The Color of Christ Meets a Cast of Critiques: Part II of a Series from the 2013 AAR

Today we continue with Part II of our series from the "Author Meets Critics" session at the 2013 AAR, featuring Jennifer Graber's response to The Color of Christ. You may also be interested in her more formal review of the book, posted here at the Journal of Southern Religion.
The Color of Christ and Jesus’ Indian Haircut

Jennifer Graber
The University of Texas at Austin

In the 1890s, missionary Isabel Crawford and a small number of Kiowa Indians started the Saddle Mountain Baptist Church. Crawford wrote extensively in her diary and published several books and articles about her experiences. For me, her story about a Kiowa man named Komalty stands out. Komalty “came in today with his hair all flying & I asked him why he didn’t cut it off & pointing to the picture of Christ on the wall he said ‘Jesus no cut his. White women no cut. Indians, no cut, like Jesus, but what’s the matter with white men?’”[i]
            This story fascinates me. Here we have a Kiowa man looking at picture of Jesus supplied by Baptist missionaries. In it, he saw a savior who looked more like an Indian or a white woman than a white man. Komalty’s sense that white men were not like Jesus extended beyond his observations about hair. Indeed, some of the Kiowa Christians at Saddle Mountain didn’t want any white men coming to their church. This restriction eventually led to conflict because Baptist church polity at this time required that white men administer the Lord’s Supper. Crawford and the Saddle Mountain Christians broke the rules and called a Kiowa man to do it.[ii] 

            These Kiowa Christians said they didn’t want a white man in church, but wasn’t there already a white man there? Or at least the image of one? Namely Jesus? How are we to understand an Indian church with pictures of a white Jesus in which no white men were allowed? It’s questions like this one that made me an eager reader of The Color of Christ. And I am glad to report that Blum and Harvey’s book did just what it ought to do: it ran an end game around my particular questions and forced me to think about the subject in a different way. It demanded that I consider the bigger picture. Let me tell you how.

            Blum and Harvey tell us a story about racialized Jesus images in American history. They show us the creation of, discourse about, reactions to, and innovations made to these images. They start in the colonial period with iconoclasts who wanted destroy all images, as well as believers who preferred their Jesus soaked in saving blood. But these preferences for no Jesus images (or bloody ones) petered out, they argue. As the young nation underwent wrenching debates over the future of human servitude, a new favored form of Jesus emerged. And he was white. Over the course of many decades, his whiteness would become more and more narrowly defined.

Clearly then, Blum and Harvey’s account of the racialized Jesus is one part of a larger story about emerging racial formations, especially as they related to the practice of human enslavement. It should be no surprise, then, that Blum and Harvey offer African American responses to this emerging white Jesus. The surprise, instead, comes from their commitment to exploring Native American receptions of this figure as well. As a result, we have material for making interesting comparisons. These comparisons, along with the scope of the story, make the book especially instructive.

            More than anything, Blum and Harvey’s book gives me one more way of thinking about how people on this continent created and responded to frameworks for categorizing people. The authors build on other excellent work on colonial sorting techniques. For instance, Jill Lepore has argued that New England colonists named literacy as the crucial difference between themselves and Indians. In this categorization, English literacy signaled their superior status. Of course, the processes of framing and categorizing were never automatic or inevitable. David Silverman, for example, has shown just how much the English struggled to determine if what they perceived as Indian “savagery” was cultural or biological (ie. racial). In the confusing colonial moment, Europeans strained to establish frameworks to understand the world around them and, importantly, who ought to prevail in it.[iii]
            Blum and Harvey make clear that a white Jesus emerged as race was becoming the dominant sorting technique. They show that sometimes Euro-Americans employed the white Jesus to suppress African American resistance. At other times, they pointed to him as the perfect receptacle for and redeemer of black suffering. Blum and Harvey emphasize that African Americans did not defer to the white Jesus images placed before them. They articulated alternative visions. The white Jesus, however pervasive, was hardly a stable image. The rise of this image – and its eventual adjustments – provides one index for the workings of the black-white racial dichotomy in American national life.

It’s interesting, then, to explore how this image born of black-white racial frameworks plays out in Indian Country. It’s interesting and more difficult. That’s partly because Europeans and Euro-Americans never agreed on whether Indian difference could be accounted for culturally or biologically. Further, as Nancy Shoemaker has shown, Indians also articulated their own understandings of their racial identity and difference. They became red.[iv] Blum and Harvey can point to African American claims that Jesus, despite his depiction as a white man, worked to disrupt the black-white racial dichotomy. But just what did Native Americans react to when the white Jesus was offered to them?

