November is Black Catholic History Month. In 1990, during their convention at Fordham University in New York, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States voted to establish November as Black Catholic History Month. November was chosen because of the number of important dates to the World’s Black Catholics that fall within this month. These dates are as follows:
November 1st: All Saints’ Day, an opportunity to review the lives of the hundreds of Saints of African descent in the first 300 years of the Church.
November 2nd: All Souls Day: a time to remember all those African lost to cruel treatment in the Middle Passage crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
November 3rd: Feast of St. Martin de Porres, the only Saint of African descent in the Western hemisphere
November 13th: The birth of St. Augustine in 354 A.D., the first Doctor of the Church from North Africa.
November 20th: The death of Zumbi of Palmares in Brazil, a symbol of African resistance to Portuguese slavery for Afro-Brazilians.
It is estimated that there are approximately 270 million Catholics of African descent throughout the world. They represent almost 25% of the World’s one billion Roman Catholics.
There are an estimated 141 million Roman Catholics in Africa, with the largest communities in Nigeria (34 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (28 million), Tanzania (10 million), and Uganda (10 million). The tallest Catholic Church is actually in the Ivory Coast, Our Lady of Peace Basilica of Yamoussoukro, which stands at 518 feet tall.
This text is important for several reasons. First, it chronicles the conversion of the first Black person in recorded Christian history. Second, the text suggests that the man was a wealthy, literate, and powerful emissary of the Nubian Queen and also a faithful, practicing Jew prior to his baptism. Clearly, he was not an ignorant heathen. Third, the Ethiopian Eunuch’s conversion predates the conversions of Saints Paul and Cornelius. Most significantly, many cite this conversion as the very moment when the church changed from a Hebrew and Hellenist community to the truly Universal and Catholic Church.
In the United States, there are 1300 Black Catholic Parishes, with 250 African American Priests and 300 African American Sisters. There are currently 13 Black Bishops in the US. The first Black Seminary in the US was established in St. Augustine Seminary in Greenville, Mississippi. In 1958, American Bishops declared that racism was immoral.
According to Father Cyprian Davis O.S.B., it is important for Black Catholics to know their history. He states:
Black Catholics want a sense of being Catholic, especially if they are converts; but they don’t want to be cut off from their roots. They desperately need and want a sense of identity. So many were not able to tell their children about what it means to be black Catholics or about black saints or black priests. But now they have that background information, and they can use it. They have a good reason to be Catholic and to be proud of it and not feel they have given up being black.
According to Davis, many African Americans have left the Roman Catholic Church. He explains:
…I think part of it was because the church probably didn’t have the personnel to minister to the blacks and also because the church tended to be racist. Louisiana, however, was a special case. Archbishop Francis Janssens of New Orleans was committed to the cause of blacks and the idea of a black clergy. He began to establish black parishes in the late 19th century. Later it became the law to provide blacks with their own parishes.
After the civil-rights movement started, bishops in the South began to open parishes so that everyone could attend the same church. What that meant most of the time, though, was that the black churches were closed down. What no one realized was that a whole infrastructure of parish life among black Catholics was being dismantled. When the black church was closed and the parishioners were told, “You’re now to go to the regular church,” there was really no place for them. In their own churches they had formed a choir, been the chief ushers and part of the council, had a place to play, and a vital social life; and now suddenly it was gone. White parishes had no place for them.
Roman Catholic History in the United States is troubling for African Americans because the vast majority of Roman Catholics supported slavery and were in opposition to its abolition. Father Davis explains:
The abolitionists opposed slavery on moral grounds and were usually very religious, well-educated people coming from establishment backgrounds. Yet many had an intellectual disdain for the Catholic Church. They often saw Catholics as lower-class immigrants with a bigoted religion, so Roman Catholics in this country saw the abolitionists as their enemy.
