In Octavia E. Butler’s short story “The Book of Martha,” each time the title character interacts with God, God progressively changes shape, gender, and race, moving from a God represented by a white man to a Black woman who resembled her likeness. When Martha wonders why she was initially unable to see God as a Black woman, God replies: “You see what your life has prepared you to see.”
I thought about this story recently after giving a guest lecture on AfroLatinx theologies at Yale Divinity School. As a pastor and co-curator of the AfroLatine Theology Project, when I say “AfroLatinx theologies,” I generally mean the theologies of people who self-recognize as being of African descent and live (or have origins in) Latin America or the Caribbean. During the lecture, I spoke with students about AfroLatinx theologies and how these are dynamic, focused on a decentralization of power, and are embodied. It was important to highlight that AfroLatinx theologies are a helpful tool to combat the anti-Blackness that is often a part of Latinx theologies.
When we entered the question-and-answer portion, a student asked: “What does understanding God from an AfroLatinx perspective do?” I pondered the question for a minute, gave a quick answer, and reiterated some things that I mentioned earlier in the lecture: If we can embrace an understanding of God and a spirituality that is informed by the lived experiences of Black Latinxs, then perhaps we can better understand more of the fullness of God.
But as I drove home and thought about this student’s question, I realized I could have answered differently. While it is true that considering the lived experiences of AfroLatinxs can help us see the fullness of God, I should have emphasized that an understanding of God that hails from AfroLatinxs can also help us have a more holistic understanding of God in our own lives.
Like Martha in Butler’s story, we may have been formed in a faith that views God in limited, culturally derived ways. As theologian James H. Cone argues in God of the Oppressed, “Ideas do not have an existence separate from life but arise out of a framework of reality constructed by people.” Most of our images of God, whether reflected in Renaissance art or in depictions of God in film and television, make us think of God as a white male figure. This idea becomes so ingrained that to imagine God as a person of color can be viewed as a kind of heresy.
The limited views we have of God have deep implications for how we view Black lives and how we see ourselves connected to each other in our struggle for social justice. In January of 2020, Stanford University psychologist Steven O. Roberts led a study that quantified the practical implications of viewing God in certain ways. The research showed that people who conceptualize God as a white man are more likely to offer better paying jobs to white men and see those men as more qualified than Black people or white women. Imagining God as a white man creates inequities in our society and uses a theological basis to promote racist systems.
This is where the concept of Negriología is helpful. I define Negriología as an understanding of God that emphasizes the distinctive perspective and insights of AfroLatinxs. This term is not universal or meant to generalize perspectives of all AfroLatinx people, but is instead meant to provide an understanding of God that has not always been considered or referenced. Understanding God in this way can give us a greater appreciation for Afrodiasporic spiritualities or, in other words, it can prepare us to see God as one who gives preferential treatment to the poor.
Negriología hails from similar efforts within the African diaspora to define the uniqueness of the Black experience. Négritude, for example, was a literary movement, developed by francophone writers of the African diaspora during the 1930s, aimed at raising and cultivating “Black consciousness” by highlighting Black diasporic voices within literature. Like psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s articulation in The Wretched of the Earth of the lived experience of the Black person being central to Black consciousness, Negriología shares a similar emphasis while focusing on the spirituality and faith of AfroLatinx people. Negriología also mirrors similar efforts within the Latinx diaspora to give a name to a distinctive theological viewpoint, such as how Mujerista theology offers an understanding of the Divine rooted in the perspective of Latinas in the U.S. For example, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, who identifies as AfroLatina, has written about how Latinas interpret scripture, engage in ecclesiology, and theologize from the margins of the church.
Negriología is a spiritual revelation that in part engages with aesthetics. This is of particular spiritual importance as Blackness has been maligned through colorism in the Caribbean and Latin America, a byproduct of racism. Negriología has been seen in AfroLatinx artistic expressions, like in the poetry of AfroColombian writer Helcías Martán Góngora who, in his “Evangelios del hombre y del paisaje” (which translates to “gospels of man and nature”), envisions a God who creates an environment that allows AfroColombians to flourish; we see it in the art of Harmonia Rosales, whose paintings depict a God who resembles her daughter thereby ensuring that she, and those who admire her art, can visualize a Black God; and we see it in the music of Nitty Scott, whose songs evoke the idea told to her by her parents that God is embodied in her Blackness. Negriología internalizes Blackness as beautiful and therefore inherently divine, where God too is Black.
Ultimately, Negriología is not just theological, it can have practical applications. AfroLatinxs understand God to be directly involved in bringing about peace, stopping armed conflicts, providing sustenance to hungry children, and being present in our very bodies. I am not saying that this is exclusive to AfroLatinxs, but I would say that because of the social conditions of Black people both in Latin America and the U.S., understanding God as present in our bodies and providing immediate liberation is paramount to our spirituality.
By centering stories of AfroLatinxs and centering the Blackness inherent within Latinx culture, we gain a fuller understanding of our own theologies and a deeper spirituality that is more diverse and inclusive than the dominant culture’s articulation of God.
It reminds me of the chorus of a popular Puerto Rican salsa song “Si Dios Fuera Negro” by Roberto Angleró. This song, inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, claims that if God were Black, everything would change. “Negro fuera el Papa / Y negro el ministro / Los angeles negros / Negro Jesucristo.” We know that the incarnate God was Jewish. During the first century when Jesus lived, the Roman Empire oppressed the Jewish community. This historical fact is what allows Cone to assert that to understand Jesus’ Jewishness, we must affirm his “blackness” in our modern times. That said, imagining God to be Black will not magically solve the injustices of racial capitalism, but it does allow us to expand our understanding of how God relates to oppressed people. By expanding our understanding of God, we are then able to broaden our understanding of life, humanity, and Christianity, which allows us to fight for a more just world.
As Butler’s story concludes, Martha asks, “Why did it take so long for me to see you as a Black woman?” God tells her that it was a habit, something she was just used to doing, but that “habits tend to outlive their usefulness.” When we embrace new perspectives, we break the habit of viewing God through the lens of the dominant culture, we become more prepared for a fuller spirituality that is elastic and allows us to agree with the chorus: “Si Dios fuera negro, todo cambiaría.”