Black Jesus on Velvet by Craig Laurance Gidney

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I.

And it’s Christmas Eve in the church.  Everything has that faintly neon-ethereal blush about it:  the gently red poinsettia, the majestically frosty lily, the fake marble columns.  Candles flicker and writhe.  Shadow drapes the room in holy evilness.  There is a great passionate-yet-passionless red curtain concealing the stage.  Then the people pour in.  They’re in their “Sunday Best”: Dior, Burberry…  The room reeks of cloying fragrances.  Then, suddenly, every man is seated.  Every flower-print dress falls into place on the pew.  Every cherubic/devilish child has been given a doodle pad.  The preacher mounts the pulpit, and a gradual, but relentless silence descends upon the room.    Every man, woman and child gazes into the void, joyously decorated with holly sprigs, mistletoe, shiny colored balls, and tinsel.  The preacher raises his arms (“praise be to the Lord Jesus,” et al) and the red curtain ascends.  Everything’s so perfect—so shimmering, so holy, with just the right touch of the sinister, you could cry.  But, pious faces crumble, and a terrified gasp holds the room.  A lady goes into d.t.’s.  Maybe fifteen men shout in anger.  Three children laugh with malicious innocence.  The preacher is speechless.  Someone has defiled Jesus.  Degraded him.  His skin has been painted brown, like earth.  His long, blond hair has covered with a wig of dreadlocks, and his long, flowing robe has been painted with the colors of Mother Africa.  This is not our Lord, the audience emanates.  This is blasphemy.  And hidden behind the sacristy, you laugh and laugh, until tears run down your face.

II.

And just because the woman from the Islands in Woolworth’s took one glance at the picture of black Jesus on velvet and started to yell out “Blasfeemie!  Blasfeemie! Jesus was not black!” you defiantly bought the picture and said in your best Sista-friend voice, “Honey, Jesus was a brother.”  You took Him home.  Retrieving your old acrylic tubes and brushes, you put a dash of parrot green here, a dab of burnt umber there until He has beads in his cornrows.  You plan a dinner, where you’ll unveil your new work of art.  You’ll invite your white friends from college.  The night of the event, you put on a bu-bu (your only African dress, so the bu-bu).  Your guests arrive and you give them grey njera canapes  and palm wine (“Where’s the brie wheel,” they think, and the Chablis?”).  After dinner, you show your art.  “It’s interesting,” says Sarah.  Her husband Lionel silently chokes on a turnip green.  Jackie sits with her mouth wide open, and Peter says, “Right on!” a little too enthusiastically.   Just what you expected.

III.

And remember when you’d go to church Sunday school with blond/blue/angelic Sally and John.  You’d feel like a speck of dirt next to them, no matter what you would do.  You’d wear a pink lace party dress, with shiny black shoes and pink ribbons in your hair.  But Sally would show up in jeans and have the teachers fluttering around her.  You felt overdressed.  (“Niggers sure know to dress in church,” your Pop Pop would say).  You would read along Today’s Lesson and look at the accompanying pictures.  Round, rosy cheeks in jeans and t-shirts joyfully encircling  Jesus.  The church classroom would smell of ammonia, burning every speck of dirt that was there.  One day, you got new books for Sunday school.  They were the exact same books, only updated.  If you looked at the pictures, they had added blacks and Asians, almost as an afterthought.  The one black girl was standing away from the throng of children, playing with lamb.  Who was Jesus?  He was still white.  “Blasfeemie! Blasfeemie” screams the woman from the Islands, who is darker than you are.  And maybe she’s right.  So you leave Woolworth’s, hating the daishiki-less, ammonia-reeking King of Kings.

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