There were, however, other reasons for church support of slavery, one of which was exemplified by Archbishop Martin Spalding, who was the bishop of Louisville at the time of the Civil War and later became the archbishop of Baltimore. Spalding wrote a letter to the Vatican and explained his own version of the sociopolitical situation in America at the time. Though he talked about slavery as an evil, he said it would be worse to free the slaves because they would end up becoming drunkards or homeless people. Yet later, as archbishop of Baltimore, Spalding was the one bishop concerned about what to do with the freed slaves and really made an effort to begin evangelization.
The opposition to slavery that existed wasn’t organized, even among Catholics. The first bishop in the country who really took a public stand in support of the Union and the emancipation of slaves was Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, who, along with his brother, decried slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War. Later, however, Purcell met his downfall because Cincinnati became bankrupt and bishops were not happy that Purcell broke ranks.
Another outspoken Catholic abolitionist was Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell. Out of religious conviction, O’Connell saw slavery as a great evil. He castigated the Irish in America who were sending him money to fight for Irish emancipation from English rule while supporting slavery in the U.S. O’Connell sat in the British Parliament with his enemies who were opposed to religious freedom in Ireland and Irish rights, but he worked with them to end slavery in the British West Indies.
Claude Maistre, a French priest originally from the Diocese of Troyes in France, who worked a while in the Chicago area and ended up in New Orleans at the time of the Civil War, also took a very strong stand against slavery. In fact, the archbishop told him to stop preaching against slavery, but he refused. Ultimately, he put Maistre’s church under interdict to get him to stop.
By and large, the Catholic opposition against slavery, however, was found more firmly in Europe than in the United States.
American Catholic seminaries and university were some of the last academic institutions in the US to admit Black students. The first African American Priest who identified as Black was Father Augustus Tolton, who was ordained in 1886 in Rome because no American seminary would accept him. He established the Saint Monica Catholic Church in Chicago.
Father Tolton was raised as a Catholic by his parents who were slaves. According to Father Davis:
His mother, Martha Chisely Tolton, was a Catholic slave from Kentucky who became part of the dowry of a young lady who married and move to Missouri. Martha married a slave named Peter Paul Tolton, who was also a Catholic. They had three children; Augustus was the second. When Peter died, Martha decided to leave the plantation with her children and cross the Mississippi River at Hannibal and go to Quincy in Illinois, which was a free state.
Martha was very insistent that her children get a Catholic education, despite being treated very badly by the Catholics. Two priests in Quincy, One German and one Irish, befriended Augustus. He then decided he wanted to become a priest, and the two priests tried to find a seminary for him, but they really couldn’t; no one would accept this young man who was black. The German priest joined the Franciscans and through one of the Franciscans there in Quincy, Tolton was able to take courses at Quincy College. Eventually the minister general of the Franciscans arranged for him to go to Rome and become a seminarian at the Urban College. It was almost like a fairy tale.
Tolton was supposed to go to Africa after he was ordained. When the time came, however, the cardinal prefect said that America was a great nation and needed to see a black priest. So he sent Tolton back to the U.S.
It was a triumphant return, and the whole city of Quincy was there for his first Mass. But after he started work as a pastor of a parish, there was a racial conflict between another priest and him. Tolton almost had a nervous breakdown. He was not at all assertive and wanted to leave the diocese. Tolton never told the cardinal prefect back in Rome what was happening; and when word did get back to the cardinal prefect, he was very upset. Luckily for Tolton, Archbishop Patrick Feehan of Chicago wanted to have a black priest, so Tolton was sent there and formed the black parish of St. Monica’s.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II addressed the Black Catholic community of New Orleans. He stated:
I express my deep love and esteem for the black Catholic community in the United States. Its vitality is a sign of hope for society. Composed as you are of many lifelong Catholics, and many who have more recently embraced the faith, together with a growing immigrant community, you reflect the Church’s ability to bring together a diversity of people united in faith, hope and love, sharing a communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit. I urge you to keep alive and active your rich cultural gifts. Always profess proudly before the whole Church and the whole world your love for God’s word; it is a special blessing which you must for ever treasure as a part of your heritage. Help us all to remember that authentic freedom comes from accepting the truth and from living one’s life in accordance with it – and the full truth is found only in Christ Jesus. Continue to inspire us by your desire to forgive – as Jesus forgave – and by your desire to be reconciled with all the people of this nation, even those who would unjustly deny you the full exercise of your human rights.
