SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
The late Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB, author of “The History of Black Catholics in the United States” dates the presence of Black Catholics in Florida to 1565, more than 200 years before independence. Black Catholics in the USA teach us faithfulness, and endurance against all odds. We are forever indebted to their gallant struggle for human dignity and social justice, challenging and resisting the onslaught on the humanity of enslaved Africans.
The American ethos states, “If you work hard and play by the rules you can achieve the American Dream.” Enslaved Africans worked as hard or even harder to build the USA; creating wealth and power to people of European descent in the US and Europe. What did enslaved Africans benefit? Endless Nightmare! To justify human by human bondage, slaveholders created the hierarchs of skin color; putting dark skin at the bottom of the color pyramid. This has become an indelible negative stigma in the American psyche.
Scriptures passage were manipulated, justifying Africans as preordained by God for perpetual servitude. The effects of pseudo-theology and pseudo-science still persist, expressed in self-hatred and manifested in the Black-on-Black crimes and especially in our criminal justice system. The state of Wisconsin is leading the nation in disproportionately committing African Americans to the criminal justice system. The late James Cone calls this stigma “ontological blackness,” a universal symbol of oppression. People, “created in the image and likeness of God” pushed to the periphery of human dignity and rights. Racism was invented in a specific period to justify slavery through skin color. Such historical context should move us into action, healing our nation and eradicating racism, its “original sin.”
During the seemingly gloomy and hopeless period of enslavement and oppression, the flicker of hope was never extinguished. For the enslaved Africans, the abolitionist movements were like the Hebrew prophets: admonishing the oppressor and consoling the oppressed. The enslaved Africans were keenly aware that “troubles do not last long” responded to such messages of hope singing in the Spirituals, “Go down Moses, way down to Egypt land, and tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go.” They also shared their agony with that of Jesus on the Cross, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” We need to atone in the words of Prophet Micah, “To do justice and to love goodness, and walk humbly with your God.”
Black Catholics were not deprived of God’s inspiring breeze, either. Saintly individuals and visionary founders of religious society answered to divine calls: Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1863), Venerable Sr. Henriette DeLille (1812-62), Servant of God Mary Lange (1794-1882), Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton (1854-97), Servant of God Julia Greeley (c1833-1918). They are “on the road to sainthood in our time.” The number of African Americans considered for canonization is proportionally higher than other Catholic communities. The saintly life of these people from African Americans’ dark period shows the Spirit of God (John 3:8) cannot be contained by human sinfulness and unjust laws.
In 1984, 10 African American Catholic Bishops issued their pastoral letter, “What We Have Seen and Heard: A Pastoral Letter on Evangelization from the Black Bishops of the United States.” This document has become the blue print to understand the legacy of the Black Catholics in the USA. The Pastoral Letter was forward looking as much as retrieving, memorializing and witnessing the movement of the Holy Spirit in the existence and experience of downtrodden people. The African American experience bridges across denominations; as the forerunner for ecumenical dialogue. The exclusion of Blacks from seeking priestly and religious vocations, the Black Catholic Church relied on the laity for evangelization. Lincoln and Julie Valle were the lay evangelizers of Blacks in Milwaukee at the turn of 20th century. Though sympathetic Bishops, priests, and religious orders to the cause of the African Americans were far and in between, their efforts cannot be minimized. Rome was always keenly aware and took the side of the African American plight. The founders of the National Black Catholic Congress pleaded with Rome to influence the American Catholic Bishops, who for the longest time resisted Rome in favor of the law of the land.
It is against such historical backdrop that the need for Black Catholic History Month became necessary. “The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC)” of the United States voted on Tuesday, July 24, 1990, while meeting in convention at Fordham University in New York, to establish November as Black Catholic History Month. November was selected for the following reasons: All Saints and All Souls Day, St. Martin de Porres Feast Day, the birthday of St. Augustine of Hippo, and the death of Zumbi of Palamers – founder of free-state for Blacks in Brazil – all fall in the month of November.” www.dosp.org/multicultural-2/blackcatholic/black-catholic-history-month-2.