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Studs Terkel talks with artist Gene Hall and Dr. Paul Mundy about the painting "The Black Christ Not Worthy of Its Cross" ; part 1

BROADCAST: Sep. 21, 1965 | DURATION: 00:28:36


Studs Terkel interviews the artist Gene Hall who created "The Black Christ Not Worthy Of Its Cross" and the head of the Loyola University Sociology Department, Dr. Paul Mundy, who used the title and painting reproduction to spark classroom discussions. Hall describes the creation of his 6 ft tall by 2 1/2 feet wide painting and how seeing the color of Christ diminishes Christ. You don't see Christ when you see color. Hall uses barbed wire instead of thorns in the painting to signify there is no time in painting, it is up to date. Crucifiction goes on as long as man offends God by offending another man. Mundy describes the wire as man's imprisonment, torment or his being in a democratic but deeply discriminatory society. Listeners hear the reactions of a Chicago youth who believes people like the image of Christ to be like them. The college students in Mundy's Minority Relations course are disturbed by the painting reproduction and title. Also, four negro nuns at a Liturgical Conference who saw the painting first hand were shocked and hurt by the Black Christ not being worthy of the cross until it was explained that the title was satirical. Hall believes the painting must create its own mood. The recording ends abruptly at 28:36 minutes.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel "The Black Christ Not Worthy Of Its Cross" is the name, the theme of painting by Chicago artist Gene Hall, who is our guest this morning, together with Dr. Paul Mundy, head of the Sociology Department of Loyola University. May recall a poem Mundy was, I guess, sometime ago with St. Clair Drake during the series rearing children of goodwill. And in Paul Mundy's class, this painting was exhibited to the students- they all wrote essays on it. Their impressions of this particular work: "A Black Christ Not Worthy Of His Cross." I thought though before we hear from my guest, the painter Gene Hall, and the teacher, sociologist, Paul Mundy, to hear Tony. He's a Puerto Rican kid on the West Side during the Joy Street Series being asked a question. His reply:

Tony It's kind of hard to describe, but it- if I may like an image of him that's probably the same thing but, he must have a beard, I don't know. Do you think the- these are God like Jesus- they had a beard and all that? People would get the idea that he does have a beard and has a long beard, his white hair, you know? His- he's always in white. Very shiny person and bright, you know? That's what people might get the idea of, you know? It's what I think-

Studs Terkel Is that the way you see him?

Tony Yeah. That's what I think-

Studs Terkel What do you think is- what's his nationality?

Tony I don't know at all because if if- I wouldn't- I don't know. I don't think anyone knows the nationality because, of course if we know, we know what Jesus nation- I mean, I think it's what Jewish or something? Alright, he's Jewish, you know? And, well, God- we don't know because he has never been born in the world. I mean, you know the place, in the nation, of United- or the world. And you can't tell because he made us. How we know if he has a nationality?

Studs Terkel When we- any idea what color he might be?

Tony Who?

Studs Terkel God.

Tony What color? Well, I think he could be any color because who can tell me- maybe I might describe him- he's white- white. Maybe a color person has a- or his color. Maybe Russian which is yellow, maybe, I think. Or Japanese. Yellow, 'cause he's yellow. People might have a different color because their color. See, I can say he's Puerto Rican because I'm Puerto Rican. Because some Italians say he's Ital- he's Italian- because he's Italian. You know that's the way people are, you know? They think- they wanna get- somebody that's great to be like them, you know?

Studs Terkel As we listen to Tony getting right to the nub of the matter, we come to the- listening to Tony, Gene Hall, your painting I suppose. I know you've heard Tony before, but listening- it has an impression on you because it's connecting with your painting "A Black Christ Not Worthy Of His Cross."

Gene Hall Yes, very much so. That's- that's the whole idea of it. The color- recognizing the color of Christ. We diminish Christ. We do not see Christ when we see the color. And therefore, I painted it- painted Christ Black because it is pertinent, at this time, at another time it may be that there will be a purple race that we have to be concerned about. And so therefore I use the black in order to make people conscious of Christ because Christ himself said how can you love God whom you've never seen, when you can't love your fellow man whom you see every day. And if you want me to describe

Studs Terkel Yes, how would you- we have reproductions of it here, perhaps you, you the artist, Gene Hall describe.

