that Jesus existed, if the native of Nazareth did preach in the streets of Judea, he would likely have had dark skin and features, according to anthropological experts like Richard Neave. However, Christian artists of antiquity chose to portray Christianity’s founder with physical features resembling their countrymen. Further south, in Africa, another image of Jesus could be found resembling local Christians' complexions. The roots of Black Jesus can be traced back to 400AD when Ethiopians created portraits of Jesus in their image. Jesus, therefore, did not have one true historical face but took on features that reflected the cultural and ethnic identity of the people who worshiped him. Later in history, portraying the Son of God would play a political and ideological role.
During the age of European imperial domination, colonizers exported their version of Christianity and iconography. Jesus, the “Savior,” would resemble the conquerors on the new churches' walls and windows, reinforcing the racial hierarchy that placed white Peninsulares and Creoles at the top of the pyramid. Centuries later, the same type of symbolism would reinforce the racial hierarchy in America without much resistance until the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1971, Muhammad Ali, in an interview with Parkinson, boldly asked the same question in the minds of dark-skinned youths across America: “Why is Jesus white with blonde hair and blue eyes?” Why is it that “Angels are white, Mary is white…”. His query was addressed just two years earlier by American theologian James H. Cone who introduced a new message of African American empowerment and liberation in his 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power. In his works, which remain influential today in the AME Church, Cone argues that African Americans should embrace “Black Jesus” because white Christianity contradicts Christian teachings by implicitly supporting white supremacy. He builds on his criticism in The Cross and the Lynching Tree by comparing the lynching of nearly five thousand black men and women between 1880 to 1940 to the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. The white “Christians” who committed these crimes, he says, “did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”
For Civil Rights activists, images of black Jesus, black Mary, and black Angels represented the right of black people to live, worship, and someday go to heaven as all Christians desire. European colonialism turned Christianity into a tool of domination for the white-skinned conquerors. In America, the concept of Black Jesus emerged to counter that chauvinistic symbol of oppression. The portrayal of Jesus, therefore, takes on a political role as an icon for liberation and resistance to white supremacy.