When I was young, Jesus greeted me every day at my grandmother’s house.
A framed print of Warner E. Sallman’s “Head of Christ” graced the wall adjacent to her front door. Jesus looked like an elegant surfer dude to me — tanned, with honey-streaked brown hair and blue eyes that gazed benevolently to the heavens.
The Almighty didn’t look anything like me, but so what? It certainly didn’t make me question my faith or my self-worth, because my religious experience was steeped in the tradition of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
From the all-Black choir that sang the songs of Zion to the Black mothers of the church who prayed over me to the Black pastor who preached that, yes, Jesus loved my little chocolate self, my Blackness was continually validated. At my grandmother’s, I was more concerned about her yelling at me for slamming the screen door than I was about the white Jesus hanging next to it.
What images of Jesus did you grow up with, and how do they align with your vision of Christ now?
But once I became aware of the world and my place in it, I realized that imagery was a powerful tool through which white supremacy operated. Whiteness has always been the default for defining everything America deems worthy: standards of beauty, true patriotism, innovators and intellectuals and stewards of power. Even our most sacrosanct attribute — spirituality — demands that we pray to a God presented as white.
That’s why “DeColonizing Christ,” a visual arts exhibit that runs through Dec. 19 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is so fascinating. It dares to imagine Jesus Christ as what he was, a person of color. It dares to debunk everything we’ve been programmed to believe about Christ’s appearance while interpreting a historical fact.
As the exhibit draws to a close well into the season of Advent, it has offered opportunities for those who have never deeply questioned their vision of Christ to reconsider the frame through which they have been looking.