February 14, 2024 // Special

A Reading List for Catholics During Black History Month

By Kenneth Craycraft

While ersatz celebrations of February as Black History Month have existed from as early as 1970, it became officially recognized in the United States in 1976. In conjunction with the national bicentennial, then President Gerald Ford encouraged Americans to “review with admiration the impressive contributions of Black Americans to our national life and culture.” Noting the ideals of “freedom … and individual rights” at the heart of the founding of our country, Ford observed that “it took many years before ideals became a reality for Black citizens.”

Of course, the transition from ideals to a reality for Black people had not been fully accomplished in 1976; nor has it been fulfilled in 2024. To be sure, we have made significant progress in removing institutional and cultural barriers to economic, social, and political participation. Far more than was true in 1976, we have “witnessed significant strides in the full integration of Black people into every area of national life,” to use Ford’s words.

But the removal of institutional barriers alone is insufficient to accomplish the fulness of the ideals of which the president spoke. Residual disadvantages remain from the hundreds of years of slavery, followed by the scores of years of Jim Crow laws. Even more difficult to eradicate than the legacy of political and legal barriers are the fears, prejudices, and implicit biases that hide in the crevices of the human heart. Thus, Black History Month remains a vital observation for our national conscience, for at least three reasons.

A woman gives the peace sign during the Archdiocese of New York’s annual Black History Month Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City Feb. 4, 2024. The liturgy also marked the National Day of Prayer for the African American and African Family. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

First, it is an opportunity for us to remember the unspeakable cruelty of chattel slavery. We must never forget the brutal history of American slavery, from the barbaric transportation in slave ships, to the rending of children from their parents and husbands from their wives, to the physical and psychological abuse of slave labor itself.

Second, Black History Month is a time to celebrate and advance the contribution that Black Americans have made to our common culture. This includes, but is not limited to, the intellectual, artistic, and political contributions of Black Americans. We must also recognize and admire the moral resilience of Black Americans. This spirit reminds us that we are all called to overcome suffering when we can and endure it with grace and dignity when we cannot. As Ford put it in 1976, “we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Finally, Black History Month is the opportunity for all Americans to examine our own attitudes toward those who are different from us. It is a mistake simply to identify diffidence or reticence as racism. Tending toward people who are like us is not necessarily the same as steering away from those who are not. To reduce natural affinity to racism is often a barrier to authentic inquiry and understanding. That said, however, we all — without regard to race, ethnicity, or other demographic characteristics — must continue to examine our own attitudes about “the other.” Where people are alienated from one another, authentic solidarity is not obtained. Transcending alienation begins with self-examination of our own latent fear and distrust, even when they don’t descend to overt racism.

I suggest a very brief list of books that, each in its distinct way, helps us to observe all three purposes of Black History Month.

No book has taught me more about the cruelty of slavery and the nobility of the spirit of Black people than David W. Blight’s monumental biography, “Frederick Douglass:
Prophet of Freedom.” Drawing upon a wealth of original sources, Blight skillfully reconstructs the life of Douglass, from his childhood on a Maryland plantation, to his audacious escape from slavery, to the heights of American journalism and political life. Douglass could be called the Black conscience of American history, and Blight’s book brings him to life. Shorter but no less valuable companions are Douglass’ own three volumes of memoirs, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” “My Bondage and My Freedom,” and “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.”

Booker T. Washington’s classic autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” is the classic story of one man’s emergence from the legacy of slavery and his ability to bring others along with him. Washington’s most striking virtue was his indefatigable optimism. Born into slavery in 1856, Washington had every reason to abandon hope of building a happy life in early postbellum America. But Washington set his face forward and became a pioneer in educating the children and grandchildren of slaves. Indeed, he might be called the father of Black higher education in America.

Washington’s intellectual rival and foil, W.E.B. Du Bois, presents a less optimistic analysis of the lives of Black people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in his classic collection of essays, “The Souls of Black Folk.” This collection of political, economic, and sociological studies of the lives of Black people after the war is more critical of the legacy of American racism than Washington. The two sometimes called each other out about their respective positions, especially with regard to accommodation of Black people to American political and economic institutions. Washington’s incremental approach was too timid for Du Bois, while Du Bois’ activist approach was too aggressive for Washington. Read together, the two books are a window into the economic and political dilemmas facing the first generation of freed Black people in America.

Finally, I don’t think any novel has stirred my emotions as much as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Largely set in and near my native Cincinnati, Morrison’s novel is an account of the agonizing moral choices of Black slaves and the psychological legacy of slavery even after emancipation. If it is possible to characterize a book as “brutally elegant,” “Beloved” fits the description. Mixing magical realism with actual historical events, Morrison illustrates the sheer horror of slavery and its aftermath. And she takes us deep into our own moral lives as we reflect upon the agony of those who suffered this cruel period of American history.

Tension, misunderstanding, and alienation are part of the fallen human experience. But that does not excuse us from addressing them as a spirit of empathy and solidarity. Black History Month is a reminder that we Christians are called to be voices of reconciliation. These books are useful tools in finding that voice.

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is an Associate Professor of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati.

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