Racism based on skin color is a social construct. We can almost pinpoint when it started, leading up to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Racism is an affront to the sanctity of life and the human dignity, created in the image and likeness of God. As Catholics, in the Acts of Contrition, we pray, “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”
We also renew Baptismal promises by affirmative response, “I do,” rejecting all the devil’s works and empty promises. Yet calling “racism America’s original sin” has become a cliché with little motivation to eradicate it from our personal and community life. History teaches us that there was pre-racism Europe, evidenced by the presence of shrines and devotions dedicated to Black Madonna and saints.
The Christian tradition of East and West uses icons as pictorial forms of catechism. Looking closely at the icons, most of them use darker shades of color and, in many instances, frizzy hair. Eastern Churches follow faithfully the iconography rubrics. Therefore, there is no evidence of racializing icons; though, with a passage time, icons reflected the resemblance of the local people. This approach is compatible to incarnating the Gospel into the local culture of the faithful. Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego as a native/indigenous girl, is a typical example. Most Americans, regardless of their ethnic origin or race, have no issues relating to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Such practices follow a long history in popular devotions in Western Europe.
We have to look at the history of Black Madonna and other black saints venerated in Western Europe to extract ourselves from a skin color-obsessed society. The icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa (Poland) is a prime example, bridging the East and West Christian tradition.
Icons of Theotokos depicted in darker skin are common in Eastern Churches. There are several shrines dedicated to Black Madonna in Western Europe as well. The most famous ones are the following: The Sanctuary of Oropa (Italy), Mary and Child of Monteserrat (Spain), Our Lady of the Pillar, Chartes (France). For centuries, Catholic Christians continued to express their devotion without reservation. Such devotional practice predated the social construct of racism based on skin color. Having such historical facts should give us hope in fighting to overcome racism and discrimination.
In Western Europe, these devotions were never limited to Black Madonna. The most notable Black Saints are St. Maurice and Companion Martyrs (third century) (Switzerland). He was a leader of a Roman legion who came from Thebes, Egypt. This gives us another clue that the ancient Egyptians were Black. St. Maurice was the patron saint of the German Holy Roman Emperors. St. Zeno (300-371) was a Bishop of Verona (Italy) and a theologian. He could have crossed paths with St. Augustine of Hippo. His African heritage is well recorded, coming from Mauritania. St. Iphigenia of Ethiopia, also known as the Abyssinian, is another famous saint from the early Church venerated in the East and West. Her famous shrine is in Portugal. These three Saints are well known in the West, which highlights racism as a recent construct which did not affect our ancestors. These icons, shrines and saints are additional evidence that Africa was not neophyte Christianity, but rather a critical contributor the development of the early Church.