James Cone and the liberating spirit of blackness

In his final memoir, Cone’s testimony resounds.

If there was ever a time we needed James Cone with his powerful prophetic voice to call down thunder, that time is now. Like a blues musician, Cone inhabits the souls of those whose voices cry out to be heard, and like the soul preacher and spirituals singer he is, he testifies to the liberating spirit of love that grows out of embracing blackness. In Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Cone preaches more fiercely than in any other of his previous books, declaring: “The blood of black people is crying out to God and to white people from the ground in the United States of America.”

While Cone’s physical voice is now silent—he died earlier this year—his written voice cries out in this memoir, compelling us to listen as he testifies. His testimony includes some already well-known details about his life (which he described in his 1982 memoir My Soul Looks Back) and analysis of how they shaped him. But this new memoir also contains much more: his experiences writing his books, the challenges he faced from critics, the passion that urged his words onto paper, and the new theological language in which he was writing—“the language of the black sermon and song, and in the spirit of the great preachers and singers I had heard all over Arkansas and in Chicago and Detroit.”

From his early engagement with Karl Barth’s theology to the four books on black liberation theology he published between 1969 and 1975, Cone demonstrated that his authority for doing theology comes from black experience and not from claims to divine revelation. Looking back on those years, he explains, “I did not want to write anything that black people would not understand and read and hear as their own experience. If I couldn’t preach it, I wouldn’t write it.”