Over the years, I have come to rely on the great musical traditions of Black Christians to serve as a salve when I am confronted with the brutal realities of U.S. society, especially the never-ending storm of anti-Black racism and white supremacist violence.
Any time a video of a Black woman, man or child being harassed, assaulted or murdered in the name of white supremacy begins circulating on social media to raise awareness and demand justice, I usually need to log off for a few hours and listen to my special playlist of African American spirituals and gospel music. If I have time, I also like to re-read James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, “Letter to My Nephew.”
In the masterpiece’s final lines, Baldwin tells his nephew, then struggling to maintain his way, that white society has never truly known or cared to understand Black people, even those who live, labor and love in close proximity to white people.
Nonetheless, Baldwin reminds his namesake that they descend from the people who actually built the nation “and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
Baldwin also tells his nephew that he comes from “some of the greatest poets since Homer,” one of whom said, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off,” a verse from the African American spiritual, “I Am Free.”
Like many African Americans, I grew up in a family that had a deep love and appreciation for the spirituals and Black gospel music — even though those songs were never acknowledged or performed in the predominantly white Catholic parishes that I attended in my youth.
Before I began studying African American Catholic history, I had believed that the spirituals were a Protestant tradition that were incorporated into the Masses at predominantly Black Catholic parishes after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the Black Catholic movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Yet the historical record reveals that the spirituals, which were born of the experience of African enslavement in the United States, are also a Catholic tradition.
In “Slave Songs of the United States,” the first collection of the spirituals published in 1867, a song called “Hail, Mary” sung by African Americans in parts of the South, including St. Augustine, Florida — where the Catholic Church in the 16th century inaugurated African slavery in what became the United States — is included.
According to the first published biography of Father Augustus Tolton, the nation’s first self-identified Black priest grew up singing the spirituals, which he learned from his devout mother, Martha Jane Chisley Tolton, who had been exploited under Catholic slavery in Kentucky and Missouri.
Surveys of the Negro History Week programs led by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s oldest African American order of women religious, reveal that Black Catholic nuns also taught and championed the spirituals and the African American National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in the schools and parishes they staffed.
Even as white Catholics, including those who ministered to African Americans, actively frowned upon and degraded Black traditions, including the spirituals, as un-Catholic, Black sisters fought to equip their pupils with the great intellectual and cultural gifts of the African American community — tools they understood as essential in the fight to defeat white supremacy.
This explains why Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, during her famous 1989 address, implored the nation’s bishops to welcome and embrace Black intellectual and cultural traditions, including the spirituals, “as gifts to the church.”
It might also explain why the Biden administration invited the gospel choir of Washington’s historically Black St. Augustine Catholic Church to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the White House this past March — not only to showcase to the world the beauty, power and genius of the African American spiritual tradition, but also to affirm the work of the nation’s Black Catholics who long fought to preserve these traditions in the faith.
As the nation confronts yet another police murder of an unarmed Black citizen, I wonder how many Catholics working to defeat the sin of white supremacy but who worship in non-Black parishes or are simply unaware of the spirituals would benefit from the practice of regularly listening to and performing these sacred Black songs.
Black Catholics have always known that the spirituals embody and preserve a noble history and tradition of survival and resistance to white supremacy.
These songs also teach us that remembering the brutal horrors of white Christian slavery, segregation and exclusion is another essential practice of resistance.
Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of history at Villanova University. She is the author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle,” which will published by Duke University Press in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @BlkNunHistorian.
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