Subversive Habits: A book discussion with Shannen Dee Williams

American Catholic Studies Newsletter - Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism [Notre Dame IN]

October 3, 2022

By Jacqueline Willy Romero and Shannen Dee Williams

Shannen Dee Williams is associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. A Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, Williams has won numerous scholarly fellowships from organizations including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the American Historical Association, and the American Catholic Historical Association. She recently published Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle (Duke, 2022). Jacqueline Willy Romero corresponded with Williams about the book earlier this year.

Jacqueline Willy Romero: In Subversive Habits, you argue that decisions by Black women to enter religious life in the United States have been “widely overlooked as political and arguably feminist acts of bodily liberation and respectability.” How does your research contribute to and disrupt understandings of feminism and feminist perspectives on history?

Shannen Dee Williams: Subversive Habits builds upon the work of historians of Black women and Black feminist theorists who have for decades brilliantly and meticulously documented how the denial of Black female virtue and the exploitation of the reproductive wombs of Black women and girls were central to the social construction, maintenance, and defense of white supremacy in secular and religious realms. These same scholars have also demonstrated how unrelenting and systematic attacks on the moral character of Black women and girls not only helped to justify centuries of racial and sexual violence visited on Black bodies and communities, but also profoundly shaped the protest strategies that Black women and girls developed to survive. My book grounds this history in the Catholic Church, which through its propagation of the Doctrine of Discovery and its foundational and leading participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, African enslavement, and racial segregation, became the first global institution to declare that Black lives did not matter. I argue that for Black women and girls, embracing the celibate religious state in the Roman Catholic Church constituted a radical act of Black resistance to white supremacy and the sexual terrorism built into chattel slavery and segregation. Subversive Habits specifically illuminates the radical dimensions of Black female celibacy within religious life and invites scholars to bear witness to the many trials of the nation’s Black women religious and the white supremacist commitments and misogynoir (anti-Black misogyny) of the nation’s European and white American bishops, priests, and sisters and eventually some Black priests, brothers, and laymen. My book not only centers Black sisters’ lived experiences of racism and sexism in their Church and wider society from their fiercely contested beginnings in the slave South to the present day, but also looks at how their educational, spiritual, and intellectual activism inspired and intersected with Black protest movements, including Black feminist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Many Black nuns, who came of age politically during the 1960s and 1970s and wrote extensively about the liberatory dimensions of celibacy in racial crisis, became some of the nation’s pioneering womanist theologians and professors. It also matters that distinguished Black feminist theorist and scholar Dr. Patricia Hill Collins worked closely with the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) in the 1970s in their fight for community control of inner-city Catholic schools and cited the influence of her work at Boston’s St. Joseph Community School, led by NBSC leader Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux, in her classic text Black Feminist Thought.

JWR: Your research encompasses a wide variety of congregations of religious life from different parts of the United States. How do you view the relationship between the Catholic Church in the United States and the institution of slavery? How did the practice of enslavement shape the history of religious communities? 

SDW: Subversive Habits demonstrates that the Catholic Church was never an innocent bystander in the histories of colonialism, slavery, and segregation—including the sexual exploitation built into these inherently violent systems of power and control. With a series of 15th-century papal bulls, the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned and inaugurated the trans-Atlantic slave trade and African slavery in the Americas, including in what became the United States. In fact, the Catholic Church was the largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas. Many of the Church’s famed social service institutions were established and sustained through the exploitation of the forced physical and reproductive labor of enslaved men, women, and children and as a result of Native American removal and genocide. These violent commitments buttressed by European and white American Catholics’ widespread opposition to abolition and the systematic exclusion and subjugation of African-descended people within the Church, including in religious life, through the Second Vatican Council have meant that the Church’s moral compass and authority on matters of racism and all interconnected issues has never resided in white Catholic communities. 

To be sure, we are still learning about the full nature and extent of Catholic slaveholding in religious communities and about those non-slaveholding orders whose foundations and financial futures were made possible by enslaved labor. What is clear is that the slavery and segregation under Catholic auspices were no less brutal, savage, or evil than slavery and segregation under any other entity. It is also clear that the legacies of these Catholic crimes against humanity, including the Church’s enduring failure to apologize and make reparation for this history, are still with us. That is why telling Black sisters’ stories is so essential.

