Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope (James Henry Harris) -- A Review

BLACK SUFFERING: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope. By James Henry Harris. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2020. Xii + 250 pages.

                I remember the conversation clearly. It was the first quarter of my seminary career. The class was American Protestant Theology. Each of us was charged with making a presentation of our research paper to the class. I don't remember what I presented, but my African American colleague presented on Black theology; specifically the work of James Cone. Having grown up in Oregon, which is a rather white state, I was not well acquainted with the realities of the Black experience in America. So, I was a bit shocked when my colleague calmly told the rest of us, most of whom were White, that unless is Black, one cannot truly understand the black experience. In my naivete, I wanted to push back. I might be White, but surely I can understand Black theology, at least intellectually. Over time, I've learned that having an intellectual grasp of a particular form of theology is not the same thing as truly understanding the experience of another and how that experience is expressed theologically. I can listen and I can learn, but I’ll always remain a step removed from the true meaning of this theology.

                I offer this autobiographical statement as a prelude to presenting my review of James Henry Harris's Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope. Writing as a White male who has not experienced life as he has lived it, I must attend to his words with humility and respect. Harris is the pastor of Second Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, and Distinguished Professor of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, Virginia Union University. He is the author of Beyond the Tyranny of the Text, a book I reviewed here on my blog.  

                Harris uses a combination of short stories, sermons, and autobiographical elements to share the reality of Black suffering. If you are White, like me, you will be uncomfortable. That is by design. While you may want to push back, it is best to listen carefully so that a degree of understanding may be gained. Interestingly, Harris points out that folks in the Black and Brown communities, the people who inhabit the pews of the congregation to which he preaches, don't necessarily want to hear about their suffering either. At least, not in church. Nevertheless, Harris believes that not only do White folks need to hear this message, so do the people in the pews of the church to which he preaches. Therefore, what he offers us is what he calls a "mixtape" of Black suffering.

                Black Suffering is envisioned as a call to consciousness. It is, Harris suggests, "a call to wake up from our slumber and challenge the world to take its feet off the necks, backs, and rib cages of black folk." (p. 7). As we move through the book, we hear descriptions of Black suffering, including stories of lynchings. We also encounter stories of those who have suffered. We also hear about those who have engaged in consciousness-raising among people Black and White. Thus, we find chapters that reflect on the life and message of important Black figures including W.E.B. DuBois, Nat Turner, Toni Morrison, and yes, James Cone. While much of the book focuses on suffering and oppression, Harris doesn’t want to leave the reader without some word of hope. That hope is to be found, Harris believes, in the Black church. That is if it is willing to face the realities of life as it is currently lived within the Black community.

               One of the messages heard in this book is Harris's concern that too many participants in the Black church do not wish to hear messages about social justice. They just want to come and worship, so as to escape the realities of the world outside. While Harris understands this desire to escape for a few moments, he also believes that it’s not an option. Thus, preaching becomes for him silent suffering. For those of us who serve progressive white churches, we must hear this. We may enjoy being prophetic, but we generally preach to a choir made up of people who don’t fear the realities faced by persons of color. When I am pulled over by the police, I may fear getting a ticket, but not losing my life. I never had to give the “talk” to my son after he learned to drive. So, if you are like me, a White preacher, it’s important to remember that when we speak on matters of racial justice, our audience might be sympathetic to the cause but not have to worry about having to suffer. For many of us social justice is a cause to embrace, but not one that affects one's daily life.

            While the overriding message of the book is the need to raise the consciousness of Black suffering, the hidden hope of Harris’ message is to be found in the liberating message of Jesus. Following James Cone, Harris speaks of Jesus’ death on the lynching tree. Harris writes in the concluding paragraph of Black Suffering that "just as Jesus exposed the truth and disrupted the norms of the oppressive and unjust status quo of first-century Palestine, Black people must continue to struggle against suffering in order to disrupt the same oppressive and unjust cultural structures in America." (p. 234).

             If you are White like me, as you read Harris’ Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope, you will want to push back and declare that while you are White, you don’t hate Black folks. It’s true, I don’t. You will want to join me in telling the author, but I'm a good guy. I’m not racist. Then James Henry Harris will remind you and me that we benefit from Black suffering. It's a hard message to hear. Nevertheless, it is a message we must hear if we are to move beyond the current cultural dynamics that plague our nation. For that reason, we can be thankful for this book. It will be a difficult read, and not because it’s poorly written or too dense to get through. It’s just that the message is uncomfortable. But as I said, there is a word of hope here


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