Sackcloth and Ashes: Toward an Authentic Atonement for Black American Exclusion

In the third chapter of the Book of Amos, God sends the prophet before the Israelites. There, in the midst of their impiety, Amos raises the specter of God’s abandonment by asking, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”

That is, if the Israelites—in knowing defiance of God’s decree to live out His Word through fidelity to the scripture—should choose to exist as spiritual exiles, so then in like manner God is bound to regard them; estranged from Him and ultimately from themselves. For in the absence of spiritual fellowship, only alienation and futility.

And so like Amos, who sought by way of interrogation to confront the Northern Tribes with the certainty of their solitary path and its promise of an aimless destiny, the Angela Project poses essentially this very same question to leaders within the Baptist church: Can two walk together, except they be agreed?

Can the leaders of the black church claim to be righteously united in purpose and spirit with a just God when the community they profess to serve is every day made to occupy the most marginal of positions in American society? A community which then, on Sundays, gathers in its houses of worship to hear a sermon utterly devoid of social justice as being a matter rooted in the depths of the divine. Of oppression on earth as being an affront to the God who they are taught to believe has endowed them with certain inalienable rights, and who has thus in so doing sanctified a basic condition of liberty. Can the community ever fully enjoy those rights if the biblical doctrine preached by their faith leaders is not one that is fundamentally animated by an indignation at the obvious incongruence of the group’s lived experience in relation to that ideal?

Or must that doctrine be one that necessarily connects an account of how, for centuries, that group has had those rights deliberately withheld and radically attenuated? A gospel put in the service of revealing and impressing upon the community’s conscious mind that precisely because of that history—and its white-knuckle grip on the present—there is the indisputable fact of particular, material claims being warranted them as a result. And not only the mere fact of them, but of the absolute justice of those claims and the righteousness of working collectively to secure them.


I am here in Louisville, Kentucky where the second annual Angela Project summit is being held. The venue for the event is St. Stephen Baptist Church, pastored by a man named Dr. Kevin W. Cosby. In addition to his role as senior pastor of St. Stephen, he is also the president of Simmons College, the state’s only private HBCU.

When he was four years-old, the Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby was built a makeshift pulpit by a trustee of St. Stephen from which he could practice preaching. Since then, Dr. Cosby has developed a style which he describes as “very targeted to the black experience and to the black situation.”

By his own account, for preaching to have its maximum effect, it must “take seriously the context—the Sitz im Leben—of the audience.”

The Sitz im Leben of Louisville west of the Ninth Street divide is one of extreme poverty and segregation that is impossible to ignore. It is one of the poorest zip codes in America, and where black families like the Wades and the Marshalls—when they tried to move elsewhere—were made to understand was the only section of the city in which they were welcomed to live. Upon their arrival in the city’s white neighborhoods, white Louisvillians got out the dynamite and the rifles and doused crosses in gasoline to be left aflame on front lawns. Joshua Poe, an urban planning consultant in Louisville and presenter at this year’s Angela Project, says that the city was “held up as a model of racial zoning” for the rest of the nation. West Louisville is also an area where, as author Richard Rothstein notes in his book, The Color of Law, “all levels of government maintained segregation.” The city of Louisville’s residential apartheid then prompts Rothstein to wonder: “How long do the memories of such events last? How long do they continue to intimidate?”


Black memory is, for Dr. Cosby, the paramount object toward which his evangelistic energies turn. More specifically, his ministry means to help restore the cultural memory of American descendants of slaves. A memory which, as part of a psyche racked with trans-generational trauma, naturally reaches for—or inclines toward—a kind of amnesiac condition. Of course, this condition advantages those most committed to the ongoing state of affairs with respect to race relations in America. How could it not? Having been brought to a place of un-rememberance—with integration serving as the apparent expiative act which cleansed the nation’s conscience and marked the implicit starting point for black America—then what firm basis is there to call into question the so-called achievements of integration?

Rather, in the absence of black memory, white America is better enabled to hold up and exhibit what it deems as evidence of the success of integration. Often these are a form of self-flattery, imputing to ourselves more good than we have really done with regard to the matter of racial progress, since as the second pillar of the catechism reminds us: true conversion and true penance “does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at…a radical re-orientation of our whole life.”