Gene Hall I have Christ off the cross with his hands to one side and his legs twisted over with one nail piercing the feet. Although the twist of the legs is once more then it would be possible. And also, the nails in the hands are in reverse. The reason I did this was to emphasize the apathy of our day in regard to, to Christ. In my estimation it's- if Christ were to be crucified today, the way each of us crucifies his fellow man, we would do it with much more bitterness. And the poem I once heard by a Protestant minister, I believe in England, of if Christ come today he would long for cavalry because of our regard to him of the way we regard Christ today- our apathy toward him. And in the painting, I have Christ, a negro, and totally, totally subjective to us. In other words, he's down off the cross awaiting our good pleasure for us to allow him to be back on the cross and to redeem us. In other words, he's condescending to the lowly. He cannot get back on the cross until we allow him to be there for our sake.

Studs Terkel You had to phrase that's- there is no cross in this particular painting-

Gene Hall A vague, a vague thing

Studs Terkel Vague outline- barbed wire. Are there not,

Gene Hall Yes, barbed wire instead of thorns. This was to bring it up, up to date because I believe there is no time for the crucifixion. The crucifixion goes on as long as any man offends God by offending another man.

Studs Terkel Because barbed wire, Paul Mundy, to me also has the connotation, as I look at it, of a concentration camp as well.

Paul Mundy Yeah well, I'm sure that there are implications here of man, imprisoned man, tormented man, tortured, wherever he happens to be, and I think whether one looks at the totalitarian society or the democratic but deeply discriminatory society, portion of humanity is in that condition literally or figuratively.

Gene Hall If I might say what motivated me to paint it, although, to me, there is a motivation, the subject matter is for the sake of the artist. In the end the painting must stand on its own and create its own mood. You can't write a book telling about the painting because it's impossible to get across the feeling in that manner. It is a medium in itself, it's, it's another song. It's not a- it's not like writing, using words to describe. But I feel, this is what motivated me to paint it. I feel there's a great equation, you might say, in regard to God and man. Man- Christ said ask the lawyer what is the commandments and he said thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole mind, thy whole body, thy whole being and thy neighbor as thyself. This is very true. This is exactly the way God would have it. But, in our day and age, or in regard to humanity, we try to solve it that way and therefore people regard Christ on Sunday and the rest of it is lost or God. The thing is with this that Christ is, is regarded. It should be reversed. Christ we should learn- we love our self to start with and, therefore, how can we love God? We love our self and so we should start from that angle and Christ becoming human taught us to love another man. So, if I can, by my painting, in some sense, teach man to love his fellow man, then God will take care of the loving of God.

Studs Terkel Suppose we go further into the matter of the painting itself, Gene. The Christ you have, in contrast to traditional paintings we've seen of a sort of ascetic- he's very muscular, it's a muscular Christ-

Gene Hall That is due largely to an exaggeration that I use in my work. This is, this is the individual- that's just the way I paint to a large extent. But Paul made a good point regarding that.

Paul Mundy Well it seems to me that, that it represents what I can think of as a kind of muscular submissiveness. It's a contradiction in terms and it seems to me that to whatever degree God is man and to whatever degree man is God. You confront the same kind of contradiction. The person, the person can first, I think, begin to know the Divine by knowing the full extension of humanity. But because we are so frequently the prisoners of the little groups to which we belong, sometimes they're national, sometimes they're social and economic, sometimes they're they're based on language or religion- we tend to develop a kind of preferential subtracted loyalty to humanity.

Studs Terkel Thinking about Tony our young friend, defining it in his way.

Paul Mundy Yes-

Studs Terkel He is what I am or what my group is. So, it could be, but about Tony being a humanist of the streets, saw it as, perhaps, everyone seeing it himself and his group in it-

Paul Mundy Very much so-

Gene Hall And Christ has to be, Christ is the links, the link between God and man and the human aspect and he has to be someone you can take a hold of now. He has to be the other human being. Christ is always with us. Christ said I'm with you, all days even to the consummation of the world. That can be translated in that he is with us in the other human being. I see a blind man and how is he blind and I'm not blind? And that reminds me there- Christ is with me reminding me of my-

Studs Terkel The Christ in every man-

Gene Hall Yes, the Christ in

Studs Terkel On that Christ in every man theme, more specifically and dramatically, Gene himself. You and this painting. We asked Paul, Paul Mundy, perhaps to read from some of the papers of the students in class as a result of their observing this painting. The circumstances of the painting- how long it took and your model or lack of model.

