November 23, 2007

BILL MOYERS: Have you forgiven whites for lynching your ancestors?

JAMES CONE: Well, it's not a question of forgiveness except in this sense. You see, when whites ask me about that, then I want to know why they're asking, see. Because I want to first talk about what you going to do in order to make sense out of the world to make me want to do that. See, I don't think my forgiveness of you depends on what you do. But, I am curious why you ask me that.

BILL MOYERS: I ask it because I'm not sure I could give it.

JAMES CONE: That's because, you see, when you have a power and a reality in your experience that transcends both you and me, then it's not just what you can do or what I can do. It is what the power in us can do. That-- you lose that-- you lose the presence of a spirit that is greater than you, that enables you to do the unthinkable because you know you're connected with the scoundrel even though he might have lynched you or lynched your brother. You are gonna fight him about that. But, does not-- he's a bad brother. But, he's still a brother.

BILL MOYERS: You said in that speech at Harvard that you hoped by linking the cross and the lynching tree to begin a conversation in America about race.


BILL MOYERS: What would you like us to be talking about?

JAMES CONE: I'd like for us, first, to talk to each other. And I'd like to talk about what it would mean to be one community, one people. Really one people.

BILL MOYERS: What would it mean?

JAMES CONE: It would mean that we would talk about the lynching tree. We would talk about slavery. We would talk about the good and the bad all mixed up there. We would begin to see ourselves as a family. Martin King called it the beloved community. That's what he was struggling for.

BILL MOYERS: What can people do to try to help bring about this beloved community that you talk about?

JAMES CONE: First is to believe that it can happen. Don't lose hope. If you-- if you-- if people lose hope, they give up in despair. Black people were enslaved for 246 years. But, they didn't lose hope.

BILL MOYERS: Why didn't they?

JAMES CONE: They didn't lose hope because there was a power and a reality in their experience that helped them to know that they were a part of this human race just like everybody else.

BILL MOYERS: All right--

JAMES CONE: And they fought for that.

BILL MOYERS: All right, so I'm-- I have hope. What's next?

JAMES CONE: The next step is to connect with people who also have hope: blacks, whites, Hispanic, all different ages, all different kinds of people. You have to connect and be around and organize with people who have hope.

BILL MOYERS: Organize?


BILL MOYERS: What do you mean organize?

JAMES CONE: You organize to make the world the way it ought to be.

BILL MOYERS: And that--

JAMES CONE: And that is the beloved community. You have to have some witness to that. Even if it's a small witness of just you and me.

BILL MOYERS: You don't have to be angels to do that?

JAMES CONE: No, you don't have to be--

BILL MOYERS: Remember, if men were angels, we wouldn't need government.

JAMES CONE: That's-- that's--

BILL MOYERS: As the founding fathers--

JAMES CONE: --right.

BILL MOYERS: --said. We're not angels.

JAMES CONE: No, we're not angels-- no, we're not angels. But, in-- where there are two or three gathered, there is hope. There is possibility. And you don't want to lose that. That's why I keep teaching.

BILL MOYERS: Speaking of race, guess it's like - all the talk in politics today about blackness. I mean, you've got people arguing, blacks arguing, is Barack Obama black enough or not? You got people talking about Condoleezza Rice. Since she's gotten to power, is she aware of her black-- should she be aware of her blackness? What's your take on all this?

JAMES CONE: Well, I think everybody should be aware of their heritage. See, blackness is a powerful, powerful symbol in America. Because we were taught to be ashamed of being black. And in a society in which you are taught to be ashamed of it, then to overcome that, you have to affirm it. So, you shouldn't be bashful about talking about it. Because to be bashful about talking about it is to, in some sense, to be ashamed of it, at least from the perspective of those who are black and who don't have the kind of position that Condoleezza Rice or Barack Obama would have. So, all they want is to say, you know, express some identity with our history and our culture. It's okay to identify with the larger culture. Because we are one community. But that should not entitle one to just forget about one's own particular culture of blackness.

BILL MOYERS: So, is Obama black enough?

JAMES CONE: Well, you know, I'm not sure I'm black enough. I'm not sure that that is the right ques-- I'm sure I'm not black enough for a lotta people. I-- what I think is relevant here is that people are reaching out to Barack Obama, wanting him to address some of the issues that are particularly important to them. And he has addressed one or two, but is not, you know, from the perspective of the people who are asking the question at least, not enough in order to affirm the fact that he really is as much for black people as he is for the state of America. See, and the problem here is, is that whites make it difficult for black people to be black and also for them to support him.

BILL MOYERS: How's that?

JAMES CONE: Because the more you express identity with the community from which you come from if you're black, the more fear white people have. Now, that's not true for Italians. That's not true for Germans. That's not true for any other group, hardly, except us. Because there-- it's because we haven't been talking about that lynching tree. We haven't been talking about slavery, the ugly side of that. So, if Barack Obama comes out and says, "I'm black and I'm proud of it," well, whites would get nervous. And they would be careful about whether they would vote for him. So, he has a narrow, a narrow-- road in which to walk. Because he won't be elected if he doesn't get the white vote. It's hard to get the white vote if you express a kind of affirmative identity with black people. So, you get caught between a rock and a hard place. And that's where he's caught.

BILL MOYERS: And I have sympathy on this score-- for Condoleezza Rice. Her policies are another thing. But part of what the civil rights movement-- was all about. We thought a black man or a black woman should get to be Secretary of State or President of the United States and not have to-- be anything but a powerful person doing what that person needs to do.

