I must have been no older than 6. I was in church in my hometown, Los Angeles. Parishioners fanned themselves to stay cool in the packed, stuffy room.
On one side of each fan was an illustration of an Ozzie and Harriet-like American family — father, mother, son, daughter. All were black, like the parishioners in the church. On the other side was an illustration of Jesus Christ — fair skinned, fair haired, blue eyed.
Something seemed amiss to me about that depiction of Christ. Why was he white? Why was he not black, like my family, like me?
As I grew older, I learned that the fair-skinned, blue-eyed depiction of Jesus has for centuries adorned stained glass windows and altars in churches throughout the United States and Europe. But Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was most likely a Palestinian man with dark skin.
Many black Americans I met over the years not only embraced that image, but also insisted upon it. In a July 2002 episode of the radio show “This American Life,” an artist, Milton Reed, who made his living painting murals inside people’s apartments in public housing projects in Chicago, said black clients often asked him to paint Jesus — and insisted that Mr. Reed paint him white.
[Use the comments to tell us what you see when you visualize Christ. Your response may be highlighted in this article.]
With the approach of Easter, and these memories at the front of my mind, I decided to dig a little into this topic.
George Yancy, who edited “Christology and Whiteness,” a collection of essays about race and Christianity, told me the desire — sometimes the psychological need — of some black Americans to see Christ as white may “simply be a habit.”
“The first time I saw images of a black Christ it was shocking,” Dr. Yancy, who is black, told me. “It was like, ‘How dare they!’ But when you’ve seen a white Jesus all your life you think that can be the only acceptable image.”
Dr. Yancy, a philosophy professor at Emory University, also said that the social cultural soup all Americans are immersed in equates white with good and pure and black with bad and evil. Consciously or subconsciously some black Americans might have bought into that.
“If you internalized that worldview,” he said, “how could a dark-skinned Christ wash sins away?”
In a few black American churches the image of a white Jesus never took root, and for at least 100 years, those churches have been depicting Christ as black, as reported in a 1994 Washington Post article.
Since the 1960s, with the civil rights and black power movements and black liberation theology, the trend to show Christ as black has steadily grown.
“It would seem to follow that as black people came to rethink and embrace their own beauty, their own self-representation, that the image of a black Christ would naturally follow,” Dr. Yancy said.
Now, even though cultures across the world may at times show a Jesus that reflects their own story, a white Jesus is still deeply embedded in the Western story of Christianity. It has become often impossible to separate Jesus and white from the American psyche.
I remain interested in the depiction of Christ among blacks, Hispanics, East Asians, South Asians and other communities of color, both American born and immigrant.
I am also interested in how white Christians feel about images of Christ. How do you feel about the possibility that Christ may not have looked the way he has been portrayed for centuries in the United States and Europe? If you’ve seen Christ depicted as a man of color, what was your reaction?
In the comments section of this article, I encourage you to share how the age-old debate over the identity of Jesus is playing out in your life and religious community.
Please include where you’re from. We may highlight a selection of responses in this article.