Gene Hall I had hired a model, in fact two, and neither had show- neither showed up. And so one morning, the next morning I just went out and had to paint it and it act- the painting itself which is six feet tall and about three feet wide or two and half feet wide, took me about four or five hours and I didn't stop. I just went ahead and finished it. The next day, of course, I spent I suppose an hour putting a couple of highlights in the glaze- I washed a dark glaze over the whole thing. But, this is a thing which which had bothered me, I suppose, ever since I could remember from the time I was a kid and there was a colored man in our town called Frock, and everybody referred to nigger Frock and-

Studs Terkel Where was this, Gene?

Gene Hall This was back in Nebraska and he was- my father thought- respected him very much as a man. But nobody- He was the only- There was only colored family there and nobody knew the difference. Then he would have- he would be a negro and he would be called a nigger. Nobody would- to me a child, that's the way I observed it. Once I jumped on the back of his wagon, which horse drawn wagon, and he he struck me with his whip and I got off. I respected him as a man because my father disciplined me to respect a man and then as I grew older I wondered why he was- why the negro was considered lesser and therefore I say the thing was within me ever since I can remember. And I think that of any painter the same theme runs through all his paintings and-

Studs Terkel But there are many experiences after, after the two models did not appear. Then what did you do? Did you use your-

Gene Hall I used, I t- yes that I painted it totally from imagination. And in speaking to you once Studs, you said, "well it's good that the model didn't show. It's good that it was done all for imagination." Yet, with a model you have the truth in front of you there. You have God's truth, another human being. Yet, now I feel that you are right because here is the- here is my concept of negro. Not the negro, this negro or that negro, but of negro and therefore I could bring Christ into a much, much more than being inhibited as I am and referring to that human being. If I were a perfect man, I could refer to that human being and put Christ in with no trouble.

Studs Terkel But Paul, Paul Mundy, told me that you did. While driving one day, you saw someone in the crowd, you saw a negro. You thought he might be the model and you ran after him.

Gene Hall A negro half- with long stringy hair half bald. I'd say about thirty years old and the man's eyes- I was driving along a curb he was walking in the opposite direction. I pulled over and got out and run after him. It was on Michigan Avenue and I never, never arrived at the-

Studs Terkel He was about thirty years- he's about 30 years old. Christ was 32 when he was crucified. Paul?

Paul Mundy Yes.

Studs Terkel Now, perhaps we can come to reactions and being you're involved too because you had various reactions, various nuns, pick a couple of negro nuns, but Paul and the class. What- why did you do this? Paul Mundy of the Sociology Department

Paul Mundy Let me say first of all, Studs, that the way I happened to meet Gene was because he listened in to the show that we taped before. And he gave me a call, and we chatted for a while, and he told me of some of his interests and so on. He mentioned this painting and I stopped over to see it and so forcibly impressed was I by it. By it going to the humanness and the totality of what Christ is. I was teaching a course in Minority Relations last semester. And I brought this picture in of the painting and just distributed among the students and asked them for their reactions to it. I just gave them the title, and I think that was probably a mistake. I would have preferred, in retrospect, to have them give me a title and react too. And they wrote brief papers and later on I had Gene come in, I Xeroxed copies of these, blacked out their names, and then sent them out to him, and then he came and he brought the original painting for them to see and talked with him about it and answer their questions. I'll just excerpt a few of the remarks, the kinds of things that they responded to. One of the students said, "it was difficult for me to tell whether the feet on this painting were supposed to represent the feet of some beast or were rooted in the soil. The face seemed to be showing pain or at least the kind of permanent oppression." Another student's reaction was, "the painting sickened me. The facial expression was entirely too much." And another one spoke of the unbelievable abjection of the black Christ: "His hands were joined together by a nail, but they are permitted to rest there and not joined to the wood of the cross. He seems unworthy to die for mankind." I think here he's responding really to the title that was suggested to him. "My reaction was one of pity and disgust. He is portrayed in a contorted and twisted shape or again, if the modern negro is inadequate in his role of martyr, the white man must at least in part be blamed for this inadequacy." And here the student reads, "I think a kind of inadequacy into the civil rights movement, I suppose, and some of the stresses and strains that are taking place in American society at the present time."

