Art by Rob Gibsun

What I Talk About When I Talk About Black Jesus: A Lyric Essay

by Eve L. Ewing

Eve L. Ewing
Eve L. Ewing (Seven Scribes Submissions Editor) is a native Chicagoan, writer and an educator, a researcher and an editor, a bad cartoonist and a good knitter. She loves making and looking at visual art and eating donuts.
Art by Rob Gibsun

I mean it when I say hallelujah.

I don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the holy son of God, or that he died so that mankind could be saved from our sins, or that he was resurrected as our messiah. But I believe in messiahs.

I believe in miracles and hexes, curses and omens, I believe that you should never put your purse on the floor or split a pole, and when I’m feeling aimless I can fall for a little bit of ill-informed astrology. I don’t step on cracks. I believe in an infinite, mysterious universe, and I believe that that universe is mostly dark matter, and that one day the sun will implode. And I don’t expect that I’ll be alive to see it, but if I am, I will look up at that star I have known and loved more than any other star, and I will say “oh, lord Jesus,” and I will be talking about Black Jesus.

When I say hallelujah, I mean it. I really mean it.

Ever since black people came to this country we have needed a Moses. There has always been so much water that needs parting. It seems like all black children, from the time we are born, come into the world in the midst of a rushing current that threatens to swallow us whole if we don’t heed the many, many warnings we are told to heed. We come into the world as alchemists of the water, bending it, willing it to bear us safe passage and cleanse us along the way, to teach us to move with joy and purpose and to never, ever stop flowing forward into something grand waiting at the other end of the delta. We’re a people forever in exodus.

Before Moses there was Abraham, and ever since black people came to this country we have needed an Abraham. We have always been sending each other away—for our own good, don’t you know it—and calling each other back, finding kinship where a well springs from tears. We are masters of the art of sacrifice; no one is more skilled at laying their greatest beloveds on the altar and feeling certainty even as we feel sorrow. And when we see the ram, we know how to act fast, and prosper, even as the stone knife warms in our hands.

And before Abraham there was Eve, my own namesake. The first black woman who ever lived. She was the first person on this strange sunlit planet to know anything at all, though she paid for it with terrible cramps.

But that’s the Old Testament. Back to Black Jesus.

“Take a picture of that with your phone,” my grandma instructs, her slight frame leaning over my own. She is wearing a grandma uniform with which you might be familiar: she has just returned from singing at church and so her makeup and hair are impeccable, and has also changed into a pearl-colored cotton housecoat with faint traces of a floral pattern, and a pair of slippers. I sometimes worry that in our day and age, grandmas have limited places to purchase housecoats, and dwindling numbers of people even know what a housecoat is, leaving them to guard the ones they have left like careful misers. This particular housecoat thrives on against all odds, and rather than clashing with the hair and makeup—one thinning and fading, the other regal and perfect— they exist in a sort of détente. They have tolerated each other for this many years and they might as well keep on keeping on.

“Take a picture of that, too, so you can show your mom.” She is showing me the booklet from the church’s centennial celebration, featuring photographs of families living and dead, and stories from the last century that she—the official Historian of the centennial committee—had told somebody so that they could write it down and put it in the booklet and people would remember them in another hundred years. And in case they don’t—in case booklets and Microsoft Word and printed things have crumbled from our collective sight in the next century—she wants these things to be inside my phone, where they can last forever in the place everyone seems to care about—a vast digital sky, a celestial hive.

My grandma has spent a great deal of her adult life as President of the Shiloh Baptist Church choir, and this fact is the basis upon which rests her authority on innumerable things. She can tell you which potato salad should be ordered where on the long foldout table, who ought to work which shifts at the food pantry, whether Pastor Sandy’s wig is acceptable, and answer endless other crucial questions, each time ending her sentence with “well, after all, I am president of the choir.” Even when I was tiny I could hear that she was singing even when she was not singing—no woman could offer you a piece of toast or a glass of ginger ale in such a lilting, untouchable soprano, or tell you that Grandpa was going to hit you with a comb if you didn’t settle down and have it sound so like a Wagnerian opera.

My grandma was born on January 1, 1938, in Houston, Mississippi. She is a New Year. She is a gospel reborn in the winter, from a place where there is no winter. She gave me her name—Louise, meaning “warrior”—on May 31, 1986, and we have shared it between us ever since. When she took me to church, I never went to Sunday school. I always stayed by her side or with one of my cousins, nestled against the upholstery and smelling the smell of old wood and of the starch spray lifting up the stiff collars around me. Although I lived 450 miles away, everyone knew my name as though I had been there just last week, knew about what my mother had been up to and about my grades in school. And if someone didn’t recognize me, “that’s Louise’s grandbaby” was all the uninitiated needed to hear.

Of all the hours I have spent in Shiloh Baptist Church, I cannot tell you the message or even the topic of a single sermon. But I can tell you whose grandbaby I am.

‘Lookin’ down on my soul now / tell me I’m in control now
Tell me I can live long and I can live wrong and I can live right’
– Kendrick Lamar on “Never Catch Me,” by Flying Lotus tweet

Here’s some exegesis you never asked for.

But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. It’s the accounting of you, beloved. Not of your many fractured wants, but of the lines on your palm. They’re all numbered—the stifled, uncertain breaths you gasp out on nights when you have a cold and it’s triggering your asthma, and your mother is far, and you try to remember the smell of Vicks VapoRub as you fall asleep to the sound of indifferent neighbors. You are worth so many wings. Ain’t nothing can scare you, off that alone.

Take count. Hallelujah.

 

About the Authors:
Published by Eve L. Ewing
Eve L. Ewing (Seven Scribes Submissions Editor) is a native Chicagoan, writer and an educator, a researcher and an editor, a bad cartoonist and a good knitter. She loves making and looking at visual art and eating donuts. View all posts by Eve L. Ewing

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