Sunday, January 17, 2010

Testimonial from a Black Catholic

Martin Luther King Day is tomorrow, and a reader has submitted a testimonial to share on the blog regarding the experience as a black Catholic involved with the traditional liturgy, and some of the conflict and sense of cultural alienation involved:
First, some background information. Until last May, I went to an FSSP parish in Mableton, Georgia. I had been going there for three years. Currently, I'm going to my local parish, which is comprised of blacks and Hispanics in roughly equal numbers. The reason why I left was not because I thought that the Novus Ordo is superior (I don't) or because I enjoy the works of Marty Haugen (I don't). To sum up briefly, a bunch of parishioners didn't like this one priest, so they ganged up on him and falsely accused him of every sin imaginable. The secular and religious authorities had to get involved (including the ones in Rome), and the priest ended up resigning from the parish, but was cleared of all charges. Because I believed the priest in question was innocent, this other faction of parishioners ostracized me and wouldn't let their children attend the CCD classes I was teaching. The other faction was also supportive of the SSPX, which I could care less about were it not for the fact that they didn't trust all of the people outside their clique. Aside from the factional disputes, there was also the feeling of cultural alienation. I can't testify to the way traditionalism is in other parts of the world or even other parts of the US, but at the parish I attended the whole neo-Confederacy thing was pretty blatant. In this case, it probably has to do with a pre-existing regional disposition to that kind of ideology. Maybe I should have gotten the clue when the French priest we had when I first started going had a Confederate flag on his car. Apparently, the guy must have been a hard-core monarchist and bought the crap about the South being the only place that traditional Catholicism could have flourished (except that it didn't. Oops).

Another issue I have is over the collective mental explosion of the trads/neo-cons over Obama. In the black community, the Obama candidacy was treated like the natural teleological outcome of more then 400 years of struggle, some thing that I was clearly on the outside of (I did a write-in candidate, because I didn't want to vote for either). Much of the enthusiasm comes from the feeling that the Obama presidency means an end of the feeling of being a metic. The term metic comes from Ancient Athens. Metics were people who were residents of Athens, but not citizens. Many of them had lived in the city-state for many generations, but were still considered foreigners. This has been the traditional situation of blacks in this country; always residents, never citizens. When Obama won the election I thought, "Wow, we've finally made it" and then I felt guilty because of his pro-abortion record and that feeling hasn't left me since. The whole election filled me with a great deal of anxiety, since I was told by my mother that if I didn't vote for Obama then there would be race riots and blacks would be even worse off than they were in the post-Reconstruction era. Then all of these Catholic blogs and writers were saying that if Obama was elected, then it would usher in a Nazi-type government (which was also what my mom said. Strange how Hitler always wins no matter who wins). he crux is the problem is the phenomenon known as "double consciousness" as described by WEB Du Bois in his book The Souls of Black Folk. It refers to an inability to reconcile the twin identities of being black and American, or in this case, it is the difficulties of reconcile black and Catholic identities.

Another example is the annual Catholic blogosphere two minutes of hate about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that seems to occur during the King Holiday.
I've noticed that there seems to be some confusion on the part of many trads/neo-cons as to why black people idolize Dr. King. I would think that it would be obvious, but apparently not. One blog that I recalled reading some years ago complained that black Catholics should be trying to emulate the saints and not some cryto-socialist heretic. Unfortunately, there is no Catholic version of Dr. King or any of the other figures who people black American history. For example, when Coretta Scott King died almost four years ago, there were public masses said in her honor at predominantly black Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Is this against the rubrics? Possibly, but I really can't complain about that. FYI, Coretta Scott King lived the bulk of her adult life in the same house MLK bought for her in 1962. The house itself is located in an Atlanta slum called Vine City, one of the worst parts of town. She was actually burglarized a number of times, including once by a man who killed several other elderly women in the area (when he saw the identity of his newest would-be victim, he fled, showing even criminals respect the Kings). When I think of that, it's apparent to me that Mrs. King honestly cared about the poor blacks in a way that I really can't say about any of the Catholic "cultural warriors" whom I'm supposed to pledge allegiance. I can't just act that the black Protestant church is the "work of Satan" because frankly they've done more for me in many religious, material, and political senses. This isn't a part of my history that I can junk simply because it doesn't fit into the Euro-centrist triumphalism espoused by so many trads/neo-cons. Since American black culture stems in some form or another from the black Protestant church, I wonder if this means then that the entire cultural output of blacks is totally worthless then? It's a terrifying thing to contemplate.