Still, for the last half-century, America has refused to admit into its purview of consideration the need for such radical transformation. And as a nation supposedly committed to the principles of Christianity, we evince a curiously strong preference for engaging in tokenism rather than meaningful contrition. It is not enough, though, to install certain functionaries, since generally these are persons of a background more consistent with the beneficiaries of our economic system, and not with that of the group whom they nominally represent. A group whose single, defining feature—it must be recognized—is their having been made to founder and fail within that system from the very beginning; not just the feature of black skin, but how that black skin was made to organize American life as we know it today, a whole society stacked on top of, and made possible by, the failure which that black skin came to represent.

And so it is not enough—and in fact serves as a moral detriment to us all—having these spokespeople for ‘progress’ echo the familiar idées reçues about how we as a nation ought to now move past race. To stand up and pronounce on the apparent virtue of colorblindness in a national landscape yet teeming with the stark evidence of its enduring, race-based inequality.

In so doing, they in effect shame black America for the devastating conditions in the community while at the same time they reassure white America that we have done all we could do to atone for the history that in fact produced them.

In truth, our efforts at reconciliation for our atrocities have been scant and partial when measured against the lasting and profound nature of the damage originally inflicted by them. The formal apology issued in 2009 by the U.S. government—doubtless the biggest institutional purveyor of political, legal, economic, physical and environmental violence against black America over the last two and a half centuries—was merely the sackcloth and ashes expression of repentance. And while the congressional mea culpa acknowledges the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws,” it also rejects explicitly any notion that the consequences—the material catastrophes experienced by the victims of those admittedly barbaric and morally fragrant practices—were ever up for discussion: “Nothing in this resolution,” the apology reads, “authorizes or supports any claim against the United States.”

And so the nation has basically contented itself.

Undesirous of making full restitution if it can be avoided, those who hold the purse strings have relied on increased diversity in our entertainment culture, the vaunting of black celebrity, corporate multiculturalism, and representation at the highest levels of politics to help shape societal impressions in a way that vitiates even the idea of a contract of repayment for the vast majority of descendants of slaves who languish in the lowest echelon of society. Moreover, this highly orchestrated mirage of progress has allowed black and white Americans alike to be woefully misled as to what they think are the possibilities and means of access presently available to that group.

In many ways, integration as it was managed served as a kind of mock grand re-opening of America. Where above the threshold a sign proclaiming ‘ALL ARE WELCOME’ was in effect crudely hammered over the one that had always said ‘NO BLACKS.’ And where—because of the economic consequences of the historic exclusion of that community—the prices of the goods inside all nonetheless remained well out of reach.

The apparent impartiality of this new phase in American life was—and in a number of ways still is—premised on a basic denial of black cultural memory. A denial of how powerfully determinant and how powerfully exploitable having a pedigree of chattel property is. The dogged persistence of that singular trait, right down through the generations, amid the building and now calcifying processes of wealth in the richest country in the world. And then, finally, from that place of false renewal, with so much yet needed to be made whole, of suggesting the matter of struggling to extract and wrest the fullest meaning from the fact of citizenship in that country as being concluded.


Pastor Cosby’s concern with black memory recalls a passage from William Faulkner’s novel, Light in August. “Memory believes before knowing remembers,” Faulkner writes, “believes longer than recollects. Longer than knowing even wonders.” Memory, in other words, endures faithfully. Encoded into the collective unconscious and preserving the past that makes up a people, persevering in spite of what knowing thinks it perceives.

For Pastor Cosby, the memory of the black experience—while it may at times be subdued by violence or seized by traumatic neurosis—is surely constant amongst its children, running on as like a stream and containing in it all things antecedental, down through the centuries, nothing of consequence withheld.

So far as all of this is able to be discovered, though, a careful and solicitous custodianship is needed. And it is here—as a kind of warden of memory—where the black church must lead. To, as Pastor Cosby describes, “introduce the congregation to its undiscovered self. To give them the power to pursue what they already know to be true.”

