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Spring Books

Black Catholic theology heals, liberates

By Joseph A. Brown
Orbis Books, 216 pages, $15


Early in these “Meditations on Black Catholic Identity,” Jesuit Fr. Joseph Brown clarifies the essential differences in mask-making between the African and European traditions.

The African mask, created as a sacramental object, is “for the edification of the community,” he writes, which is “in direct and enduring contrast with the European mode of using masks to avoid responsibility, accountability or disclosure.”

Certainly, edification is the precise word for what Brown has learned about African theology and also what the reader will experience -- if one approaches this text with open eyes and ears, with an unprejudiced mind and a humane heart.

While the African artifact reflects the spiritual reality and the unifying values of a culture, he suggests, the European decoration projects a secular image only, hiding the distinctiveness beneath.

“The masks reveal that which is within,” writes Brown of the African tradition. The black mask, for example, is integral to the communal identity. The wearer, who dances within a sacred circle of drummers and singers, transcends egotism to embrace the entire community as one with the divine.

But what about those masks that have frightened white anthropologists, leading some to label them as demonic?

“The distorted, wildly active masks also show a picture of what’s inside,” Brown points out, “with the intention of providing a challenge to distorted behavior and providing cautionary instruction of how not to look, of what to avoid, of what to fear inside one’s self.” He believes that such masks are “the best examples of a prophetic ‘in your face’ cultural healing that we can find in African theology.”

For those out of step with the cultural rhythm, these “distorted, ‘hot’ masks are used as mirrors ... allowing the person -- or the group -- so demonically charged to see the disorder within and gain control of the disruptive spirit,” explains Brown. Thus, one culture’s form of sophisticated therapy is perceived by another culture as a rite of primitive paganism and as “evidence” that these “animists were desperately in need of the civilizing white cultures.”

Similar misconceptions about the significance of African sacred ceremonies -- the prominence of powerful drumming, ecstatic dancing, passionate singing of the black spirituals -- linger to this day in African-American liturgy, theology and mysticism.

“Within the playing of the drum and through the dancing that accompanied the music,” Brown writes, “can be found many of the organizing principles of African societies.” And despite the efforts of the enslavers to suppress the intrinsic culture of black people, the sacramental instrument survived “through the methods of appropriation, improvisation and artistic genius.”

The drums echo ancestral voices and symbolize the holy circle formed by the community. The ring -- or “Kongo cosmogram” -- imprinted with a cross that divides it into four equal quadrants represents God and heaven at the top and earth and the ancestors below. The circle signifies the shape and celestial journey of the sun and moon -- the mirrored cycles of day/night, life/death, time/eternity. And: “The dancer standing at the center of the circle, on the intersecting point of the crossroads, performs the ritual gesture of uniting the past and the present; the material and the spiritual aspects of the world; the power of the divine with the abilities of the human.”

These deep religious roots -- developed extensively and compellingly in To Stand on the Rock -- were severed by the slave trade (1515-1820) for half, perhaps, but not all of the estimated 10 to 24 million kidnapped Africans. Yet how did those not murdered or destroyed by disease or driven to suicide manage to survive?

“For now,” Brown writes, “we must assume the following: Africans, when terrorized by European enslavement, did not, all of them, lose their minds; their sense of established cultural modes of behavior; their strength; their belief in the power of the divine. ... We must assume that these Africans were human, desired freedom and had imaginations that sooner or later overwhelmed much of the psychosis of their enslavement, and which they used to make themselves ... a people whom God would call beloved.”

These reasonable assumptions neither minimize the massive evil of slavery nor romanticize those who lived to see the shores of strange lands. Even though the ancestral circle was broken on the physical plane, millions internalized the sacred ritual and fused the sacred past with faith in the unknown.

“Stripped of all but the ability to express the most complex emotions in a pure sound,” Brown asserts, “enslaved Africans reached across the barriers of language, culture and circumstance to forge links to one another, in the midnight of the Middle Passage, with comforting sound.” And from this first deep sounding, black sacred music was born. These earliest “Negro spirituals” -- rooted in African rhythms and the Bible -- became the foundation of African-American theology.

Brown stands firmly against the racism that permeates much discourse about African-American spirituality. However, his book is not a catalog of recriminations; rather, it is a deeply integrated text of insightful discoveries, aesthetic interpretations, poetic illuminations and spiritual epiphanies. He engages in a lucid, penetrating dialogue with historians and social scientists, philosophers and theologians, poets and novelists and performance artists -- all with the purpose of understanding what it means to be “authentically black and truly Catholic.”

The overarching theme of identity -- African and American -- draws upon the ground-breaking work of Robert Farris Thompson and a recent body of enlightened scholarship that supersedes the shadowy bias of most earlier studies about African art and spirituality, the Middle Passage and centuries of slavery.

Brown then carries on a clarifying conversation with Frederick Douglas and W.E.B. DuBois, acknowledging their insights but also pointing out misconceptions. For instance, he objects to the labels “slave narratives” and “sorrow songs” adopted by these classic black thinkers and repeated by present day editors. His view is that “slave narratives” were actually “documents of liberation,” and that the “sorrow songs” were “too spirited and lively in their composition and execution to be simply considered as songs of an ‘unhappy people.’ ”

His reading of Army Life in a Black Regiment reveals African “performance theology” between the lines of Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s depiction of black Union soldiers preparing for battle. Those former slaves (and nominally free citizens) who led the white regiments against the South were more than the composers of “Negro spirituals” and dedicated troops. Rather, they viewed themselves as “the mighty army of the heavenly host,” asserts Brown, “waging war with the forces of Satan.”

Of all the texts Brown examines, it is the biblical tale of Jacob -- and the songs based on it -- that holds a central focus in his liberating vision. Jacob’s cautionary tale goes to the heart of identity, for he is renamed Israel by God, just as the slaves were renamed after the biblical heroes. And “those men and women of Africa who were named slaves and who told Jesus it would be all right if he changed their names -- took a twisted version of Christianity and re-twisted it into a culture of liberation, transcendence, creativity and wholeness,” Brown said.

What does it mean in our contemporary context for an African-American to be truly Catholic?

The short answer, cited by Brown as a “prophetic gift” and as a challenge to the white hierarchy, comes from a black nun. “It means that I come to my church fully functioning,” asserted Sr. Thea Bowman in a 1989 speech to the Catholic bishops. “That doesn’t frighten you, does it?”

The long answer, developed in the final third of Brown’s book, offers a humane understanding of what it means to be “fully functioning” congregants of the sacred circle. To be Catholic means being catholic in the sense of all-inclusive, universal, edified and just. Brown envisions a church unified and integrative in both membership and leadership, genuinely multicultural in liturgy, ritual and structure.

“One of the greatest tragedies of the failure of leadership in the black Catholic church,” Brown believes, “may be the inevitable consequence of raising up leaders and apostolic ministers who felt obligated to ‘wear the mask’ of perfection and super-womanhood and -manhood in the face of those who denied us the right to be anywhere in the building, except as servants/slaves.”

To Stand on the Rock suggests that we discard the masks and leap into the dance, singing, “Anybody ask you who you are, tell them you a child of God.” That doesn’t frighten you, does it?

It does not frighten the liberated author of this truly liberating book.

Robert Bonazzi, poet and editor, is director of Latitudes International and author of Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me (Orbis, 1997).

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999