Part of the problem is that the Catholic Church didn't invest much time or energy trying to evangelize or support the interests of America's black population. The Catholic Church was uninterested in the abolitionist movement, because the French priests that were staffing many American parishes at the time equated abolitionism with modernism and Protestantism. It wasn't unusual for priests to inform on slaves who were planning to escape, even if it involved breaking the seal of confession (see Catholics in the Old South by Randall M. Miller for more on this topic). Since the "Black Church" was/is the only wholly black owned institution in America, quite a few blacks who were raised Catholic under slavery converted to Protestantism so they could have control of their own affairs. This is why I think that it’s a mistake to use rhetoric that equates slavery and abortion, since it’s pretty easy to call out the Church’s less than stellar response to the former and claim hypocrisy. In fact, it wasn't until the late 1960s that many Catholic parishes in the North and South became desegregated. In many parishes, blacks had to sit in the back and take communion last - if they were even allowed to enter the building in the first place. As a rule, disenfranchisement makes a poor evangelization tactic. So if you believe that the Catholic Church is the True Church, then the effects of slavery have condemned more than 28 million people to a life of heresy. During my travels on the Catholic blogosphere in particular and the Catholic media in general, I've noticed a failure to acknowledge to black Catholics even exist. For example, writer E. Michael Jones wrote in his book, The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing, that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement (intended to end discrimination against blacks in housing, jobs, and education in Northern slums) was a "liberal plot" to eradicate white ethnic Catholics, conveniently ignoring/forgetting that Chicago contains one of the largest black Catholic communities in the country.

There is an essay by James Baldwin entitled Stranger in the Village that details his experiences in a small Swiss village where he is the only black person that the townsfolk have ever seen. He mentions at one point that these Swiss people have a connection to Western culture that he will never have:

"For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartes says something to them which it cannot say to me..."

When I read that, I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut, because it was/is true. American blacks occupy an odd niche in history, as the "Bastards of Western Civilization," not fully African, but not totally Western. When an American black goes to, say, Ghana, he or she is referred to as obruni or "white foreigner." Despite the best hopes of blacks to find their roots in Africa, many Africans tend not to see a connection with their American cohorts. Meanwhile, current trad/neocon discourse states there is no place in the canon for blacks, not even for a Fredrick Douglass or an Booker T. Washington. Black history, even if a conservative take is being used, is inherently subversive, because it challenges this notion of Manifest Destiny, White Man's BurdenBlack Athena hypothesis or anything like that, but I don't want to be insulted all day either. I may prefer Gregorian chant to gospel music, but I don't want the latter to be written off as heretical "jungle music." Since the percentage of Europeans who comprise the Catholic Church is getting smaller and smaller, I think these issues are going to take on ever more importance. I don't know if any of these things make sense to you or are helpful, but this is part of my take on the situation.


I think these are issues that shouldn't be simply dismissed or ignored by the mainstream Church or traditionalist movement.

We will see what is said of MLK in the Catholic Blogosphere tomorrow. In some ways it seems to be the anti-Columbus Day for a lot of trads. Columbus Day is all glorified (despite the fact that it is clearly not so much a celebration of the figure of Columbus himself as an individual, but of the morally tarnished event of white colonization of the New World), whereas Martin Luther King Day is dismissed or belittled and his own person attacked (despite the fact that it is not so much about celebration of the man in his private life, but of the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement).

But, as Leah describes, important figures of black history are excluded from even the secular American historical canon by trads and conservatives (sometimes having the gall to claim it's only because they are "non-Catholic") a way they would never exclude important non-Catholic
white figures such as the Founding Fathers.

Though, in either case, we do need to recognize the difference between recognizing important historical, or intellectual, or political achievements for a given community on a temporal level, and going to such silly extremes as making them Saints, ala this now infamous picture, which probably just causes more backlash from conservatives and trads:

I've discussed the issue of Euro-centrism and the "Western Civilization" meta-narrative among trads and conservatives, and this seeming expectation that non-Europeans should conform to a neo-colonialist, culture-cringe mentality in general in my post on Globalism.

