My mother, Job's dark sister, sits
Now in a corner, prays, and knits.
Often across her face there flits
Remembered pain, to mar her joy,
At Whose death gave her back her boy. ("The Black Christ")
The frontispiece of Countee Cullen's 1929 The Black Christ & Other Poems features in its center a nude black male hanging by his neck from a long, jagged tree limb. Drawn in black-and-white by art-deco illustrator Charles Cullen, the figure's hands are fastened behind his back, and his feet are tied at the ankles. Rising behind the lynched body are sunbursts and a white cloud that ascends into the torso, shoulders, and bowed head of a second man, this one adorned with a crown of thorns. The image depicts the central argument put forth by "The Black Christ," that the corporal text of terror against black Americans should be read alongside the crucifixion of a "white" Jesus of Nazareth. But Charles Cullen's drawing also anticipates the vexing ambiguities that emerge in the verses by Countee Cullen that follow it. The frontispiece raises the question of how poetic invention will align these two sufferers depicted as racialized opposites of spiritual and material reality. Do the figures in the illustration represent two different individuals with distinct cultural histories, or are they dual aspects of a single man? The frontispiece intimates a connection between racial transcendence and divine immanence that invites further questions about the redemptive qualities of an early 20th-century "passion play" set in the Jim Crow South. Exactly what kind of redemption will be championed through the Christian martyrdom of a black lynched body and the unmerited suffering of blacks left behind?
The few scholars who have explored "The Black Christ" remain generally dissatisfied with Countee Cullen's engagement with these questions. On the one hand, most literary critics concur with Darwin Turner's assessment of the 33-page poem as an "impressive failure" (75). Preferring the thematic clarity of the New Negro poet's most famous works, including "Heritage" and "Ballad of the Brown Girl," many critics fault the poetic techniques in "The Black Christ," dismiss its foray into spiritual realism, and claim that Cullen "adds little to an overworked trope" (Sundquist 593). (1) On the other hand, religious scholars consider Cullen's lyrical meditations in this poem to be an effective vehicle for discussing theological concepts. James H. Smylie uses it to examine the ethic of suffering love, while William R. Jones explores the issue of divine racism through the story's conflict. Fascinated as I am by this interpretive elasticity, I agree that the piece is not without its stylistic imperfections. Yet my investigation is motivated by a reluctance to disregard it as being thoroughly flawed, particularly when the clunky machinations of these "flaws" suggest that Calvary "was but the first leaf in a line/ Of trees on which a Man should swing" (lines 17-18).
While previous scholars have focused almost exclusively on Cullen's deployment of Jesus imagery in "The Black Christ," I want to suggest that the poem's preoccupation with the enigmatic question of theodicy--why do the righteous suffer?--offers a more provocative point of entry. (2) Cullen patterns his narrative, in particular, after the wisdom literature of Job and incorporates its legal rhetoric, sensory imagery, and distinctive solution of redemptive suffering into the modern crucifixions of black men. In "The Black Christ," when a young black man named Jim is hunted by a southern lynch mob for striking a white man in self-defense, Jesus suffers in the victim's stead, disguising himself in Jim's dark flesh moments before the rope is pulled taut. Cullen further modernizes Christ's resurrection in the poem as the tree that once sagged with Jim's body miraculously sways free in the climactic scene. Bearing witness to the miracle is Jim's brother, the nameless narrator, whose inability to reconcile God's apparent goodness with the agony of racial oppression frames the poem's most compelling moments of introspection. …