My dear brothers and sisters of the black community: it is the hour to give thanks to God for his liberating action in your history and in your lives. This liberating action is a sign and expression of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which in every age is effective in helping God’s people to pass from bondage into their glorious vocation of full Christian freedom. And as you offer your prayer of thanksgiving, you must not fail to concern yourselves with the plight of your brothers and sisters in other places throughout the world. Black Americans must offer their own special solidarity of Christian love to all people who bear the heavy burden of oppression, whatever its physical or moral nature.
The National Black Catholic Congress’ Website
National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus’ Website
Global Count of Catholics of African Descent, includes a breakdown by country
Interview Father Cyprian Davis O.S.B.
Archdiocese of Chicago Office for Black Catholics Website
Archdiocese of Washington Office of Black Catholics Website
Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Black Catholic Ministries Website
An African’s gift to the Vatican: the world’s largest church – Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Basilica of Our Lady of Peace by Hans Massaquoi (article available online)
Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr is a poet, playwright, essayist and short story writer. Her life has taken her from the Benin port city of Cotonou to the artistic hub of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s. Although retired from academia, she still works diligently as a writer and supporter of African and African diasporic artistic expression.
I first discovered Ismaili while reading The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry, edited by Malawian writers Stella and Frank Chipasula. In this book, Ismaili is listed as a Nigerian poet. However, in French-speaking circles, Ismaili is considered as a Beninois writer.
Ismaili was born in 1941 in Cotonou, Benin. Cotonou is a port city and the largest city in Benin, often considered the country’s economic capital. Ismaili’s mother was from Benin but her father was from Kano in Northern Nigeria. Ismaili grew up with her maternal grandparents in Cotonou. She studied at her grandfather’s Koran School and at a Catholic missionary school. After her mother’s death, she was sent to a boarding school in France where she stayed for six years. At 15, she married a Nigerian who was studying in New York. She was able to get a bursary in order to study in New York as well. New York has been her home ever since.
Ismaili hoped to become Africa’s first opera singer. She studied for a BA in Music at The New York College of Music as a Voice major, with a minor in literature. She also studied musical theatre at Mannes School of Music. However, Ismaili went on to study psychology because she felt that this would be more useful for an African who hoped to help shape the newly independent West Africa of the 1960s. She studied for a Masters in Social Psychology at The New School for Social Research and later obtained a PhD in Psychology from the State University of New York (SUNY).
Eventually divorcing her husband, Ismaili worked throughout her graduate studies in order to support herself and her son Daoud Samir. However, she also partook of the local arts scene, particularly the burgeoning Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. She followed its poets, painters, and playwrights but also its dancers. She befriended the likes of Virginia Cox, Tom Feelings, Ellen Stewart, and Amiri Baraka (back when he was LeRoi Jones). She discovered the dance studio of Syvilla Fort. Fort was a leading teacher of the Dunham technique, which was rooted in the dance traditions of Africa, Haiti, and Trinidad. She also developed her own Afro-Modern Technique, which incorporated more modern styles of dance. At this studio, Ismaili had the opportunity to meet the young dancers, singers and actors who came to learn movement and dance.
Ismaili went on to have a successful career in academia, both as a lecturer and administrator. She is noted for her expertise in the literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude. She has written essays and lectured on African Writers, such as Mariama Ba, as well as African American writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. In 2000, she retired as Associate Director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a position she held for 15 years.
Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr continues to live in Harlem and now writes full-time as well as conducting workshops, lectures, and seminars on a variety of subjects from the history of African American dance, to anti-war poetry readings. She also is asked to speak and perform at conferences across the United States as well as internationally. She is helped develop the curricula and is a faculty member of the online Masters in Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She is the second vice-president of Pen and Brush, an organization founded in 1894 that is dedicated to supporting women working the fields of literary, visual and performing arts.