Though I'm white, one of my complaints about a lot of the untraditional stuff that goes on in our that it's still so unambiguously

For example, while traditional chant is the appropriate music for liturgy, I really like gospel. If the non-traditional music they were using was really emotional, clapping-and-jumping gospel music or black Spirituals...I could at least be touched by that emotionally. Because there is a real history of suffering and struggle behind it, a real pathos. I might be tempted to get behind something like that, it really is organic.

But that's not what they use. For some reason,
that is looked upon as inappropriate for unspecified (and, I suspect, subconsciously racist) reasons...even when totally corny (and totally white) "Christian Rock" is seen as okay for "contemporary" Masses. Anyone seen the South Park episode about "Faith+1"? We have a contemporary choir in my area, and the music really is that bad, that sappy, that pathetic, that cringe-worthy. And yet, its apologists will tell you, it is okay because "the Church can adapt to any appropriate style". Yet, recommend music something like the following video as an at least better alternative if they refuse to use chant and want something "lively," and suddenly those same Guitar Mass people will scowl at you and say, "Well, of course that's inappropriate," and the only distinction I can see is because it's black, and in many Catholics mind, that's just not "who we are." Even when "On Eagle's Wings" (or "Jesus Baby") apparently is...

It's one of those things that survived Vatican II that makes you really question their priorities. Just like mandatory celibacy, this very
white mentality...was kept, even as they destroyed the traditional liturgy and started being ambiguous about the One True Faith in a pluralist way. The traditional Roman Rite, at least, does have some organic connection to Europeans, of course, given that it is the Rite of a specific place that does happen to be European. So a certain white identity among white devotees is perhaps to be expected there. But it is, bizarrely, maintained even in the Novus Ordo milieu, even though that was meant to be a sort of "United Nations Liturgy" from what I can tell. A quote from Arturo Vasquez's amazing blog Reditus describes this better than I:
I suppose this is one of my beefs with apologetics-driven, American conservative Catholicism: it packages Catholicism into a highly marketable, very sensible, very bland, and let’s face it, very American product. In what is easy for Americans to grasp (practical questions and trivia), it brings them up, and in the education in the Catholic ethos (i.e. all the cool stuff), it leaves them right where they are: in the atmosphere of the suburban strip-mall.
An atmosphere that is, of course, quintessentially white. White American without even any of the organic connection to European history that it is implicit in the traditional Roman Rite.

This Euro-centrism, this implicit pressure for non-whites to assimilate culturally or else be branded as not "true" something we need to deconstruct.


George said...

"For some reason, THAT is looked upon as inappropriate for unspecified (and, I suspect, subconsciously racist) reasons...even when totally corny (and totally white) 'Christian Rock' is seen as okay for 'contemporary' Masses...yet, its apologists will tell you, it is okay because 'the Church can adapt to any appropriate style'. Yet, recommend [gospel] music as an at least better alternative if they refuse to use chant and want something 'lively'...and suddenly those same Guitar Mass people will scowl at you and say, 'Well, of course THAT's inappropriate,' and the only reason I can glean is because it's black..."

oh wow. i never really thought about it, but of course that's true. even liturgically liberal catholics, like the charismatics, who use all sorts of contemporary music and very energetic styles, do usually seem to draw the line at black-church music. stick with their sappy "jesus is my boyfriend" schmaltz. very odd, but very interesting.

Jonathan said...

I can relate to quite a few of the things listed in Leah's testimony. I come from a culture infused with quite a few trappings of The Era of Conquest (ie The Casta System and Pureza de Sangre, etc.). Mind you these all occurred under CATHOLIC colonial rule, something I had trouble reconciling for quite some time. Before I get attacked, I am aware that non Catholic colonial powers also did the same, but the fact that it was allowed to persist within a Catholic context is beyond me.

There is a particular figure whose fate is quite tragic, his name was Hatuey ( ).

Jonathan said...

As you can see at the moment he is about to be executed, he is asked if he wishes to be baptized and accept Christ. Sadly he refuses. But if we take a chance to look at the entire narrative, we see his reason for doing so. It wasn't because he believed his "gods" to be better or because he was some "ignorant savage". He refused because of the EXAMPLE of The Catholic Faith given by The Conquistadors (read his statement about gold being the god of The Spaniards and his question about Heaven to the Priest.). Am I saying he was right, no, but the fact that stories like these are considered part of "the liberal agenda" is ridiculous.