Black sisters’ history reminds us that there has always been an articulation of U.S. Catholicism that understood that the lives, souls, and futures of Black people matter. The early Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s and modern world’s first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood for African-descended women and girls, for example, were among a small minority of Catholic sisterhoods to minister in the United States before 1850 who did not enslave people or directly exploit or benefit from enslaved labor to secure the financial foundations and futures of their orders. In fact, the early Oblate Sisters of Providence are the essential counterpoints to anyone who dares to defend or excuse their slaveholding and segregationist peers as “people of their times.” The non-slaveholding Oblates were also the first U.S. order to reject the racist and sexist notion that a woman born into slavery lacked the virtue necessary to enter religious life. Before the federal abolition of slavery in 1865, they had admitted at least eight women born into slavery into their ranks on an equal basis. By contrast, the historically Creole Sisters of the Holy Family, the nation’s second successful African American sisterhood and a former slaveholding order, did not admit formerly enslaved women until 1869. The longstanding anti-Black admissions policies and practices of white sisterhoods ensured that the dominant face and force of Catholic sisters in the United States would be white sisters with minimal, and often conditional, commitments to racial equality and justice. In most of the known cases of African-descended women and girls who passed for white or non-Black in white orders before and after the Civil War, these sisters were required to do so by their orders and/or sought to maintain a clear social and political distance from the African American community to embrace the privileges and protections of whiteness in their white-dominated Church.  

JWR: Education was a top priority for many of the Black leaders that you highlight. Among education’s other benefits, you also note that Black-led Catholic schools were essential to producing male and female vocations to religious life and that Black sisters were often “spiritual role models” to the first two generations of Black priests in particular. Can you expand on this relationship of “spiritual role modeling”? 

SDW: Long before there were Black priests in the United States, there were Black Catholic nuns. In the longstanding absence of an empowered African American clergy, Black sisters served as the most genuine and effective spiritual and educational leaders of the African American Catholic community. As Oblate Sister of Providence Mary of Good Counsel Baptiste put it in 1939, “[T]he very existence of a colored religious is an ever present if unvoiced argument that highly developed religious life is not only possible for Negroes but even desirable.” Although Black sisters have never made up more than one percent of the U.S. sister population, they educated over half of the first two generations of Black priests in the United States. Pioneering Black priests mentored by Black nuns often cite these sisters’ influence (along with their parents and other Black laypeople) in their lives, noting that once they expressed a desire to enter religious life their Black sister educators took them under their wings. Many of these priests also had aunts, sisters, and cousins who had entered the nation’s Black sisterhoods. Black seminarians and some Black priests who came of age during Black Power also championed the leadership and legacy of Black nuns. Remember, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association organized with the support and mentorship of the National Black Sisters’ Conference at their third meeting held at the University of Notre Dame because the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus excluded them. Many Black priests and former seminarians who matriculated at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana also credit the institute’s Black nun foundresses, especially Sister Thea Bowman, with providing essential support and mentorship.

This is why telling Black sisters’ stories is so important. Too many church scholars and even some scholars of African American Catholicism have been quick to center and exaggerate the influence of white Catholics, especially white nuns, in stories of Black Catholic excellence, faithfulness, conversion, and struggle against oppression while downplaying and even erasing Black Catholic agency and leadership. The “true truth” is white Catholics are not and have never been the saviors of Black people, Catholics or otherwise. At times, they have been important allies to Black people in their struggles for equality and justice. At other times, white Catholics have been among the bitterest and most violent opponents to Black progress, freedom, and self-determination. Often, white Catholics, even those who professed a commitment to racial and educational justice, have been uneasy and complicated mixtures of both.

JWR: One of the most well-known figures in Black Catholic history is Thea Bowman, who was designated as a Servant of God in 2018—the first of four steps to canonization as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. In analyzing her legacy, you argue that her supporters’ desire to “iconize” the late Black nun inadvertently marginalized the struggles for racial, gender, and educational equity that Bowman championed. What factors contributed to this paradox? How does race affect the canonization process more broadly?

SDW: Who tells Black sisters’ stories fundamentally matters. Unlike the sainthood causes of Mother Mary Lange, chief foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and Mother Henriette Delille, chief foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family, Sister Thea Bowman’s cause and guild are not under the control or leadership of Black nuns or even Black Catholic laywomen. These facts are significant and should not be ignored by scholars or journalists as her cause advances and as more popular attention is directed at her life. Indeed, it matters that Bowman, who desegregated her order, the historically white Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, as a teenager, and at least one other African American aspirant, according to one interviewee, suffered unconscionable anti-Black racism in the convent and that Bowman is to date the order’s only African American member. That Bowman, an English Ph.D. and champion of Black historical truthtelling, commissioned the great Black feminist writer Margaret Walker Alexander, who was not Catholic, to write her biography demonstrates that she understood who told her story mattered.