Studs Terkel I'm thinking, considering the excerpts that Paul Mundy has read, in all instances, the painting did one thing quite clearly: it disturbed them. It was the- did not leave them unmoved. Some did not like it at all. Some were terribly moved in an affirmative way but they all were disturbed.

Gene Hall If I might say, this this painting is now on exhibit at the Welna Gallery if I can say that-

Studs Terkel Please

Gene Hall For the next month. And-

Studs Terkel Where is that?

Gene Hall That's at 57 East Oak and it'll be there for the next month- or 54 East Oak. On Sunday, at the opening, a Jewish man come in. And he had not seen the painting or he had not been invited. You know, I mean, I hadn't sent him an invitation or anything. But he just walked in and he saw the painting and he never- wasn't concerned with any other painting. He was very moved by this. And he said I can't describe what I feel but I'm- this painting talks to me. And that's all that's required of a painting. You don't have to tell someone else what it says to you. You can't describe in any painting- if you can describe it too well it's, it's too close to to a paragraph that should have been written instead of a painting. Although I did write something down in a sense to describe because many people will not take the time to allow a painting to work on them. They'll spend maybe 10 minutes and that's the last they'll they'll look at it. Even say the Mona Lisa, they walk by in droves in New York.

Studs Terkel Well I was that 30 second look at the Mona Lisa. That was a part of our cultural explosion.

Gene Hall But I have here a description, as concise as I can make it, I call it. The Black Christ, a patient Christ down off his cross. Why is he not redeeming me? But how can he salvation bring what he is a black and a separate thing. But now that I have thought again and am concerned the most for me I strike the nails forged by my sin. And fixed back- Christ back upon his tree. In other words, that's all I ask. In the painting. What motivated me is that people would allow the black Christ to hang back on the tree and redeem them because they have to be redeemed. They're already redeemed, but in each man, individually, must take it to himself and allow his fellow man to be the Christ. Can I kiss the feet of a black Christ if I don't know he's Christ? Can I kiss the feet of negro? I'd better be able to as St. Francis advocated-

Studs Terkel Well you know, as you as you're saying, I was looking through again, at random, some of the other papers of Paul Mundy's students. And one here, "a symbol of the black Christ being denied something." And the student goes on to write of the negro struggle for dignity. "The suffering is manmade," says another. He just not deserve that cross he's been compelled to bear. So, we come to this theme, this subtext, not worthy of his cross. I mean this has all sorts- it seems to me all sorts of connotations, doesn't it? I mean, you used book of- some of the negro nuns who mis- who interpreted literally and were offended.

Gene Hall Yes. It was exhibited at the Hilton, at the Liturgical Conference that- in the last of August. And there were four nuns, I was told by Father [Dwyer?], who were negro nuns, and they looked at it and they were very shocked at "The Black Christ Not Worthy Of His Cross." And they felt very hurt because they, being negroes, were struck first by the literal translation of the title and Father [Dwyer?], after talking to them for fifteen minutes or so, and explaining that it was a satirical title in a sense and then they understood. But, this just, just shows more how our society has regarded for so long, the negro, and therefore their reaction to it would be in that vein.

Studs Terkel You know, as you're saying this, a young girl- no names on top of the sheet we'll admit, but this again- Paul and your students: "The cross may have become unbearably heavy at times for the negro as it did for Christ and he may stumble. He may stumble to drunkenness or irresponsibility because of the pressure of society represented by the cross. When he does, we who gave him this stigma point to him as an instance of his inferiority." He-her understanding of it I'm sure in a way this is what you had in mind.

Paul Mundy Stud's, I have another one here that I think focuses on something pretty important. This one reads, "Black Christ from the vantage point of a pseudo Christian the phrase rings of a self-contradiction. To be God must mean to be the God of the majority of documentation of personification of racial superiority. That salvation could have come from the heart of a man whose skin was black is not only irrational it is absurd. The inferior cannot give, cannot love, cannot have the right. To be Black is to be unworthy of sacrifice. Would we today have accepted salvation from a Black Christ? Or would we have declared that it is better to have no salvation at all, than salvation at the hands of a Black God? As a Jew in Hitler's Germany, he would have been a victim of mass genocide. As a negro in America, would he not be subject to the same racial hatred and bigotry? To the true Christian, the color of Christ skin must be as incidental as the form of his cross. It is indeed a sad commentary on Christianity that those who call themselves Christians should crucify others on the cross of color."