Not that I am trying to go off topic, but my point is the witness of Black Catholics along with that of Native American (pick your term of choice)Catholics are very much overlooked. I remember writing to a local Catholic newspaper asking them to publish an article on Native American Catholicism and was refused. This came about after an article advertising an event detailing the struggles (and by extension witness) of Catholic Immigrants from the 1800s etc. (namely The Irish, Germans,Italians, Polish, etc.). I personally had no problem with the exhibition as it is an undeniable part of American Catholic history, but the fact that an article on The FIRST Catholics of "The New World"(Specifically what would come to be The USA) was refused (without and explanation at that) is unacceptable.

Jonathan said...

Before I begin to rant (gets off soap box* (Don't get me started on The Judaic character of The Church and Christ etc.)), I want to bring my statements back full circle and present the following; The majority (if not all) of Black/African Saints and Blesseds are somehow connected with Slavery or discrimination based on their skin tone. This troubles me sometimes, I mean what does that say to a person of African or mixed descent :

Blessed Henriette DeLille

St.Martin de Porres

St.Moses The Black/Ethiopian

Blessed Pierre Toussaint

St. Josephine Bakhita

Escrava Anastacia

These are just a few off the top of my head.

St. Charles Lwanga may be one of few exceptions, but nonetheless he is a relatively recent Saint and not one of the more popular ones. I realize others have been slaves and discriminated against, but nonetheless these are the more popular of Black/African Saints people are familiar with.

I recall having called quite a few Catholic religious supply vendors asking for a statue "El Cristo Negro" (The Black Nazarene) and the retail associate going silent, asking me to repeat/explain myself. I mean really, have we not come far enough in Church history that when I ask for a Cristo Negro that I do not get a strange look ? I must say however that one associate was somewhat saddened after I explained the devotion to this particular image of Christ. He was saddened, because it was an image he was not familiar with. He wasn't resentful, but told me to keep trying for it.

Here is a blog entry someone on the net made on their reflections on the devotion, while they were in Panama : . I don't think the blogger is Catholic, but still it is a valid observation.

Now mind you, I know that Christ wasn't Sub Saharan African etc., BUT I do know however that He was/is from The Middle East. Knowing this, it leaves the spectrum of what Christ's complexion may have been quite open. He may have been light or He may have been dark, the point is He is/was a HEBREW. He probably consumed pita, stuffed grape leaves, kibbeh etc., nonetheless it does not take away from the fact that He is The Son of GOD, The Second Person of The Most Holy Trinity, who came to save us. Why then are His Hebrew origins so often ignored or seen as controversial ? Yes I promised I wouldn't rant, but these are quite a few things we as Catholics should be able to discuss. Why are Hebraic, Black etc. depictions of Christ so highly controversial and politicized ? Frankly I'd be happier with a more Hebraic depiction of Christ, but have no problems with the other depictions. I just get annoyed when people get their panties in a bunch over "non-conforming" images of Christ.

While on the subject, I particularly love the fact that “black” depictions of The Virgin are called just that, “Black Madonnas”. Why can’t they be referred to by their place of origin, La Virgen de Regla (Our Lady of Regla), etc. . A Mexican acquaintance of mine once told me Our Lady Te Coatlaxopeuh (Thank you very much to The Nahuatl speaking apparition of The Virgin.) was not LA VIRGEN (THE VIRGIN). He was not say that she was not an apparition of The Virgin, but rather she was the “little” Virgin placed to a corner that people prayed to, but she was never LA VIRGEN (ie The Main Altar Virgin so to speak.). He like me has a LOVE for what people call Virgenes Morenas (Dark Skinned Virgins). But nonetheless it brings up an important point, why the pitting of one Virgin, Saint, etc. against the other.

This is a perfect segue into the subject of folk Catholicism (and Syncretic religions) amongst non majority Catholic groups ("minorities"), but I don't want to get more off topic than I already have.

Jonathan said...

I believe it is pertinent to make mention of the earthquake which recently hit Haiti.

I was saddened and angered (but not surprised) by come of the statements people made related to the earthquake victims. Some statements ranged from the Haitians had it coming (and no I am not referring to Pat Robertson's statements) to who cares about the earthquake, we have hundreds of people hungry and dying here. Mind you I know that the latter is true, but since when is it Christian to revel in the misfortunes of another group. I mean really anyone with a properly formed conscience cannot help but feel sorry for the victims.

