What better way to introduce our readers to more black Catholic writers than to ask a selection of black Catholic intellectuals to tell us about their favorite books by their fellow writers? We are happy to present this rich cross section of men and women and a mix of history, biography, liturgy, music and fiction that presents a broader picture of creativity and the Catholic Church in the United States.
James H. Cone, the foremost advocate of a U.S. black liberation theology, is the author of nine books. The most recent is a meditation on one of the most horrifying phenomena in the troubled history of U.S. race relations: lynching—the brutally savage, extrajudicial, sadistic torture and killing of African-Americans, mostly men. Describing it with uncharacteristic understatement as “a shameful and painful way to die,” Cone details how these executions—which included shootings, hangings and burnings, often accompanied by excruciating dismemberment—were public spectacles and widely advertised events that occurred with the “widespread knowledge” of government officials and the “tacit approval” of white churches. Cone notes that these vicious events were intended to bolster white social dominance and to silence any challenge to white rule. Thus our author describes lynching as “a ritual celebration of white supremacy” and the ultimate expression of U.S. callousness concerning the lives of African-Americans and other persons of color.
Cone probes lynching’s two-fold theological significance. First, he details how lynching was both sanctioned by white Christianity and ignored by its leading theologians. Lynching was the tragic consequence of a faith-based worldview that considered white supremacy a “divine right” to be protected by any means necessary.
Second, Cone sees in lynching an “analogy” with the cross of Jesus. He believes that the cross and the lynching tree need each other. The cross needs the lynching tree “to remind Americans of the reality of suffering—to keep the cross from being a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety.” But without the cross, the lynching tree “becomes simply an abomination,” devoid of hope. The cross, then, enables Christians to stand in solidarity with the victims of unjust suffering who endure contemporary social crucifixions.
Cone unearths the little acknowledged shadow of brutal terrorism that haunts the racial divisions that still plague us. He shows, with stark clarity, how lynching’s logic continues to sustain public indifference toward persons of color, especially those who are poor. And yet he also reveals how authentic faith leads to genuine cross-racial solidarity. This book is a worthy addition to Cone’s lifelong project of relentless truth-telling with matchless courage.
Bryan N. Massingale is professor of theological ethics at Marquette University and the author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.
Read the book by Leonard Pitts, and the Civil War is not very far away. I am now 84 years old. My great grandmother was living when I was a boy and I used to visit her. Had I been a little older I could have asked her many things. The family would not have liked me writing about slavery. My family was shamed about slavery, but my great grandmother would not have been ashamed about being a slave. She always talked about the past. She was frank and open. When I think about my age, I realize now that slaves and slavery are still close by.
Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., author of The History of Black Catholics in the United States, is a monk and scholar at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana.
Negro spirituals and gospel music accompany and enliven the liturgies of many black Catholic parishes. Historically, the musical arrangements and performance prowess of landmark groups like the Golden Gate Quartet, forged one of the important links between these distinct genres of music. Less known is a direct connection, through the lives of a black Catholic family, between this pre-eminent quartet and the liturgical music utilized by present-day black Catholic communities.
The Golden Gate Quartet sang “Bible stories with a beat.” To a traditional “jubilee” quartet style of singing spirituals, the Gates added a Mills Brothers-influenced use of their voices as musical instruments. Willie T. Johnson (1913-80) was co-founder, arranger-composer, vocal coach, storied narrator and business manager for the group from 1931 until 1943 and again in 1946 and ’47. Through his efforts, and based on the group’s recordings, radio and film exposure and the support of powerful, progressive friends during segregated times, the Gates garnered international renown.
Numerous accolades, underscored by the events and locations referred to in her father’s Los Angeles Times obituary, surprised the author Chandra J. Johnson. Could a head custodian for the Los Angeles Unified School District and the taciturn father of a faith-filled black Catholic family be the same man who mentored Elvis Presley in singing, and performed at Carnegie Hall for New York City’s staunchly integrated Café Society and in the legendarily segregated Constitution Hall for a presidential inauguration concert?
Without realizing their father’s fame, the Johnson siblings sang along with his recordings as children. Willa Mae (Burke) and Willie T. Johnson, converting from the Baptist and Pentecostal traditions of their upbringing, chose Catholic education and faith formation for their children. The family became deeply involved in Transfiguration parish, eventually leading music for liturgies and retreats. The Gates arrangements that filled Kevin Johnson’s childhood home inspired and often influenced his widely used liturgical and choral music as he became a prominent contemporary composer, scholar and choral director.
Willie T. follows a daughter’s loving search for her father’s past. Adding to the appreciation of the challenges for African-Americans of each era, Johnson places the results of her research within their relevant historical context.
Kim R. Harris is co-composer of Welcome Table: A Mass of Spirituals and specializes in performing and promoting the liturgical, historical and popular understanding of Negro spirituals and civil rights freedom songs.
More than 40 years after the first publication of The Spirituals and the Blues (1972), this book’s central message still rings true. To encounter God today, we need to internalize the hopes of those who are and have been oppressed by centuries of anti-black terror. God draws close to us in their songs and struggles. Their spirituality is the heart of a black theology of liberation. Moreover, this spirituality has something crucial to offer any theology worthy of the name.
One of Cone’s best known teachings is that “God is black.” This book helps one better understand why he holds this view. Cone does not merely argue that blackness is a valid way to imagine God because all humans, whatever their color, are created in the image of God. More forcefully, he contends that God is black because, in a slave-holding society and in any society still haunted by its horrors (like ours), the only God worthy of worship is one who hears the prayers of the slaves, enters into their lives to the point of radical identification with them, condemns the evil deeds of their oppressors and opens a path to the slaves’ (and finally both parties’) integral freedom. In order to pray truly and thereby become a true Christian in such a society, one must pray and show obedience to the God who is actively present in the black slaves’ struggles and is faithfully adored by them—that is, the black God.