Studs Terkel This is a powerful paper here, by one of your students. This one of those powerful in your class- by a girl.

Paul Mundy Yes.

Studs Terkel Again, the reaction, I suppose, were there discussions in class too? Was there back

Paul Mundy Yes, very much so. Yeah.

Studs Terkel By the students?

Gene Hall The same- in listening to that, I'm thinking, the cross, and what the cross is, and it could be referred to as war. War could be the cross that we are inflicting on each other. And what right- what did Christ do? Where did Christ say you must kill another man? Or he said turn the other cheek. Resist not evil turn the other cheek. He said forgive and not seven times, but 70 times seven. And yet, we justify the war aspect and that too can be considered in regarding my painting.

Studs Terkel I couldn't help but feel that myself, Gene. And seeing it the first time, it was the barbed wire- that's why the crown of barbed wire. Somehow you think of barbed wire, not only concentration camps as this girl saw it-

Gene Hall Sure.

Studs Terkel But also the barbed wire of No Man's Land of World War One and now beyond. This leads us both to the subject of chaplains, doesn't it? I know that a colleague of Paul Mundy is Gordon Zahn, the eminent sociologist, from Loyola who has written that marvelous book, "The Life and Death of Franz Jagersatter," is now doing a special project on chaplains in England, that was suddenly brought to a stop. But, I know Gene has thoughts about this, having served in the Marines and heard chaplains. This theme again is interwoven here too, would it seem?

Paul Mundy Well I think we certainly see in in the intentional killing of of a human person, the rejection as it were, of this obligation of love this- this torment. And it goes beyond the kind of neglect that I think is conveyed in the painting itself.

Gene Hall Well, and in in the armed forces, the chaplain, the chaplain speaks of Christ and speaks of the beau-speaks the beauty of Christ's words to the troops and never does he say Christ said it was good to kill and he never does he- is he taught to bear arms. And if it is so good to kill, then why doesn't the chaplain bear arms? And the Christian must look at it this way if he follows Christ. You might say what are we to do then? Let ourselves be overrun by the barbarian? And as we regard an enemy. And this is exactly what we should do. The church flourished most in- during the persecutions and actually in following Christ, killing the other man is impossible.

Studs Terkel You talked before we went on the air, you were speaking of your memory, being a member- you were in the toughest of all the branches. You were in the Marines and you heard the chaplain speak of love, not of love, of Christ.

Gene Hall Yes. Just in that sense, that Christ, just what I said that Christ had no- it made no statement where you should kill another man. The most the most violence Christ ever executed was when he drove the money changers from the temple. But then he was, in my estimation, teaching. He was like, they were like children. He had to teach them. This is bad. And so he reprimanded them. He didn't spare the rod. In a sense.

Studs Terkel He was a militant Christ-

Gene Hall Not-

Studs Terkel Not military.

Gene Hall No-

Studs Terkel I didn't mean military- militant and-

Gene Hall Yes-

Studs Terkel As against injustice-

Gene Hall I think in another sense, Studs, we don't regard Christ as human enough. How is Christ taught when he was a child? In a sense we don't know. But the first thing, even regardless of denomination or anything else, the first thing a kid in recreation, is taught to now put on the gloves and defend yourself. Learn to defend yourself, instead of defending the fellow man. And the term soldiers of Christ, you see, to me this is all you know leaning of- I've heard that so-

Studs Terkel "Soldiers of the Cross," the song-

Gene Hall Yes-

Studs Terkel We are-

Gene Hall Yes, or-

Studs Terkel But, soldier there, I think, would that not be used in the same figurative sense, as a non-figurative sense as in your in your painting- metaphorical sense. Soldiers for peace, soldiers for love, rather than

Gene Hall Why soldiers? Why not lovers of peace? You see, I mean, I'm just saying the military, the militant word itself. It's in a sense- you're standing off against, against something else you're standing off against evil. Yet, by the same token, where is the evil? We're so quick to see the evil in the other person, so in a sense we're standing- we're lining up against another person and we have to love our enemies, do good to those who hate you in a sense. That ca-