Set Me Free: Black Liberation, Me, and Dr. Cone, R.I.P.

coneAs secretary to black theologian and Reverend James H Cone some years back, I was meant to book him a hotel room in Boston for a conference. Unfortunately, I forgot, and when Dr Reverend Cone arrived at his hotel it was fully booked — as were, it turned out, almost all others. Dr. Cone, as he related this to me on Monday in our Union Theological Seminary tower, was wildly agitated. The least I could do was apologize. His voice rose almost to a squeak.

I mean,” he said shrilly,“ staring at me, “I was homeless!”

Homeless?  I stared back in an obviously enraging non-apologetic way. He wasn’t homeless, I thought. He was a tenured professor with credit cards, a checking account and three living rooms (the most interior one in his theologian’s residence decorated in black leather.)  He could have taken a flight that night to Paris.

I always remember this as showing how different people’s comfort zones can be. I had been working for Dr. Cone a while longer when I started paying full attention to what he was actually writing in his books and papers, some of which I typed up for him. He didn’t just applaud Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.  I noticed a trend in his work — the appearance of the word “white” and “whitey” with some highly exclusionary or negative referencing.

“For Cone, writes Stanley Kurz in The National Review, “the deeply racist structure of American society leaves blacks with no alternative but radical transformation or social withdrawal…  So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist…

“Theologically, Cone affirms that Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.'”

Not long after this, I left Cone’s employ. He was a great man to work for; I respected and still do his ethics, his mind, his personal moderation and care. But I was tired of being “Whitey.” I was tired of being, first, a secretary, and second, a secretary to a Man. A bewildered Dr. Cone told Human Resources that I had had a “Complete Personality Change.”

“Is this true?” the kindly human resources manager asked me.

“Have you, Louise, had a complete personality change?”

I looked back at her, pausing. Then I said, striking out on my own, “I have.

Thank you Dr Cone, for teaching me, letting me exasperate you and setting me free.

“James Cone was not just a professor. He was a prophet—a theological giant who shook the foundations of Christianity, dragging us miles closer to justice,” Union Seminary wrote. “He showed the world that the gospel cannot be separated from the push for black freedom—that black liberation is God’s story.”For his obituary on NPR last night, April 28, 2018, click here. 

About louisewleonard

Author of 52 Men, 2015. Excerpts in The Rumpus, Tin House, Fiction Advocate and Gargoyle.
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