Back in 1994 — long before Oprah announced her desire for brown angels and her fans then flooded her with brown angels — I wrote a piece, “Angels of Color: Divinely Inspired or Socially Constructed?” that appeared in Diversity: A Journal of Multicultural Issues.
In that essay, I question the absence of brown angels in literature and popular culture—holiday ornaments and cards, tree toppers, commercials, and Angel Soft tissue print ads, for instance. While I did find examples here and there in my search then, I was reminded each Christmas how non-white angels were once upon a time pretty hard to come by.
As a brown parent of two brown children, I was also aware that nutcrackers, Santas, and clowns were also mostly white. After these many years and with a mostly empty nest, my spouse and I no longer decorate a holiday tree, and my brown angel collection is now several hundred strong and proudly displayed in our various home curios. I am reminded still, however, at this time of year and every year just how whiteness continues to prevail in the holiday images of Christianity, particularly of Jesus.
I am not a Bible student or scholar, but I know the debate lingers about the racial/ethnic identity of Jesus. How should the role of Jesus Christ be cast? I recall the 1991 controversy at a high school in Selma, Ala., when some parents and students raised concern that the theater director allegedly cast a white high school male as Jesus in African American author James Weldon Johnson’s 1927 gospel re-telling of the Creation in “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse” allegedly because the white male actor “had long hair.”
One of the African American high school students raised this issue quite perceptively surrounding this color casting: “If you make Jesus white, you’d have to think, even subconsciously, that God is white since he is the son of God, and that could cause self-hatred if you’re black,” or at least an awareness of cultural absence and personal invalidation.
A recent statement by Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly — asserting emphatically and allegedly factually that both Santa and Jesus are white — reinforces this dominant cultural reading so prevalent in mainstream representations and imaginations.
This construction of whiteness has continued even as I recently strolled the aisles of my neighborhood grocery story looking for something totally unrelated and noticed Jesus staring at me from the cover of the current issue of Life, the words “JESUS: Who Do You Say That I Am?” boldly featured across the image of a rather thin, slightly middle-aged white male, slightly bearded, and with amber green eyes and shoulder-length brunette straight hair.
I know there are colorized versions of biblical texts. In fact, Langston Hughes’ 1961 musical “Black Nativity: A Gospel Song Play” is an annual holiday favorite for my family and me. I am curious to see this 2013 holiday season’s big screen adaptation by Kasi Lemmon.
Still, I know that the racial identity of Jesus continues to keep seminary classrooms abuzz. I also know that I am not the only person reminded of an absence of color in mainstream portrayals at this time of year as folks visualize “the reason for the season.”
This is not a new issue. In fact, there is the provocative 1940 short story by John Henrik Clarke called “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black” and the subsequent 1996 film adaption starring Wesley Snipes. TV Guide summarizes the story’s plot: “‘The Boy Who Painted Christ Black:’ [set in] Georgia, 1948. A talented young student at a ‘colored’ school submits a painting of Christ as a black man for a state-wide contest on the theme of ethnic pride. This creates a conflict for his school’s black principal. After much soul-searching, the principal agrees to enter the painting in the contest, even though it will cost him a promotion by offending his superiors.”
About this notion of a non-black Jesus Christ, one blogger on the film’s YouTube site offers this reasonable response: “Now this piece, this piece challenges us, it challenges us to embrace our individual selves; and to make sure that we see ourselves reflected in everything that we do and everything that we believe in. Because only then can we truly be our best; and why not Christ painted black? Other artists of other races have painted pictures of their gods and whomsoever they worship to represent and reflect themselves, I see no reason why we should be immune to such a wonderful privilege.”
Critical attention to the kinds of images and presentations do not necessarily connect with one’s faith but rather with interpretations and creative possibility. Such absences do, however, remind me of playwright’s Anna Deveare Smith’s declaration in her 1992 drama “Fires in the Mirror:” “The mirrors of society do not mirror society.”
Perhaps Kanye West’s recent controversial inclusion of a white Jesus in a live performance during his 2013 Yeezus tour deliberately challenges this Western notion of whiteness and Christianity.
Even as I reflect on this holiday occurrence, I am reminded that a white Jesus almost always appeared on the handheld church fans at the black churches I always attended in my years those many years ago, and is imaged now in the extravagant stained glass murals at my small black hometown church in northeast Georgia and in the historic church I attend in Phoenix.
Whether this all speaks to a lack of cultural imagination, a cultural brainwashing, or something in between, the prevailing Western iconography and its Christian messaging are problematically clear: “whiter than snow, whiter than snow, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow…”
• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is a foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.