I am not advocating that people be coerced into donating to charities. But I do not think making snide remarks at the misfortune of another is called for. Haiti may have its problems, but I think they pale in comparison with the rest of The Western World. What happens when we get OUR wake up call (I am not calling down judgement on The West, because that is not who I am, not to mention I do not have that authority.)?

Haiti and the rest of the world' "banana republics" are the way they are, because of year of exploitation, what happens when there no longer is teat to suckle from ? Just something for people to think about.

Ben said...

Leah needs to start a blog. Excellent stuff.

Leah said...

Actually, it turns out that the house on Sunset was bought in 1965, not 1962 (I'm a stickler for detail). Part of the problem is that a lot of apologetics materials, from Ignatius Press to Angelus Press, love talking about how the Catholic Church built Western Civilization, a statement that I find debatable (Even during the supposedly uniformly Catholic Middle Ages there were Jewish ghettos, Roma communities, and other outliers). But unless you're specifically trying to target white psuedo-intellectual political conservatives, that's not a very good argument as to why the Catholic Church is preferable to say, the Church of God in Christ or the AME Zion church, both of which are "rich in history" to borrow a phrase to the black community. If you already feel somewhat alienated from Western Civilization, why would you care about whether the Church built said culture? I'd be interested to know what motivates people in Africa or Asia to become Catholic as opposed to some Protestant or Pentecostal denomination.

The issue of "black Jesus" vs "white Jesus" used to be a very thorny issue among black Christians. One of the major critiques of black nationalists in the 1950s and 60s was that Christianity was making black people worship a god that was blond-haired and blue-eyed. This is probably why black images of Jesus tend to predominate in modern black churches, while "white Jesus" images have virtually disappeared, unless you're in a historic church.

Interestingly, it's not unusual to go into some black (Protestant) churches and see MLK and other civil rights figures in the stained glass windows. One church in Montgomery even has a window depicting the famous bus boycott. I'm sure many whites would probably find that to be blasphemous, but from a teleological black history perspective, it makes perfect sense.

A Sinner said...

"Part of the problem is that a lot of apologetics materials, from Ignatius Press to Angelus Press, love talking about how the Catholic Church built Western Civilization...But unless you're specifically trying to target white psuedo-intellectual political conservatives, that's not a very good argument as to why the Catholic Church is preferable to say, the Church of God in Christ or the AME Zion church, both of which are "rich in history" to borrow a phrase to the black community. If you already feel somewhat alienated from Western Civilization, why would you care about whether the Church built said culture?"

A VERY good point, and something that white trads and neoconservative Catholics just dont seem to get. This encapsulates what I was trying to say in my post on Globalism.

Jonathan said...

@ Leah: I agree with what you are saying, but I am referring to the historical Black Christs, Madonnas etc. which exist within The Catholic Church. There are quite a few of them that are quite old. Our Lady of Regla created by St.Augustine is a TRUE Black Madonna. According to the history of the image it appears that she was created black and not a result of soot, etc. on the image. Why are people offended by such images and see them as "political" in nature.

@Mark: Nonetheless there will always exist the knee jerk reaction to always "correct" that which is traditional to another group, but foreign to us. National parishes in The US are a perfect example of this on a macro scale and Traditionalist xenophobia (at least in the states) to practices which are foreign to their cultural heritage on a micro level. Folk Catholicism is a perfect example of this "dichotomy" which exists between what is done in Church and what is done amongst the masses at home. But I don't want to get off topic.

Leah said...

Jonathan: Yes, I understood what you were saying. I think I just went off on my own tangent. To bring both thoughts together, I think that some people are offended by historical black Madonnas because they assume that if a Madonna is black that there must be a political motive behind it, even if the image in question is more than 500 years old. I also think that in many people's minds, having a "white Madonna" (either in the racial or artistic sense) is traditional and anything else is a novelty, even though it should be obvious that Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, etc. would have been swarthy in complexion.

Jonathan said...

It is quite sad that such an attitude is retained by some in the pews. I guess I should just come out with it and ask, is there room in The Church for those who aren't part of the accepted norm (traditions, cultural heritage, etc.) ?

Jonathan said...

Carpe Diem said...

Forbidden titles:

"Testimonial of a Polish Catholic in white Christian America"

"Testiminial of a Black African educated in white, Catholic Poland"

"The 1960's origins of the Traditionalist movement"