Theological reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance of August Wilson‘s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. The play was intense, humorous, and profane. It surfaced the complex ways Christianity has become a part of the fabric of African-American culture–even for those who have found themselves responding to the church and its message with skepticism and rage, as “white man’s religion.” After the play, for the second time this year, I had the opportunity to be a part of a panel of theologians after the performance (many thanks to United Theological Seminary president Mary McNamara’s hard work in arranging these panels).

Here are the reflections I shared on the play and the African American experience it portrayed:

First of all, I feel I’m standing on holy ground. Our playwright August Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winner. But it’s more than that. When, as a young man, he decided to become not a lawyer but a writer—a spiritual craft if there ever was one—he incurred the ire of his mother. As a church historian, I remember that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther also decided to follow his own path and enter a spiritual profession—the monastic life—instead of becoming a lawyer. And he, too, provoked the wrath of his parent; his father.

Moreover, Wilson—a brilliant boy who was reading by the age of 4—experienced racist violence from white neighbors who threw bricks through the window of his parents’ home, and from white teachers who accused him of plagiarism when he handed in a thoughtful paper on Napoleon the first. And he decided the way to address this prejudice was to educate himself in the traditions of African-American literature, and to express what he found there in plays. This, too, has a familiar ring. Martin Luther King, Jr. had responded to white prejudice by gaining and exercising the power of education—both in his own black church traditions and in graduate theological study.

Martin Luther; Martin Luther King Jr. And then the brilliant interworking of spiritual themes in this play we’ve just seen. It seems appropriate in many ways to have a theological discussion at this point.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is certainly about oppression. There’s no question. But I think it is also about how the oppressed respond to their oppression.

When I teach my students the story of African-American Christianity, from the beginning I throw the skunk out on the floor. There is one shocking fact at the center of black history in America. The fact is this: the men and women who were dragged to the United States from their native Africa, forced into hard labor, treated as property, beaten, sold away from their families, denied literacy (but often defiantly learning anyhow), denied legal status as persons . . . these oppressed people, and their children and grandchildren, began to worship the God of their oppressors.

Why would enslaved Africans ever worship the God of their white masters? Didn’t they see, as Levee did, that whites were using God, using the Scriptures of the Christian religion, as leverage to keep them in enslavement? Didn’t they hear white preachers preaching over and over again from a very small, select group of texts: “Slaves, obey your masters!”

Of course, they did. They complained of this biased preaching loudly and often. And yet, they converted in large numbers, such that by the end of the 1800s, several decades after Emancipation, roughly half of African Americans were worshiping in Christian Churches—most often in the democratic, egalitarian evangelical denominations of the Baptists and the Methodists.

The problem of oppression faced by Africans in America is a subset of the problem of evil, which never has had a satisfactory intellectual answer. Why does a God who is supposedly both all-loving and all-powerful allow his people to suffer evil—especially evil at the hands of one another? Worse, why does that God seem to prosper the wicked while allowing the good to suffer?

There is only one answer the gospel of Christ offers to the problem of evil. It is not an intellectual answer but a relational one. That is, that whatever is wrong with human beings that causes them to lie to, steal from, oppress, and kill each other, God has come down and taken his own medicine. He has experienced on this earth the worst of cruel suffering at the hands of sinful men.

This may be cold comfort for some. But for many it has been the saving grace. God has been willing to strip away all his prerogatives and power and enter into human experience in a sinful, wrathful, petty, power-mongering, oppressive world, and even to die, crushed under the wheel of sinful structures.

But that is not all. Jewish and Christian Scriptures also say that God has had a special place in his world for the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the oppressed. He has made explicit provision for those who suffer injustice at the hands of others. And when his people Israel, the apple of his eye, were enslaved in Egypt, he came and he liberated them.

That, of course, was the narrative that African slaves in America focused on when all around them white preachers were preaching “Slaves, obey your masters.” They were hearing another message from the Jewish-Christian story. They were hearing the message of Moses’s God: the God who sets his people free.

The conversion stories of the slaves are full of this narrative of freedom. God came to them, lifted them up, made them new creatures, freed them from the enslavement of sin in their own hearts (and that was the message Martin Luther had preached over three centuries before). God gave them, too, a new dignity and often a new vocation—to preach the good news to others around them.

Slaves who had experienced Christian conversion gained a new lens on their masters: suddenly these oppressors were men and women to be pitied. They were people themselves oppressed by sin, even as they wielded the whip against others.

And once the Civil War reached the point where Lincoln decided it was best to emancipate the slaves . . . the slaves knew what had happened. After years of supplicating their God, he had freed them. Their God (and this is where Cutler gets some of his passion, I think, to defend God when Levee attacks him)—their God, not the white man’s God, had heard their prayers and answered them. He had reached down to liberate them, as he had liberated Israel from captivity in Egypt.

This double freedom—from sin and from oppression—seems to me the only reasonable answer for the historical fact that the slaves took on the religion of their masters. This explains why the Christian church became, for blacks after the war, the central social institution, around which everything else revolved (including Martin Luther King Jr.’s liberating message). Because for them, the Christian church was the place where black people found dignity, self-determination, creative expression, freedom from the inner oppression of sin and political organization to fight the outer oppression of racism.

Does God liberate? Does God provide? Does God uphold the dignity of human beings? For Levee, God did none of these things. No, in fact, it was worse than this. God did those things, but only for white people. Decades after Emancipation, the oppression was still there, in new forms, and God wasn’t doing anything about it. God had refused sustenance to Levee’s own poor family while whites around them prospered. God had stood by while those prosperous white men did unspeakable things to his own mother. God had allowed one of his own ministers to be forced to dance and humiliate himself so that white men wouldn’t maim or kill him. Everywhere Levee looked, he saw a white man’s God who didn’t care about the black man.

And now, when Levee was beginning to discover in himself an exceptional musical gift, God was letting white people—and even black people who should have known better—prevent him from exercising that gift, and rob the fruits of that gift from him (for a pitiful 5 dollars a song).

We can understand deeply Levee’s plight, his own particular form of the problem of evil. In the Old Testament story, Job had once enjoyed fabulous wealth, prosperity in his crops, a flourishing family, robust good health. And he had known all of this came from God. So the devil challenged God that the only reason Job served and worshiped God was that God gave him all of this wonderful stuff, and that if God took all of that away from Job, Job would cease serving and worshiping him. And when God did take all of that away from Job, and Job’s wife cried out, “look how God is treating you—it is better to curse him and die!” Job still had the memory of God’s goodness to him. Though he was confused that God would apparently turn on him in this way, yet he still had that memory. And that kept him true to God.

Levee didn’t have that memory; he either couldn’t or didn’t want to hear the narrative of his community that said that God was for the black man, not against him. For Levee, God was the God of the oppressors, pure and simple. Therefore cursing God was his native mode. He wanted to destroy that God of the oppressors, and in the end he destroyed one of his own people, and he destroyed himself.

One response to “Theological reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

  1. Nice piece, Chris. Did you get any good feedback on it in the discussion?

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