Henry Bishop Turner was many things: A minister. A Politian. He also was the first southern bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)—the church where, recently, nine black members were gunned down by the white terrorist, Dylann Roof. He also believed that perhaps it was better to serve no God, rather than worship a God that did not resemble his people on any conceivable level. People began to believe that it was better to serve an ambiguous, faceless, colorless God than worship a deity that we were taught was white and looked nothing like us.
(Excerpt from Black God: “God Has No Color” pg. 11)
Over a century ago, Bishop Turner knew that most of his congregation had grown up being taught – either explicitly or implicitly – that God and Jesus were white. Turner notes that it would be better to be an atheist or pantheist than to worship a personal God who looks nothing like the persons worshiping him.
It’s this sentiment that eventually gave rise to the modern cliché “My God doesn’t have a color.” It wasn’t some scientific rationalism or Neo-Platonism. It was simply developed as a way to dance around what this God might look like.
The problem is, people who say this aren’t typically pantheists or animists. They don’t think of God as some universal force, because – if they did – they might see God in themselves as well. Rather, most still have a personal God, typically a “Father in Heaven” kinda guy. They say he doesn’t have a color, but he does. He’s still white. And this is not some insignificant thing. Our concept of God is critical to our self-concept and the way we grow and develop as individuals and as a community. This is why it’s important for us to undo the psychological trauma that was done via the concept of a white God.
As early as 1875, early Black Nationalist and Presbyterian minister Edward Wilmot Blyden composed an essay titled “Mohammedanism and the Negro Race” where he argued that Islam avoided such issues. He noted that both Judaism and Islam prohibited any artwork attempting to represent the divine, while the Christian world produced mountains of iconic statues and sacred imagery.
The problem with this, Blyden explained, was that, “to the Negro all these exquisite representations exhibited only the physical characteristics of a foreign race; and while they tended to quicken the tastes and refine the sensibilities of that race, they had only a depressing influence upon the Negro, who felt that he had neither part nor lot so far as the physical character was concerned, in those splendid representations.” In other words, Black people could find themselves nowhere in any of this imagery. What did this do to Black Christians? Blyden continued:
The Christian Negro, abnormal in his development, pictures God and all beings remarkable for their moral and intellectual qualities with the physical characteristics of the Europeans, and deems it an honor if he can approximate – by a mixture of his blood, however irregularly achieved – in outward appearance at least to the ideal thus forced upon him by the physical accompaniments of all excellence. In this way he loses that ‘sense of dignity of human nature’ observable in his Mohammedan brother.
In other words, looking at all this sacred white stuff makes us ashamed to be ourselves. We subconsciously identify with white power and privilege, having never seen ourselves cast in the light of divinity, royalty, or any other great stature. The fact that “Black history” typically begins with slavery is another part of this same process of miseducation.
This is why you’ll encounter people who’ll say “Jesus’ color doesn’t matter.” Well, if that was the case, it shouldn’t matter if we say God and Jesus are Black. If it doesn’t matter, who cares if we say that? The reason why people care is because they’re still attached to white Gods and they’re scared to consider anything differently. If only they knew that all the world’s traditions originally portrayed God as Black.