Preachers, then, ought to feel compelled to midwife and foreground memory. To attend to the needs of the community not with scriptural palliatives which encourage the congregation to exercise lenity in the face of adversity—to take heart that justice will be theirs in the eternal—but by cultivating a discipleship of social justice through the scripture, one that is attentive to the memory of the black experience and responsive to the conditions of provocation that have always defined it.

Failing that, the church becomes then—to use an analogy which appeals to the sport that introduced the world to a legend from right here in Louisville’s west end—not a corner in a boxing match, but, at best, a mode of escape.

In de-emphasizing the consequences of that history—by not being the institutional vehicle to foster and develop and encourage a sense of racial identity grounded in that history and memory in order that they might more effectively achieve their goals in America—the church abets the losing bargain drawn up for native black descendants of slaves. A losing bargain because of the profound insuperability of that original handicap; namely, their ancestors having been the principle means by which the nation begat its great prosperity and for which they were in return never compensated. The way that economic encumbrance deliberately denied them resources across generations. An overt prevention of opportunity enforced through acts of terror upon the community. An overt prevention of opportunity which then went on to be tacitly assured by the courts. And finally, an overt prevention of opportunity which was all but guaranteed by the group’s total social and financial undercapitalization and the private biases and discriminatory forces of the free market.

What the Angela Project rightly asks the leaders of the church is, is how it’s possible, with cognizance of that fundamental component of the black experience—an economic exclusion which served as the foundation for unprecedented national enrichment—to not hear, from the Book of Habukkuk, God’s judgement upon it and His warning against its perpetrators: “Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain,” reads chapter two, verse six, “For the stone shall cry out from the wall, and the beam from the timber shall answer it.”

What in those words does not serve as an indictment of this nation’s history? What in them does not readily affirm the justice claim carried forward by the descendants of slaves? What—in the very next verse—could possibly be interpreted as counseling restraint, passivity, inaction, when Habukkuk says, “But without warning, those you owe will demand payment.”


Reparations—definitionally, payment provided in compensation for a wrong or harm done—is central to the Angela Project’s mission in helping to effect meaningful social justice for native black descendants of slaves. It is an example of precisely the type of ‘radical reorientation’ alluded to in the catechism’s second pillar.

In a speech at Howard University in 1965, Lyndon Johnson urged the country closer toward this properly catechetical demonstration of repentance. In what amounts to a genealogy of the ills and deficiencies afflicting the black community, and its anemic lurching of progress relative to white America, Johnson explicitly identifies “the devastating heritage of long years of slavery” and a “century of oppression, hatred, and injustice” as the wellhead of their misfortunes and tribulations.

What Johnson understood was that the observable features of black life in America—the already boiling cauldron of instability, the chronic stress and exclusion—were inseparable from that group’s history of having been economically locked out for centuries. And that every subsequent maldistribution of wealth, every new hoarding of opportunity for white America, would only adjust the flame over which that cauldron sat just a little bit higher. That it was—and still is—not just an abstract matter of presupposing African-Americans as somehow essentially less than, unable to capitalize on all the supposed opportunities this country makes available to them; rather it was how those prejudices came to be concretely expressed within our institutions. Johnson recognized that, insofar as institutional capacity to facilitate positive outcomes for a community is tied to some measure of that community’s economic fitness, then black America’s total scarcity of wealth, coming off of centuries of forms of oppression and discrimination that specifically denied them the ability to create it, had consequently made them uniquely vulnerable in American society. And so he argued, in strongly moral terms, that the only humane and adequate response could not seek to extenuate that fact, but instead must fully confront the magnitude with which those heinous offenses, those abuses of exploitation, had grievously retarded the development of the black community and to then intervene accordingly.

Then as now we are nearing a point of irrevocability. As such we ought to seek out forms of reparative justice—like the affirmative action programs adopted specifically for black America in the wake of Johnson’s address—which evince a full appreciation for the damage done by past injustices. Approaches that seek to make meaningful amends, and to ultimately, as Johnson said, “move beyond opportunity to achievement…to dissolve, as best we can, the antique enmities of the heart which diminish the holder, divide the great democracy, and do wrong—great wrong—to the children of God.”

