After a 14-year retreat, D’Angelo took the world by surprise with an abrupt midnight launch of his long-awaited studio album, Black Messiah. Amir “Questlove” Thompson leaked the album’s original title, James River, several years ago, so the new title was as unpredictable as its sudden release. The album’s only direct reference to its provocative name comes in the introduction to track two, “1000 Deaths,” where Black prophetic preaching is set to a hip-hop beat. The preacher’s fiery words move at a quick and anointed pace.

When I say Jesus I’m not talking about some blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned-relative-complexioned Cracker Christ. I’m talking about the Jesus of the Bible, with hair like lambs wool, I’m talking about that good hair, I’m talking about that nappy hair … Jesus the Lord, the Savior, the Master, the Redeemer, Jesus the Black Revolutionary Messiah.

The distinction between the Black Messiah and Cracker Christ is clear enough. We may dispute the exact ethnic identity of Jesus of Nazareth as an empirical question, but the fact that the anthropological narrative of sacred scripture does exclude certain races by geographic necessity is a contrast to the present popular imagination. For instance, none of the peoples of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica appear in the Bible, obviously, and likewise there are no white people in the Bible either, especially since the latter are a very recent invention. (For more on the invention of white people, see my talk “White History Month.”)

I’ll say it again because it is so obvious that it bears repeating: There are no white people in the Bible. An embarrassing counterfactual to this fact is the recent film Exodus that, like The Ten Commandments before it, interprets the story of Moses in Ancient Egypt with a cast of Caucasians in the lead roles.

Whether Jesus was Black or not is a trivia question for Biblical historians, but there is little doubt that the Mary we encounter in Luke’s infancy narrative was definitely not Mexican or Aztec and did not speak Nahuatl. Nonetheless, the Virgen Morena, a racial title of endearment for Our Lady of Guadalupe, is beloved by the Mexican people for taking the form of brown skin when she appeared to an indigenous peasant, St. Juan Diego. Here the line between biblical history and personal revelation begin to muddy the holy water.

An authentic Christian humanism is rooted in the abolition of castes, sects, and other divisions we find in the New Testament as early as the visitation of the Magi from the East and as late as Paul’s dispute with Peter over circumcision. The humanistic development of Christianity from an obscure Jewish sect to a dissident religious universalism, opposed by the Roman Empire, is too easily mistaken for the atomistic liberalism of today. The latter vision of society, shaped by the derivative secular Enlightenment, and sponsored by the overdeveloped nation-state, is where many see color-blindness as a humanist virtue.  A post-racial era has become a dry-dreamed utopia where a neutered and toothless human identity is the desired norm. No wonder the Bible has lost so much of its color, funk, and flavor. No wonder white people are the best candidates for the role of Moses and Pharaoh. No wonder why race is seen as a harm and a deficit, as a source of victimization and violence. No wonder we long for a whitewashed ethnozombie, the neither dead nor alive human who relies on multicultural statist affiliations to replace ancestry and magic.

Race is a convention, to be sure. It is pure fiction, always flirting with ideology. It can be dangerous and downright monstrous when used as a calculus to decide the value of a life. It can breed self-hatred and shame. This is the picture many seem to agree on, against which savage egalitarians resist in the pathetic style of know-nothing non-denominational ecumenists.

The beautiful realities produced by the fiction of race are rarely appreciated, but they are loved by all. No one wants post-ethnic food; indeed the idea of non-ethnic food could only actualize as a healthy dystopian nutrition pill or something that kills food altogether. A feeding tube will never look delicious. The arts are perhaps the greatest testament to what race can do, how it can shape an era, a social imagination, to fill a groove to recall an ancient melody. As with all truly beautiful things, there are no romantic escapes here. Racial pride is always too few steps removed from ethnic cleansing. But to wish away the humanity of Christ’s geographic place and physical face for a generic Cracker Christ is to mistake St. Paul’s humanism for John Lennon’s.

What is spectacular about the post-racial pipedream is that it is an outright form of ethnic cleansing that hides in plain sight, without shame, irony, or insecurity. It is genocide without bloodshed. It does not even give its victims the agency of suicide. This is an accountant’s altruism, the sort of banality Hannah Arendt called evil.

D’Angelo’s Black Messiah conjures and conveys something radical and different. The racial sentiment we find in Guadalupe is echoed in the “Black is beautiful” cultural movement of the 1960’s that D’Angelo’s soul music draws deeply from. Both celebrate the beauty of the colored body, a body that inherits its marks from the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, a body that, like Moses and Polycarp, stands in the shadow of Empire. The image of the Black Messiah is revolutionary because, like the brown Virgen on the tilma of Juan Diego and the flag of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it contrasts the strategic ideological whiteness of the American Empire, an empire that cannot see that Jesus was a middle-eastern man of Jewish ancestry who was tortured and executed by Roman soldiers, an empire that is accustomed to seeing a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Cracker Christ.

I have sometimes wondered why I am able to write the word ‘cracker’ or ‘honky’ or ‘gringo’ in a way I cannot, in good faith, type the N-word or ‘spick.’ That the latter term is one I am able to subvert with my own Latino identity is not the issue at hand. What is it about whiteness that willingly takes up the role of an absence, a void that blackness fills? This is not merely a question of melanin. This is present in the Irish imagination of C.S. Lewis, who saw Narnia bewitched under a white spell and liberated by color, in a sacramental struggle where we see the cradle of Christmas and the Cross of Calvary in a single thread.

The fundamental paradox we find in the convention of race is much deeper than sociology. It is present in the paradox of Christian humanism: Jesus is the ultimate everyman; a brother to all, a Jew who reached out to the Gentiles, a redeemer whose historical humanity is mingled with the mysterious Divine, a God who is fully human. The paradox of Davidic genealogy and geographic particularity, the fulfillment of the prophets and the Jewish covenant, and the mystical Word that became flesh to illuminate all men, is not solved by subtraction. Indeed, it is not a riddle: He is a Child to be adored by kings. As D’Angelo’s preacher proclaims, he is Jesus the Lord.

The universals and particulars, the one and the many, substance and accident will remain to be quarreled over and contradicted. We can hold the periodized Jesus in our hearts and minds and make pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We can see Christ as our brother and see him and his mother as our own kin: of our own color, eating our own food. The clothes that swaddled the Babe of Bethlehem are kin to the linen cloths that wrapped him a second time, in a tomb. The light of his first and second resurrection birth are not two, but one. The cradle and the Cross, the Black Messiah born of La Guadalupana, with a Welsh bass player holding the groove: these are the beautiful mysteries of our faith.