Home to Harlem
In her essay, Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side, Ismaili reminisces about what it was like to live in an area that was a centre of African American artistic innovation in the 1960s. Ismaili, like many of the artists who lived in the Lower East Side, came for the low rents. But she soon found an environment that would help develop her own literary impulses even if it presented many frustrations. For a single mother, an African, a Muslim, and an independent-minded woman, the Black artistic scene in the Lower East Side of the 1960s could be inhospitable to say the least. She writes:
For me this was a painful time. I was separating from my husband for the first time. Alone, with a small boy, trying to complete graduate school and write, I felt very estranged at times from my ebon scribes and painters. They made it clear they were not interested in me because I was Black, African, and too ethnic; i.e., |not beautiful.’ Besides, I did not do drugs or drink. In fact, cigarette smoke made my eyes tear and my throat choke. To add fat to the fire, I had strong opinions and was extremely independent. These were the ’60s, and Black men were coming into their own. Black women had to understand their manly needs, walk ten paces behind, submit to male authority. We were not to question a man’s work, even if it were incorrect. We were to dress “African,” assume the persona of “The Motherland,” and raise little revolutionaries. Most of all, we were to remain unconditionally loyal to the Black man and never, under any circumstance, be seen in intimate association with a White man. This, of course, was in stark contrast to the behavior of almost all of the men I knew–excuse me, brothers–who had not a single “significant other” but several White women as lovers and wives.
But Ismaili also found friends and supporters. There was the great sculptor Valerie Maynard, who babysat for Ismaili in exchange for having Ismaili and her son pose for her. There was artist and children’s book illustrator Tom Feelings who encouraged Ismaili’s writing. About him she writes:
Tom was my best friend, my soul brother. (We used terms like that then.) I told him of my feelings of rejection and isolation in the midst of parties and other social events. He always understood and helped me understand the fear and difficulty Black men had when asked for something they had historically been denied–fraternity with sisters. (I might add that sisters had difficulties among themselves, too. We often cast a “cut-eye” at one another when “possibility” was in our midst.) But Tom always encouraged me. In fact, he was responsible for my coming to my first Umbra meeting and for my first publication in the now-defunct Liberator. He said that, in the final analysis, all that mattered was The Work. We have remained friends, sister/brother, for more than twenty-five years.
My friends told her I was a writer and had written a play, which Ellen asked to see. Embarrassed but eager for her comments, I took it to her. “Do you know this?” she asked. “Have you experienced this?” It was a small piece fueled by the issues of the 60–racism and Southern oppression. I was crushed because I thought her inquiry was a negation of my work and my ability. She saw that, and spoke slowly to me, sharing her experiences of having been born and raised in the South. Then she said, “Little Sister” (I was so elated that I almost didn’t hear the rest of it) “you can write; there is no question. That is not the issue. The issue is truth and artistic honesty.” She urged me to produce a reality fueled by my own thoughts, in my own words. We ended with her saying, “When you have something you feel you want me to read, let me have it.” She was, and continues to be, true to her words. Whenever and wherever I see her subsequently, she always calls me “Little Sister” and asks about my work.
It must have been difficult for Ismaili to be an African among so many African Americans to find and keep her own creative voice rooted in her own experience as a West African. Although amongst Blacks, she was still an outsider because of her African and Muslim identity. African Americans were discovering their own stories and their own unique ways of telling them. But these were still American stories, written for Americans. It must have been perplexing for Ismaili to figure out who she was writing about as well as who she was writing for.
Life in exile
The alienation facing West African women writers is expressed in Ismaili’s essay, West African Women and Exile: City, University, and Dislocated Village. The intended readership of this essay is other Western-educated West African women who are torn between “back Home” and life in exile in the West. Ismaili writes:
This paper has evolved from conversations with sisters from “Home.” We mourn our “Exile.” With enthusiasm of a born-again [Christian], we return “Home” with our degrees, earnest and eager to “work.” Then we come face to face with socio-political constraints of our nations. Run squarely afoul of Senior Lecturers who remained in the trenches while we were abroad, frolicking in the lands of plenty. Our personal expectations, our family pressures, societal restrictions on women are some of our greatest enemies. Things we took for granted before are now luxuries. Assigned readings being fulfilled are dependent not only on financial resources of students but the availability of books in the libraries and the country. Simple needs, xeroxing machines and paper, faxes, and now complex telecommunication systems and computers, are seen as extravagant and often are prohibitive. Intellectual famine confronts us with all its grisly remnants; empty library shelves, university censorship and hoarding. Books on the illegal market at twice the price offer little salvation. Defeated or overwhelmed by it all, we send out triplicate resumes and write all former professors to come to our aid in getting us the heck out of our “Homes” as soon as possible. We come back to former host countries, to universities where we are able to earn a decent wage and maintain a tolerable standard of living.
