On Kanye, Kirk and The Inconsistent Witness of Black Evangelicalism

Photo Credit: Kirk Franklin/Instagram

Growing up, Black History Month was a big deal to my grandmother. She’d always say our schools will never teach us about ourselves so it’s our responsibility to ensure the legacy and information are passed on to the next generation. Though she made sure we embraced our Blackness all year, it was as if Grandma called PBS herself, got their programming schedule and arranged our entire February around it. We watched “Eyes on the Prize” so much we almost know it by heart and “The Boy King” remains one of my favorites. She created a Black history trivia game for us before there ever was one and, even if ROOTS aired beyond our bedtime, she made sure we watched the rest of it when we came home from school the next day.

Knowing we are, both, African and American was important to Grandma. She taught us that, contrary to what racist White and ill-informed Black folks say, Africans weren’t introduced to Christianity through those who stole, sold and bought them. The first theologian I ever knew, my grandmother led our home bible studies with her trusted King James Version and a map. She showed us that the bulk of historical sites are on the African continent or very close to it. We were taught it mattered to God and should matter to us that Jesus had Brown skin. And as important it was for her to teach us that Black people knew Jesus long before our land and way of life were violated, it was equally important that we knew our ancestors didn’t forget about Jesus once they survived the Middle Passage. The only one attending a White Christian school, it was especially stressed to me that the pictures my teachers showed of plantation owners and enslaved Africans worshipping together did not tell the whole truth. Grandma taught me about the hush harbors and the places down by the river where our ancestors snuck away to have real church. I understood worshipping with racist plantation owners was simply a survival strategy and, until freedom came, my ancestors needed to do whatever they could to stay alive.

Over the past few days, I’ve wondered what is our excuse for still worshipping with racist plantation owners.

On October 25, after several delays, Kanye West finally released his album, “Jesus is King”. Many Black evangelicals have celebrated it as evidence God is working in Kanye’s life and, no matter how we might feel about Kanye, God is going to use the album for his* (God or Kanye? Who knows?) glory. Ironically enough, these same folks skip over Ye’s political antics, recent comments that Black people have no culture and assertion that he is “unquestionably, undoubtedly the greatest human artist of all time.” Somehow, none of that matters as long as there is glory for God to get. Because, after all, isn’t the whole earth glorified when Blackness is diminished and disrespected?

Since Friday, Black evangelicals have locked arms with White evangelicals to circle the wagons around Kanye. They’ve questioned the faith of every Black Christian who has said “…or nah” to Ye’s latest attention ploy. When they hurled scripture at us about loving our neighbor and being more Christlike, they refused to catch the scriptures about accountability and discernment we tossed back at them. They refused to take seriously research on the relationship between hyper-religiosity and untreated mental illness, ignoring that Kanye and those around him have spoken at length about his inconsistent treatment regimens. Unwilling to budge, their allegiance to Whiteness doesn’t make them question how they could stand against those in their own community to stand with the very people who seek to do harm to their community, all because “Jesus is King”.

Yet, these are the same people who applauded Kirk Franklin’s bravery as he announced his boycott of TBN, the Gospel Music Association and Dove Awards for editing his comments regarding the murders of Black people at the hands of White police officers in his acceptance speeches. Many of them are happy Kirk spoke out and say it’s time for us to walk away from the places that don’t love us. And, like clockwork, Black evangelicals have locked arms with each other in defense of Kirk. They’ve questioned the commitment of every Black person who has asked “why now?” and “why did it take the editing of Kirk’s speeches to spark the boycott?” When they hurled the importance of standing beside Black people when they go up against racism at us, they refused to catch the importance of being accountable to the communities you’re asking for support we tossed back at them. They refused to take seriously the truth that these institutions have a long history of anti-Blackness but, as long as it put them in another sphere of influence and profit, Black gospel artists and pastors looked the other way. Unwilling to budge, their allegiance to Whiteness doesn’t enable them to see that leadership requires sitting with the hard words found within accountability and collective action.

Many of the same Black evangelicals who tell us God sees the heart of a person and not their color, when it comes to “Jesus Is King”, are the same people who want us to support them as they stand toe-to-toe with White evangelicals who refuse to acknowledge White supremacy. Meanwhile, I’m remembering from my bible study days there’s something in the good book about the instability of a double minded man. The same racist theology and ideologies that prop up TBN, GMA and Dove Awards ground “Jesus is King”. How are you trying to cut a thing from the root and replant it at the same time?

It’s important Black Christians name the racism present in White evangelical spaces. As more Black Christians who have been in and aligned with those spaces have their awakening, we’ll support them. Inherent in that support is truth telling and accountability. It requires we defend Black folks when White folks try it and it requires we set the record straight with each other when Black folks try it, too. It means saying the time has come for Christian media spaces to confess their complicity in our harm and it means telling Kirk that TBN, GMA and Dove “edited the African-American experience” long before they began editing his speeches. It means saying we can’t support projects that use a colorblind theology to silence the voices of the marginalized, whether that project is produced by the Gospel Music Association or G.O.O.D. Music. As brothers, Kirk vigorously defends Ye and calls his Sunday Services “his medicine”. At some point, I hope the two of them realize the same medicine Kanye needed to tell Howard University not to stand in the same place the next time “slave nets” fall is the same medicine TBN, GMA and the Dove Awards need to operate as if the murders of Black people at the hands of racist White police officers is urban legend.

We are in a moment where we cannot be afraid to stand up and be counted, where the lines of what it means to have prophetic witness in the face of principalities have never been more clear. There are too many Black evangelicals who want their feet in both worlds and it is unsustainable. You can’t fight for freedom while finding value in chains. And if you don’t believe that, give my grandma a call. She’ll get you together.