Since today is November 1st, All Saints Day, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about diversity and inclusion when it comes to saints and the people we’ve been taught to admire. My early education in Catholic school included discussion about saints, but I never learned until later in life that there were Black saints as well as the white ones we all know about. I wanted to examine this phenomenon in the context of oppression and Black history to start a dialogue that lets us move forward beyond “whitewashing” history, and instead, bring a more inclusive approach to the table.
Who are some Black saints we should know about?
You may not have been taught about these Black saints, but you will definitely want to learn more about their work and celebrate them today for All Saints Day or next February during Black History Month. These are just a few of the many Black saints throughout history:
St. Augustine - author of Confessions and well known to Christian scholars
St. Benedict the Moor - born to enslaved African parents and later freed, the first Black person to be canonized
St. Felicitas - the slave of St. Perpetua, persecuted for her religious beliefs
St. Josephine Bakhita - a slave originally from Darfur who fought oppression in Italy
St. Martin de Porres - the first saint from the Americas, a healer born into an interracial family
St. Moses the Black - an Ethiopian priest who was converted to Catholicism from a life of crime
Why have we never heard of these Black saints?
The issue of Black sainthood is a complicated one. They were often not celebrated in history or religion class, or they were misrepresented as white skinned. Sainthood is more typical of the past, as with modernism, religion has changed in the role that it plays in many people's lives.
One reason we see more Black saints from the distant past is that early civilization began in Africa and spread slowly outwards from there. In fact, the first important people in Black history lived in what is present-day Sudan thousands of years before Christ.
Later, while there were Black people living on other continents, the development of Christianity and the Catholic Church was still centred largely around the Mediterranean in North Africa and southern Europe. It makes sense that the first saints came from this region.
As time went on, oppression of Black people through slavery and other forms of racism made Black sainthood less common. Also, the criteria for canonization have, until recently, included the performance of two verifiable miracles, but current standards for verification have definitely become more stringent with society’s adoption of evidence-based science.
There have been mass canonizations by recent popes, but those have largely been martyrs in wars against Christianity. The struggle for modern sainthood remains among Black people, including those for whom sainthood is being advocated in the United States, where there are no Black American saints. Some clergy in the American Catholic Church admit they have a poor track record when it comes to Catholic worship for Black people and the failure of Catholicism to rally around the abolition of slavery.
Many of the Black saints in past centuries weren’t always depicted as Black either. It’s only been fairly recently that historians and religious leaders have admitted these weren’t white saints. There are still numerous portraits of these Black saints with light skin, like images of Jesus, who is now also known to have had brown skin, given his Middle Eastern Jewish origins.
Talk about a tough conversation! Literally whitewashing history is a form of racism and oppression, however inadvertent.
What is oppression?
We use the word “oppression” often these days, but let’s take a closer look at what it means. Oppression is the ongoing unjust treatment of a particular group of people. Historically, people in authority have abused their power to oppress others, resulting in horrific consequences ranging from poverty and illiteracy to slavery and genocide.
There are different types of oppression, many of which overlap with each other:
General oppression - this type of oppression typically occurs with a broad class of people, such as oppression of women, the working class, the poor, the disabled, or LGBTQ people.
Cultural oppression - this is the oppression of people who share a common culture, like the oppression of Indigenous tribes of North America and African Americans, who developed their own culture in response to slavery, or oppression of the Kurdish people in Turkey.
Black oppression - oppression of Black people refers to long-term mistreatment of people of Black skin and can include slavery over thousands of years, as well as modern-day withholding of equal rights or targeted police brutality.
Oppression can have devastating psychological as well as social effects over time. People who are oppressed can become angry, hopeless, and fearful. There are now people who teach their children that because they are Black, they need to exercise more caution in public because of racial targeting and violence perpetrated by law enforcement or even their own classmates and neighbours. Interpersonal oppression against individuals from peers at school, for example, can be just as destructive as oppression of bigger groups.
What defines a miracle? Who from Black history could be considered an uncanonized Black saint?
Black history gives us some answers to both the oppression and sainthood problems. Perhaps it’s our definition of a miracle that needs to change. Although the Catholic church may not recognize these people for official miracles, they have also inspired thousands and saved and transformed lives:
Yasuke, the first African samurai in the 16th century
James Forten, an 18th-century abolitionist who used his social standing and vast wealth from sailmaking to oppose slavery and fight colonization of America
Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the first Black Canadian to become a physician
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American doctor of medicine in the US
William Peyton Hubbard, a Toronto alderman at the turn of the 20th century and one of Canada’s first politicians of African descent
Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and noted “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, led more than 300 slaves to freedom from slavery
There are hundreds more people who could join this list, from famous activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Violet King Henry, the first Black female lawyer in Canada. These “saints without sainthood” have fought oppression and created awareness of anti-Black racism that continues today.
Do you have to be Black to fight anti-Black racism?
You do not have to be Black, however, to fight oppression. History is full of white “saints'' who have challenged anti-Black racism and other forms of oppression:
Granville Sharp, a British founding father of Sierra Leone who fought slavery and social injustice in the 1700s
Anne McCarty Braden, a journalist who supported civil rights in the 20th century American South, at great cost to her personal life
William Lloyd Garrison, 19th-century publisher of The Liberator and advocate for abolition and women’s suffrage
Considering the prevalence of ideas like “all lives matter” that continue to divide and give cover to the continued oppression of people of colour, it’s important to realize that there are many white people who genuinely want to combat racism. Maybe one of them is you!
Are you interested in joining the discussion about anti-racism? Let’s have a tough conversation about what’s really happening. At Tough Convos, we believe that sometimes you have to get uncomfortable to grow. We can provide leadership to facilitate your conversation, whether you’re a youth group, corporation, or nonprofit organization. Reach out today to learn more.