Not since President Johnson spoke those words has the U.S., reflecting on its sins, made such an earnest effort at full atonement, or so closely approximated the call to conversion and penance as articulated in the catechism, one which says, “The human heart is converted by looking upon him who our sins have pierced.”

In so many ways our gaze has long drifted away from an engaged and meaningful look at black America—upon him who our sins have pierced. It is a disregard that has been encouraged by a steady re-segregation of society. How—in this age of putatively great choice, abundant opportunity, personal agency and racial progress—have we gotten to a place where our public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1973? Is it just that so many black Americans choose to congregate in the inner-cities? Drink lead-tainted water? Do they just spontaneously appear living in abject poverty, the likes of which—as one U.N. official touring Alabama described them—are “very uncommon in the First World.” Are the placement of oil refineries just some hundreds of feet from black homes a thing of happenstance? Does the majority of white America just choose to live more comfortably?

Or is what we see—or rather, don’t have any real need to see, since our lives are arranged to insulate us from, and not bring us into any sustained contact with black America—the pernicious lie at the core of the idea of a post-racial United States? Because to really witness black America is to become unsettlingly and inescapably aware of the vast, and yawning, and manufactured divide that still exists between it and the rest of society.


It is not just to that divide that the Angela Project speaks. More revelatory—and arguably most importantly—it is from that divide; from that place of designated and intended exclusion that the Angela Project undertakes to, as Dr. Cosby says, “Lift a prophetic voice to advocate for black communities and institutions in places of power.”

1 Corinthians 14:29 tells us, “And let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern.” Two such prophets, Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, are here today in the sanctuary of St. Stephen Baptist Church. The latter, arrived from LA and normally seen in a fitted Dodgers cap, is today positioned at the lectern and surrounded by several charts and graphs projected onto wall-mounted screens, all of which detail our moment of historic inequality in relation to black America, that group which doubtless bears the brunt of that disparity. “This is America,” Antonio tells those in attendance, “and to have never seen America like this is a travesty.”


The America of which Antonio Moore speaks—insofar as it tells itself a story of improved race relations, or of a steady and continuous march toward ameliorating the material, social, and moral conditions of the civic organism—is one that demonstrably lies to itself every day.

What Antonio describes—and what these charts attest to—is how it really isn’t anachronistic at all to speak of slavery existing in the present. And that if it seems long since that time of the plantation—the cradle of black exclusion in America—if we seem far removed from that period, that’s more attributable to our actual physical isolation from black people, and the realities of their lives, than a positive assertion of our evolving attitudes and behaviors on race, tolerance, and cooperation.

To maintain that slavery ended hundreds of years ago, and that nothing of that sort inhibits black people today, is to reveal an inability to interpret reality beyond the absolute literal. To be in possession of a mind that can only conceptualize enslavement physically, as in actual hand-stocks and neck-irons clamped onto black bodies and not as a condition of basic economic immobility imposed from without.

Because that is exactly the circumstance of black America today. Nationwide, the middle black family’s net worth is $1,700 before depreciating assets. In Boston, black people have a net worth of exactly $8. In Antonio Moore’s hometown of Los Angeles, the black family is worth $200 liquid. Those primitive devices of oppression have since just been re-packaged in new, less obvious forms. They may be more discreet in their aims, but the desired outcome has always remained the same: to keep black people on the bottom, and to prevent them from ever becoming equal members of society. “That’s not the story we tell ourselves though,” Antonio says, “We like to remember slavery as a period of time.”


But to invoke Faulkner once more: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And no group in America so acutely experiences this continual rupture of the past into the present quite like descendants of slaves. At the same time, though, they are told that this resurgence of injustice is a product of their imagination. How, then, to account for it when it happens? How to experience is but as a profound isolation, inexplicable and suddenly encompassing?

Yvette Carnell begins her speech by mentioning how the Breaking Brown project—which she founded in 2014—has “allowed [her] to have a proximity to native-black descendant of slaves’ pain.” She sees it “from all angles,” and recognizes how many in the community, especially in the younger generation, “understand something intuitively” about that pain; something they feel very deeply, but which they maybe can’t quite articulate because of the insistence in our society that—for descendants of slaves—history is a weak or false premise from which to argue their grievances. And so, unable to get ahead, they’re left feeling some gnawing enigma as to the reason why; a vague, nihilistic futility in relation to their future, and an urge to turn to self-medication.

