Both Black and Catholic (?)

Here’s my most recent post on Religion in American History, where I offer some musings around my lecture at the Institute of Black Catholic Studies (Xavier University of Louisiana) coming up on Monday, November 10th.

My post today falls in the “shameless plug” category.  I am due to lecture at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana on Monday, November 10th.  The title of my talk is “Black Catholics from the Great Migrations to Black Power,” something I have thought quite a bit about for the past few years.  Nevertheless (or, perhaps precisely for this reason), I’ve been struggling to capture the full significance of this story in just 45 minutes.  So my post today offers some of the musings that have been running on repeat in the back of my mind as I prepare to share this story.

What has it meant to be both Black and Catholic in the United States?  The tension between – or, better yet, the inseparability of racial and religious identities in the U.S. was felt acutely by Black Catholics in the middle years of the twentieth century.  The period I have referenced in shorthand as “the Great Migrations to Black Power,” roughly 1940 through 1970, was an era of unprecedented growth and transformation among Black Catholics across the United States – especially in the urban industrial centers in the North and West.  The Black Catholic population grew by 208% nationwide in these three decades and in the Midwest growth surpassed 400%.  Chicago is perhaps the best example of this, rising from a few hundred people meeting in a single church at the turn of the twentieth century into a population of 80,000 people – the Archdiocese of Chicago boasted more Black Catholics than either New Orleans or Washington, D.C. by 1970, an astounding feat when one considers the long history of Black Catholic Maryland and Louisiana!

Even more remarkable than mere numbers was the dramatic – and often traumatic – transformation of Black Catholic practice and identity in this very same period.  What did it mean to be both Black and Catholic?   Continue reading


On Violence, “the Religious,” and Black Power

I am a regular contributor to Religion in American History.  Here is my most recent post:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of non-violence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.”  Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (1968)

I want to return to a question I raised to my last post. Why is Black Power usually imagined to be essentially secular (in juxtaposition to the religiousness of southern civil rights struggles)?  I’d argue that one of the reasons many people at the time (and most historians since) characterized Black Power as such had to do with deep-seated assumptions about the nature of “religion” itself.  What marked Black Power as symbolically different than civil rights was violence, both rhetorical and actual.  The prevailing images of civil rights were tired women and tireless youth marching peacefully – and stoically enduring suffering – for freedom.  Meanwhile, the prevailing image of Black Power was black men donning black leather and brandishing guns.  (This is, of course, not a fair characterization of either.) The problem with this second image, at least for some scholars, is that “religion” – one might say real religion, proper religion, or good religion – has long been presumed to be peaceful by its very nature.  To put this another way, “the religious” (people, institutions, ideas) is legitimate only to the extent that it does not threaten the stability of civil society.  When the religious enters the public sphere through violent means, it is immediately suspect insofar as its relative religiousness is concerned.  This suspicion was behind typologies of “good” and “bad” Islam in the wake of September 11, 2001 and it underwrote (still underwrites) categorizations of the Nation of Islam (NOI) as a political sect masquerading as religious – this despite the fact that Black Muslims were largely forbidden from overt political action or violent confrontation with the U.S. state in the first half of the twentieth century. Continue reading