The Black Madonna and the power of symbolic change

Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Special to The New Tri-State Defender | 6/16/2017, 12:32 p.m.
On Resurrection Sunday 1967, the Rev. Albert Cleage Jr. unveiled a sanctuary statue that he had erected that would concretize ...
Rev. Earle Fisher

On Resurrection Sunday 1967, the Rev. Albert Cleage Jr. unveiled a sanctuary statue that he had erected that would concretize a new constitutional commitment to Afrocentric Christianity in what was formerly known as Central United Church of Christ in Detroit. Cleage would rename the church after this monument – The Shrine of the Black Madonna.

The function of this statue was to more accurately historicize the ethnic and physical blackness of Jesus of Nazareth and his mother Mary. Cleagian scholar, Dr. Jawanza Eric Clark, in his new book “Albert Cleage Jr., and the Black Madonna and Child,” contends that this unveiling “was the launch of (a) black liberation movement in America” that was more militant than the moderate and pacifist Civil Rights Movement that had been associated with Dr. King.

The Shrine sought to tell a particular type of story. As a rhetorician, I’m mindful of how symbols impact our interpretations. Symbols are intended to summon certain types of sentiment.

As a pastor, I’m also mindful that there’s a spirituality associated with symbol making.

The “bloody cross” evokes nostalgia in most Christian communities. However, the cross without its historical context can become a superficial symbol instead of a depiction of the Roman Government’s preferred method of federal execution of political prisoners who fought for justice and liberation. Too many see the cross as a piece of jewelry, not a symbol of the electric chair of antiquity.

Symbols have power. And sometimes that power needs to be challenged and changed.

Symbols matter. Symbols tell stories. But these stories do not have to be tied to the truth when the symbols are constructed by those with more concern for power than justice.

Rev. Albert Cleage Jr. recognized the power in symbolic change so he erected a statue of Black Mary and Black Baby Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth was not a white man. Jesus was a Northeastern African. Jesus was black. But Jesus’s westernized renditions, most commonly found in Catholic and Protestant houses of worship (both black and white), appropriate whiteness upon the “Lord and Savior” which symbolizes a divine affirmation of white supremacy.

In similar vein, confederate statues, especially in majority black cities, are attempts to revise history while simultaneously reifying and deifying white supremacy.

White supremacist sentiment is woven into the spiritual psychology and physical fabric of our communities.

White supremacy (not Christianity) is America’s foundational religion. And Memphis, Tennessee is as American as the 14th Amendment.

It’s no wonder that we find the statue of a former slave-trading profiteer turned Confederate war “hero” on a street named after the army that won the civil war – Union! These types of symbols seek to sear into the public consciousness the divinity of one group and contribute to the dehumanization of another.

Regretfully, to change these symbols and the psychology associated with them we cannot simply erect statues of black liberation and power. We have to appeal to governing bodies such as the Tennessee Historical Commission. The Commission has an endorsement and understanding of history, symbolism and its social and spiritual implications that differs vastly from those of us who center the liberation of black people in our work.