The recent eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, delivered by Pastor Jasper Williams, demonstrates how quickly religious leaders in the community can be to rebuke the consequences and the symptoms of black people having been excluded from America, while remaining deeply reticent on the systemic inequalities that are at the root of these expressions of instability. It’s worth considering what spiritual toll this contemptuous haranguing has taken on the community. How has this manifested in the younger generation’s attendance in church when the institution largely doesn’t speak to that feeling of estrangement they experience in any meaningful way? Yvette Carnell pauses a moment at the lectern before directly challenging the claims and usefulness of such cultural pathology preaching: “If you’re going to wear a cross around your neck and claim to be a pastor,” she says before a congregation in which there are many clergymen in attendance, “I don’t need you to do that in a way that blames the oppressed. If you get up to speak for me, I need you to speak about Justice Jesus.”


Where the church and other black institutions falter in this capacity, Breaking Brown proceeds. It is a project of rehabilitation and furtherance grounded in a belief that while self-medication will numb the pain, self-definition will ultimately transform it. “At a certain point,” Yvette says, “we’re going to have to ask ourselves about the power of self-definition and why we refuse to define ourselves.”

The consequences of that refusal were presciently described by Harold Cruse in his book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. “As long as the negro’s cultural identity is in question, or open to self-doubts,” Cruse writes, “then there can be no positive identification with the real demands of his political and economic existence. Further than that,” Cruse continues, “without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. He is left in the limbo of social marginality, alienated and directionless on the landscape of America.”

Now, just like then, there is a pressing need for descendants of slaves to self-identify in some politically relevant, actionable, and culturally-specific way. Arguably it is even more so urgent today, since from the time Cruse first issued that damning characterization of their fate, the cultural identity of black America has only been further diffused, confounded and made indistinct. And it is at this critical and precarious moment in the group’s history where the respective, but highly complementary projects of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore aim to intervene. Together they are working to provide a conceptual apparatus through which the pain and exclusion of being native-black descendants of slaves is rendered knowable—able to then be acted upon and in the interest of eradicating. Together they are working to—as the only viable way forward—recall the community to its singular identity: “It is not about color, or melanin,” Yvette says, “It’s about lineage. Lineage is everything.”


At the Sunday worship service at St. Stephen, the Reverend Jesse Jackson delivers the sermon. Slowly, quietly, and in a tone full of musing he asks the congregation, “How many of you remember your grandparents? Raise your hand.” Virtually all those present raise their hands. “Great-grandparents?” he says, “Raise your hand.” And about half of the hands that had been held up in the church are lowered. “Great-Great-Grandparents? Raise your hand.” The number of hands dwindle further. “Great-Great-Great?”

In response to this last question there’s a smattering of laughter from the congregation that ripples through the sanctuary. No hands are raised.

“That’s five generations,” Reverend Jackson says. And pausing afterward, he removes his glasses. “From Jesus to David it’s forty-two generations. He has quoted forty-two generations and we can’t quote five.” The sanctuary, in this moment, is very still, as the import of what the Reverend is saying becomes apparent. “Jesus refers to what Moses said, what David said,” he continued, “and we can’t go back five generations…”

The message is at once obvious enough. The memory of black America—a memory starting from the present and reaching back through the generations all the way to when Angela, the conference’s namesake, first stepped off a slave ship and onto American soil at Point Comfort, VA—is indispensable to the community’s future survival and eventual liberation.

Dr. Kevin Cosby, Yvette Carnell, Antonio Moore and the Angela Project are all seriously engaged in setting the black agenda in these next stages of the freedom struggle. They are doing so with an eye turned fully toward that memory and all that it contains. The question with which we leave off this weekend is whether other leaders in the church will stand in solidarity with that mission, lending it the institutional weight of the church, or whether they will instead assist in a fate befalling the black community which they have doubtless read about before, one found in the Book of Hosea, chapter four, verse six, which warns, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”