This is a vocation for all Christians, but it is an especially important and demanding vocation for white Christians who may still (perhaps unwillingly) be devoted to an idolatrous god that disregards black suffering. Like the psalms, the spirituals are for the whole church and should spur its further conversion.
Andrew Prevot is an assistant professor of theology at Boston College.
For generations, religious and educational institutions have shaped the lives of African-Americans. From the independent black churches that emerged in antebellum America to the religious communities of black Catholic women dedicated to educating black children in the 19th century, free and enslaved people of African descent placed their trust in the power of faith and education to liberate, lift and promote. Through organizing and leading religious and educational institutions, blacks helped shape their own lives and those of future generations. One of the oldest and most important of these institutions, Dunbar High School, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1870, is the subject of a recent book by the journalist Alison Stewart.
Stewart’s book, First Class, is for all who love history and biography, for those who believe education is the key to a better world and for those who seek to understand the complexity and richness of African-American lives. As the daughter of Dunbar alumni, Stewart grew up hearing about legendary Dunbar, its faculty and its students. More important, she experienced the ways Dunbar shaped the character, convictions and commitments of her parents and their friends.
For over 100 years, Dunbar alumni have made major contributions to their communities as doctors, lawyers, business executives, scholars, artists (fine and performing), authors and especially as teachers. Stewart’s book looks at why Dunbar came into being shortly after the Civil War and how it successfully educated generations of black youth from all social backgrounds to strive for academic excellence. She presents the positive and negative effects of the civil rights movement, particularly school for, on Dunbar, and the possibility of today’s Dunbar to revive a belief in and commitment to academic excellence for African-American students in Washington, D.C. First Class is about the power of schools, teachers, parents and especially students to use education to make a positive difference locally and globally.
Cecilia A. Moore is an associate professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
There are certain books that need to be read and reread to get the full impact of their message. Black Pain by Terrie M. Williams is such a book. In powerful and courageous words she writes about the experience within the black community of journeying with a pain so deep that it has been hidden from view for generations.
An Ethiopian proverb says that as long as the pain is hidden, one cannot be healed. Terrie has uncovered the pain that dwells within the black community, a pain that just looks like “we are not hurting” but has done tremendous damage to our sisters and brothers of various ages and backgrounds.
The spiritual journey is shaped by sharing one’s story, speaking the truth and allowing oneself to be transformed. Williams, a clinical social worker, shares her own story of over 30 years of depression. During this time she managed a successful media relations company while journeying with a debilitating depression that affected her health as well as her relationships and work.
The truth of her story speaks to the ways in which depression manifests itself within the black community and how its insidiousness has deprived so many of a life of hope. This book could be transformative for anyone with the courage and openness to read it.
The chapters address various constituencies within the black community—for example: the black woman: “I’m Not Your Superwoman: Overworked, Undervalued and Under Pressure”; the black male: “I Wish it Would Rain; Black Men and Depression”; and the young: “It’s a Hard Knock Life; The Young and the Depressed.” She also shares her insights about how the church working with mental health professionals can assist with the incapacitating dimensions of depression. Williams ultimately writes about how she and others need to break the silence and begin the healing process and she offers suggestions on how to do just that.
As one who works with many who are hiding their pain as they try to navigate today’s society, I have found this book to be a must read and highly recommend it to all.
C. Vanessa White is assistance professor of spirituality and ministry and director of the Tolton Ministry Formation Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is co-editor of the book Song of Our Hearts and Meditations of Our Souls.
In this work, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., critiques the black churches’ tendency to be radical on issues of racial justice yet reactionary regarding women, homosexuality and immigration, among other things.
He asks: “What is the true nature and purpose of the church?” and responds by analyzing the thought of black and womanist theologians regarding the church’s mission and examining the responses of the churches and their pastors. He laments especially the growing gap between these two groups at a time when it is of vital importance for the black church to be in dialogue. Calling the divide unfortunate and unnecessary, Warnock calls for an ongoing dialogue between black and womanist theologians and black pastors in order to enable the black church to serve, as it once did, as both a source of personal salvation and a forum and advocate for social protest for a black community in dire need of its strength, compassion and resources.
“Is the mission of the black church to save souls or to transform the social order? Or both?” Warnock highlights four moments along a liberationist trajectory of African-American faith: Christianization, the enslaveds’ redemption of Christian faith; institutionalization, resulting in the emergence of independent black churches; conscientization, the civil rights and other movements; and systematization, the articulation of black faith in black and womanist theologies. Lastly, Warnock calls for a fifth moment, integrative, resulting in a fully realized self-critical liberationist movement within the church and community.
I chose this work because of its emphasis on the need for dialogue between theologians and the church, pastors and parishioners alike. Many of the issues raised are applicable not only for blacks in the Catholic Church but for other Catholics who still find themselves marginalized. Black and womanist theologies are still little known in the Catholic community and their solidarity with feminist, mujerista, Asian, Native American, Latino/a and other theologians is still overlooked. This work encourages all of those historically marginalized in our church and others who find themselves increasingly marginalized, such as gays and women in general, to work in solidarity to overcome the divide between personal piety and social justice that threatens the stability and viability of the universal Catholic Church.
Diana L. Hayes is emerita professor of theology at Georgetown University.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Breaking Barriers,” in the July 7-14, 2014, issue.