Exile is not always the romantic notion of heroic revolutionaries. It is a place of uncertainty, pain, frustration and anger. The struggle to maintain one’s sobriety and to support the family is waged in tears with one self and the kindred at “Home.” It is real and deeply felt when one reads of massive five-year projects to introduce village women to water purification and social development. Hard to bear are those embedded memories of things we saw as children. Our experiences and rites of passage, stories we heard, all are negated by those amongst whom we have learned and possibly been influenced.
You get a glimpse at the dilemmas that must have plagued Ismaili as a lecturer in African Literature with the following passage:
It is getting late. We must prepare a lecture for a graduate seminar on “Sisterhood Within Polygamous Compounds.” In our central heated homes, we choose each reference to silence the anticipated negative response our students have formulated. We call each other with our concepts of female language and how it operates in Aminata Sow Fall’s novels. We stray from the immediacy of the subject as we reminisce. How clearly we see Sall Niang in her chair, beautiful and big. We laugh knowingly or, as we have learned, as is said in the parlance of psychological terminology. We connect with her as she uses a winnowing basket to count her money. The flow of conversation is not hindered. Schooled fingers are computerized eyes that separate coins according to value. We can see the wide spread of her lap forming a printed cloth carpet for her computations. This woman is familiar to us because she is in fact, an aunt, mother, neighbor who never seemed to understand she wasn’t our mother when it came to scolding.
It must be frustrating to teach people in an objective and coldly academic way about works of literature that reflect one’s own lived experience. For West African women writers, there is the added frustration of having to defend “Africa”, “African Traditions” and “African men” from students and colleagues who tend to look down on non-Western communities out of racism and ignorance. But on the other hand, these women are frustrated with the corrupt governments in their countries of origin and the patriarchal structures that subjugate women; but these are the types of conversations West African women would prefer to have with each other, not with their students. The need for sisterhood to make this exile livable comes through in this essay. Ismaili writes about her first meeting with fellow West African writer, Ama Ata Aidoo:
I see her today as I saw her over twenty years ago. She was already a writer of note, and was here on a research fellowship. I was in graduate school hanging on by weekly pinching from wages to pay my tuition. I was walking down the Avenue of the Americas and W 4th Street. Just about to turn down Cornelia St. to walk two more blocks to my four-flight walk-up flat. Out of the African Cosmos, a voice came. “O-wee sister.” I was relieved of my anger over an undeserved grade by this intrusion. There was a full-bodied woman with a huge head-tie and a buba over a pair of Blue Jeans! Well, her face was so full of smiles, I almost cried. We embraced. I was asked about myself. I told her where I was from and why I was in New York. She told me who she was and why she was here.
While living in exile, West African women are able to connect across national, ethnic, and religious lines, united by the common cultures of West Africa and a need to commune with who have been equally displaced and who understand the longing for home, the nostalgia for the past, the financial pressures of family “back home”, and the frustrations of coping with Western racism and ignorance.
On Ismaili’s poem Solange
My favourite poem by Ismaili is Solange. It can be found in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry. The poem is about Solange, a young of French and West African descent. Because I myself am of mixed parentage, I like to find literary works that meditate on this experience. In the poem, Ismaili rhymes Solange with melange, which means “mixture” in French. Solange is fair-skinned but troubled by her more “African” physical features from her flat nose, her curly hair, and her protruding backside. Although the poet keeps reminding Solange that she is beautiful, she doesn’t believe it. Solange “frets” over her African physical traits. She can try to control her curly hair by using chemicals to straighten it. She can try to control her backside by trying to “strap the buttocks that/will not flatten/inside a Chanel line.” But there is nothing she can do about her lips and her nose, and, as the poet contemplates “What is a face with those?” My favourite passage in the poem is the following:
Your eyes are Parisian dreams
and your hair has a mind of its own
Sometimes it would be French
Sometimes it would be Cassamance.
