To fight racism, Black Christians learned to ‘lift every voice and sing’ – Catholic Philly

Shannen Dee Williams (CNS photograph/John C. Shetron, courtesy Villanova College)

Over time, I’ve come to depend on the nice musical traditions of Black Christians to function a salve when I’m confronted with the brutal realities of U.S. society, particularly the unending storm of anti-Black racism and white supremacist violence.

Any time a video of a Black lady, man or youngster being harassed, assaulted or murdered within the title of white supremacy begins circulating on social media to boost consciousness and demand justice, I often have to log out for a number of hours and take heed to my particular playlist of African American spirituals and gospel music. If I’ve time, I additionally prefer to re-read James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, “Letter to My Nephew.”

Within the masterpiece’s ultimate strains, Baldwin tells his nephew, then struggling to keep up his means, that white society has by no means actually identified or cared to grasp Black individuals, even those that dwell, labor and love in shut proximity to white individuals.

Nonetheless, Baldwin reminds his namesake that they descend from the individuals who really constructed the nation “and within the enamel of essentially the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”

Baldwin additionally tells his nephew that he comes from “a few of the biggest poets since Homer,” certainly one of whom stated, “The very time I assumed I used to be misplaced, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off,” a verse from the African American religious, “I Am Free.”

Like many African Individuals, I grew up in a household that had a deep love and appreciation for the spirituals and Black gospel music — although these songs have been by no means acknowledged or carried out within the predominantly white Catholic parishes that I attended in my youth.

Earlier than I started learning African American Catholic historical past, I had believed that the spirituals have been a Protestant custom that have been integrated into the Lots at predominantly Black Catholic parishes after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the Black Catholic motion of the late Nineteen Sixties and Nineteen Seventies.

But the historic report reveals that the spirituals, which have been born of the expertise of African enslavement in the USA, are additionally a Catholic custom.

In “Slave Songs of the USA,” the primary assortment of the spirituals printed in 1867, a tune known as “Hail, Mary” sung by African Individuals in components of the South, together with St. Augustine, Florida — the place the Catholic Church within the sixteenth century inaugurated African slavery in what turned the USA — is included.

In keeping with the primary printed biography of Father Augustus Tolton, the nation’s first self-identified Black priest grew up singing the spirituals, which he discovered from his religious mom, Martha Jane Chisley Tolton, who had been exploited below Catholic slavery in Kentucky and Missouri.

Surveys of the Negro Historical past Week packages led by the Oblate Sisters of Windfall, the nation’s oldest African American order of girls spiritual, reveal that Black Catholic nuns additionally taught and championed the spirituals and the African American Nationwide Anthem, “Elevate Each Voice and Sing,” within the colleges and parishes they staffed.

Whilst white Catholics, together with those that ministered to African Individuals, actively frowned upon and degraded Black traditions, together with the spirituals, as un-Catholic, Black sisters fought to equip their pupils with the nice mental and cultural items of the African American neighborhood — instruments they understood as important within the struggle to defeat white supremacy.

This explains why Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, throughout her well-known 1989 deal with, implored the nation’s bishops to welcome and embrace Black mental and cultural traditions, together with the spirituals, “as items to the church.”

It may also clarify why the Biden administration invited the gospel choir of Washington’s traditionally Black St. Augustine Catholic Church to carry out “Elevate Each Voice and Sing” on the White Home this previous March — not solely to showcase to the world the sweetness, energy and genius of the African American religious custom, but additionally to affirm the work of the nation’s Black Catholics who lengthy fought to protect these traditions within the religion.

Because the nation confronts one more police homicide of an unarmed Black citizen, I ponder what number of Catholics working to defeat the sin of white supremacy however who worship in non-Black parishes or are merely unaware of the spirituals would profit from the follow of commonly listening to and performing these sacred Black songs.

Black Catholics have all the time identified that the spirituals embody and protect a noble historical past and custom of survival and resistance to white supremacy.

These songs additionally train us that remembering the brutal horrors of white Christian slavery, segregation and exclusion is one other important follow of resistance.


Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of historical past at Villanova College. She is the writer of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns within the Lengthy African American Freedom Wrestle,” which is able to printed by Duke College Press in 2022. Observe her on Twitter @BlkNunHistorian.

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