It took james h. cone four weeks to write his first book, Black Theology and Black Power, a work surging with revolutionary expectation. It took him six years to write his latest work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a book of haunting sorrow and beauty.

Staring at the pictures of tortured black victims was too much to bear on a weekly basis. Writing about them was slow and tortuous. On numerous occasions he had to push the manuscript away. I learned to stop asking him if he was making progress on the book; he could tell me only so many times that he was proceeding “like a turtle.” But it helped that Cone is a Christian theologian who had never quite gotten clear on what he wanted to say about the cross of Jesus. The cross helped him grapple with the lynching tree,...

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