JAMES CONE: No. I think that's a little off there. I-- now-- see, I-- how I would put it is, a black person should be Secretary of State without having to deny their racial heritage and actually put it up front.

BILL MOYERS: Up front?

JAMES CONE: Yes, up front. Because we are a part of America.

BILL MOYERS: But that would make her the black Secretary of State.


BILL MOYERS: And you don't talk about--

JAMES CONE: That's-- no, no.

BILL MOYERS: --Henry Kissinger--

JAMES CONE: No, no, no.

BILL MOYERS: --as the Jewish--


BILL MOYERS: --Secretary of State.

JAMES CONE: No. They wouldn't make her the black Secretary of State anymore--

BILL MOYERS: Had she talked about it?

JAMES CONE: --no, no. It would not necessarily. It would mean that she is proud of her cultural history the same way-- white people are proud of theirs. When you talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, well, you're talking about slaveholders. But you don't say that. But you are. And I--

BILL MOYERS: Why don't we say that?

JAMES CONE: Because America likes to be innocent. It likes to be the exception.

BILL MOYERS: But we're not.

JAMES CONE: We are not. That's why it's hard for Barack Obama or Condoleezza Rice to talk about blackness; 'cause it's-- if they talked about blackness in the real, true sense, it would be uncomfortable. But America can't be what America ought to be until-- America can look at itself, the good, the bad, so that we can work on making ourselves what we oughta be.

BILL MOYERS: In all of this, you turn your attention in the course of your long career, to this-- to THE SPIRITUALS AND THE BLUES, which is my favorite of your books. I mean, it's not the most theological. But it is I think the most vivid in its description of how music was theology. Tell me about that.

JAMES CONE: Well, I grew up with the spirituals and the blues. I heard the spirituals every Sunday morning in Macedonia AME Church. And that's where I received the sense that I was somebody. I was a child of God. But the blues was heard on Saturday night. Now, my mother wouldn't let me go to the place where the blues was played. But you can hear it.

BILL MOYERS: From your house?

JAMES CONE: From my house. Yes. You can hear it in all the community, 'cause there were several juke joints.

JAMES CONE: And that's where the people played the blues. That-- now, the blues was for people who did not receive the same kind of-- transcendence that people received on Sunday morning.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of transcendence did they receive?

JAMES CONE: And I-- see, on Sunday morning, you could-- you could know that your humanity was not defined by what happened to you during the week. Now, on Saturday night is when the blues people found that out.

BILL MOYERS: What'd they find out?

JAMES CONE: They found out that they had a humanity that nobody could take away from them.

BILL MOYERS: What-- what were they hearing?

JAMES CONE: BB King, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, all of the famous blues singers. They were played in Bearden, Arkansas and in Fordyce. Every Friday and Saturday night. And it was the place where people who didn't go to church expressed their humanity and sort of received a sense of self-transcendence, overcoming all of the brutality that had happened to them during the week. How are you gonna know you're a human being if you don't have a chance to express that?

BILL MOYERS: And what was your favorite blues lyric? You remember?

JAMES CONE: Yes. My favorite blues-Little Milton was one of my favorite singers.

BILL MOYERS: Little Milton?

JAMES CONE: Little Milton. "If I don't love you baby, grits ain't groceries and Mona Lisa was a man."

BILL MOYERS: That's great. Little Milton. I love the way that you-- you weave these-- you know, "I'd rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log than to stay in this town treated like a dirty dog--

JAMES CONE: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: --sitting here wondering would a matchbox hold my clothes? I ain't got so many and I got so far to go."

JAMES CONE: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: "I got a mind to ramble, a mind for to leave this town."

JAMES CONE: That's right. You see, when you can express and articulate what's happening to you, you have a measure of transcendence over it. It gives you speech. It gives you self-definition. And when you have self-definition, and not defined by the world, then you transcend what is happening to you.

BILL MOYERS: You say, "It's clear that the blues singer's searching for a reason to live, for purpose and meaning in existence. And the external realities of oppression seem to have gotten the best of him. And he lifts up his voice again, "99 years go jumping along, to be here rolling and can't go home, don't you go worrying about 40 -- the years of his prison sentence 'cause in five years, you'll be dead. If you don't believe my buddy's dead, just look at that hole in my buddy's head. Great God almighty, folks feeling bad, lost everything they ever had."

JAMES CONE: Anytime you can see and articulate your reality--

BILL MOYERS: Including your loss.

JAMES CONE: --including your loss, tragedy, that's the terrible beauty. That's the terrible beauty. See, the beauty is you not being defined by it. The tragedy is looking at that reality, looking at it sharply, plainly, not avoiding it. It's the kind of, as James Baldwin said, an ironic tenacity. It is claiming a sense of yourself, even in the midst of misery.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you see that terrible beauty today?

JAMES CONE: I see it in rap music. I do. I do. I do see it there.

BILL MOYERS: You're gonna get a lotta disagreement with that--


BILL MOYERS: --you know, Bill Cosby was--

JAMES CONE: Well, I know-- I know what he says. And I, you know, that's partly true what he's talking about. But it's not the whole story. It's just not the whole-- nothing is the whole story. You know, I can look in the church and show you some things that's happening now--


JAMES CONE: --that would make you not ever want to be a Christian!

BILL MOYERS: You weren't a Baptist.

JAMES CONE: So, you can look anywhere. There's always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word?


JAMES CONE: It does not. There is always hope. Anybody who loses hope and gives up in despair, they die.

BILL MOYERS: James Cone, thank you very much for being here.