Solange, like many women of mixed race, is struggling with trying to fit a Western standard of beauty. She is made up of “A little bit of this and/a little bit of that”. Although she may be considered beautiful, particularly in an African context where fair-skin is coveted, she will never fit into the French ideals of beauty she seems to be aspiring to. Solange has not yet accepted that she is beautiful on her own terms.
Profile available online
Interview (2005) in French available online
Rice Keepers: A Play by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr published by African World Press
Website of Pen and Brush Inc.
Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr’s Writing available online:
Poems available online
Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side – Lower East Side Retrospective (Essay published in the African American Review available online)
West African Women in Exile: City, University and Dislocated Village (Essay published in Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies available online)
Lena Baker was the first and only woman every killed by electric chair in the state of Georgia. She was executed in 1945. Sixty years later she was pardoned.
The film Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story by Ralph Wilcox is more than a biopic about an African-American woman who, like so many others, was a victim of the racism of the American Justice System, but it is also a harsh reminder that although there may be a Black President, America still has a terrible legacy of racism to overcome.
The film chronicles the life and unjust death of Lena Baker from her childhood picking cotton in the early 1900s to her death by electric chair for murdering her employer.
Lena Baker is played by actress Tichina Arnold. Arnold is best known for her comedic roles in shows like Everybody Hates Chris but she is excellent as Lena, a woman who has many demons to face. The filmmakers do not sugarcoat Lena Baker’s life. She is an alcoholic who once was a prostitute and did time in prison. She had three children who were mostly raised by her long-suffering mother.
When Lena seems about to turn her life around she is bullied by Eugene Knight to look after his father, Ernest, who has injured his leg. She is reluctant because Ernest Knight has the reputation of being violent but at this time in Georgia it is difficult for Blacks to refuse the demands of Whites. The film depicts Lena’s relationship with Knight with all the shades of grey that there probably were. Ernest Knight is an alcoholic and in his company Lena returns to alcoholism. They develop a sexual relationship and Lena often stays with him for months on end without being able to return to her mother’s home. When Lena is able to return, Knight repeatedly forces her back to his home. He even at one point takes her to Florida. Because sexual relationships between Blacks and Whites were illegal at this time in the State of Georgia, Knight’s son eventually intervenes to get Lena away from his father, however he blames Lena for the relationship and beats her severely but doesn’t take any measures to hold his father responsible for the affair. The film shows that this is all unfolding with the full knowledge of the town’s sheriff who also holds Lena responsible for the relationship and does nothing to protect her or prevent Knight from repeatedly kidnapping her. Finally, when Lena again attempts to flee from Knight, he threatens to kill her with a gun and in the struggle that ensues she shoots him.
Lena made no attempt to cover up what happened. She went straight to the town’s coroner and told him what she had done. She then told the town’s sheriff. Although Lena claimed self-defence, she was convicted of Capital Murder by an all-White, all-Male jury (hardly a jury of her peers). The film portrays her lawyer as incompetent and racist as he has no interest in listening to her suggestions for her defence. After a 60-Day reprieve, Baker was denied clemency and was executed. Her last words before her execution were as follows:
What I done, I done in self defence, or I would have been killed myself. I have done nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God.
In 2001, Lena Baker’s family, led by her grandnephew Roosevelt Curry, requested a pardon from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. She was granted an unconditional pardon. The Board did not find Lena Baker innocent of the crime but suggested that a verdict of voluntary manslaughter would have been more appropriate under the circumstances.
Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story is hardly an easy film to watch but I recommend it for anyone who is trying to educate students about the ways in which racial segregation in the American South perpetuated the economic and sexual exploitation of African American women.
The Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story Website