Blum and Harvey rightly emphasize that Indian peoples received Jesus in ways that had cultural significance for them. They envisioned Jesus as wonder worker, powerful spirit, a healer, a man-god, and a warrior. They were drawn in by accounts of his power. They were compelled by stories of his shed blood. Blum and Harvey give us terrific examples of the way native peoples brought Jesus into their established pantheons and practices, such as Cherokee Indians who claimed to have dreams in which Jesus looked like one of the “little people,” beings in traditional Cherokee religion.

While old traditions mattered, things were also changing in Indian country. As noted earlier, Native Americans were coming up with new sorting techniques, new racial formations, all their own. These emerging Ideas about Indians as red and Euro-Americans as white shaped how Native peoples received Jesus. This is the backdrop, I think, for some of the other examples Blum and Harvey provide. In their discussion of the Seneca leader Handsome Lake, they also refer to his ally Cornplanter. Cornplanter was unnerved by stories of Jesus’ death at the hands of his own followers. He wondered white people had rejected and then killed their own god? This concern about white people killing Jesus became a longstanding trope in Indian communities. More than a century later, the Lakota healer Black Elk recalled a trip he made to Europe and his disappointment that the journey did not include the Holy Land, where, he reminded his Lakota readers, “white people had killed Jesus.”[v]
It’s clear, then, that Native Americans were conscious of the racial identity of Christians. Christians were white. But what exactly did Indians think about Jesus as a racialized figure? Honestly, I might not have thought through this question as carefully as I should if it had not been for Blum and Harvey’s book. They show that African Americans resisted white Americans’ efforts to insist on Jesus’ whiteness. And like some Indians, namely Samuel Occam, African Americans pointed to Jesus in order to criticize the narrow vision of race that white Christians articulated and enforced. In this way, African Americans and Native Americans established their own sorting technique based on their sense of who truly followed the historical Jesus. But the example of Cornplanter shows that Native peoples could use Jesus to perform yet another form of sorting: between those who respected relationships and those who did not. Cornplanter could not understand why white people killed their own god. They lacked respect for their own sacred being. No surprise, then, that they also failed to keep their agreements with other people.

            It’s not clear to me that Indians perceived Jesus to have a race, but they certainly knew the race of the people who brought him to the continent. Jesus was the white man’s god. But it’s not clear if he was a white man. Which brings me back to the Komalty, his long hair flowing, and his contention that he looked like Jesus.

            It seems to me that as Indian peoples heard Euro-American ideas about race and developed racial notions of their own, somehow their spiritual pantheon (which sometimes included Jesus) did not necessarily become racialized. White people certainly presented images of a white Jesus and increasingly viewed Indians as members of an inferior race. Even so, Native Americans had their own ideas about how people ought to relate to sacred beings. They had their own emerging notions about racial identity. As Jesus came to them, it seems that they saw him as a powerful figure that ought to be treated with respect. Rather than focusing on his newness or his difference, Native Americans seem to have concentrated on their connections and similarities to Jesus. As the Ghost Dance leader Wovoka is said to have claimed, the Messiah was coming again to Indian people because they would receive him rather than crucify him.[vi]
            So, there are lots of ways to approach The Color of Christ. Specialists in African American religious history, I’m sure, have their own take on it. Historians of visual culture will also have theirs. I, for one, am grateful that Blum and Harvey have moved us one more step forward in the conversation about Jesus in American history. I’m glad they take up the question of race. And I’m glad they do the difficult work of making comparisons with native communities. Comparative work often produces results that are hard to synthesize. But that very messiness is productive. As someone working on American Indian engagements with Christianity, it’s helpful for me to hear Blum and Harvey speak to questions of black-white racial constructions and how that dominant framework for categorization operated in communities that did not easily fit within it. I have something new to think about. And for my money, that’s what books are for.

[i] Marilyn Whiteley, unpublished manuscript, chapter 4.

[ii] Isabel Alice Hartley Crawford and Women’s American Home Mission Society, From Tent to Chapel at Saddle Mountain (Chicago: Women’s American Baptist Home Mission Society, 1903), 74; Isabel Crawford, Kiowa: A Woman Missionary in Indian Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 223-24; Marilyn Whiteley, unpublished manuscript, chapter 6.

[iii] Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998), chapter 2; David J. Silverman, Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2010), 12-16

[iv] Nancy Shoemaker, “How Indians Got to Be Red,” The American Historical Review 102, no. 3 (June 1, 1997): 625–644.

[v] Raymond DeMallie, “Introduction,” in The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, by John Gneisenau Neihardt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 10.

[vi] Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 157; Gregory E. Smoak, Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 113-14.


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