Contrary to popular belief, Sister Thea was not beloved by all within the Catholic Church, her order, or even within the Black Catholic community. Several of my interviewees noted that Sister Thea and her ministry of love, which unapologetically championed the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual gifts of the African American community, were perceived as racially divisive by antagonistic white and nonwhite Catholics, including some Black Catholic men and women. Bowman was also clear in her opposition to racism, sexism, classism, and all the destructive systems of power and exploitation that threaten humanity and undermine the Church’s credibility. So, careful attention to and scrutiny of the backgrounds of those who are currently scrambling to attach themselves to Thea’s sainthood cause and tell her story in popular, and often profit-making, venues are essential. This is especially true of those Catholics, white and nonwhite, who have been implicated in the Church’s sex abuse crisis, who are non-credentialed and/or active within the anti-choice movement, and/or who have only recently begun to champion Black Catholic women’s history and speak out against the interconnected sins of racism and misogyny in the Church. 

There also needs to be more critical attention to the ways in which race and the politics of white supremacy and misogynoir have shaped the canonization process at every stage. It is incorrect and willfully obtuse to state that the absence of Black Catholic saints from the United States is because African American Catholics only recently recognized the power and possibilities of having African American saints. African American Catholics have a long history of venerating the Church’s African and African-descended saints in their communities. Venerable Pierre Toussaint’s story was popularized by Catholics involved in the interracial justice movement after World War II, and his cause was first introduced in 1968 amid African American Catholic revolt. According to my interviewees, longstanding racism in the Church and fear of institutional backlash prevented the oldest Black sisterhoods from launching the causes of their foundresses until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Several cited Pope John Paul II’s special meeting and address to Black Catholics in Louisiana in 1987 as the impetus to launch the causes beyond Toussaint. And even then, the cause of Julia Greely, a formerly enslaved and nonliterate Black laywoman who primarily ministered to poor white families and is often depicted in a Mammy-like pose with a white child, is a bit curious, especially when we have so many Black laywomen rooted in Black communities, who broke monumental barriers in education and evangelization and whose ministries were explicitly part and parcel of the long struggle against slavery, segregation, and racism within and outside of the Church. But again, Black Catholic women and girls, especially those whose lives and labors do not center white Catholics or diminish the realities of white Catholic racism and misogynoir, have been systematically ignored and suppressed in Church history.

Beyond the conspicuous absence of recognized Black saints from the U.S. Church, Catholics and scholars that study them need to have a “come to Jesus” moment and ask why in the last half of the 20th century white nuns like Elizabeth Seton, Rose Philippine Duchesne, and Katharine Drexel, who were enslavers, people who unapologetically exploited enslaved labor, and/or segregationists, were canonized in the Church? How were these nuns’ involvement and complicity in these sins of white supremacy represented or not represented to the public, especially in their respective Positios? What are the scholarly, theological, spiritual, and canonical implications and consequences of these historical realities, misrepresentations, and erasures?

JWR: Subversive Habits is filled with individuals and organizations that have previously received little to no scholarly attention. What led you to these obscured and overlooked histories? What was the largest obstacle you faced in writing this important work?

SDW: This may be obvious, but I encountered the hidden figures and histories examined in my book because I went looking for them. I scoured archival and periodical sources and interviewed people connected to Black sisters’ history, including the sisters and ex-sisters themselves. As a historian of Black women, I recognized that the history of Black Catholic women, religious and lay, was essential to any understanding of the making of U.S. Catholicism and the Church’s enduring sins of racism, patriarchy, sexual abuse, and misogynoir. However, that belief has not been shared widely among Church scholars, including historians of women religious. Let me state this plainly: White sisters and Church scholars, by and large, have not been honest or reliable narrators of the tremendous sin history of anti-Black racism and misogynoir in the Catholic Church, and women’s religious life specifically. That it has taken until 2022 for us to get the first full survey of Black sisters’ lives and struggles in the U.S. Church is obscene and perhaps the greatest testament to the ugly realities of white supremacy, anti-Black misogyny, and willful erasure in our intellectual midst. 

Black sisters in Black and white congregations broke some of the nation’s most difficult racial and gender barriers. The first African American to chair a department at a historically white university in the United States was a nun. The first woman president of the historically Black Bowie State University was a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and former Oblate Sister of Providence. Dr. Elfreda Chatman, a pioneering scholar in information studies, was the first Black Humility Sister of Mary in Ohio and a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. Dr. Theresa Perry, a distinguished professor of education, author of the classic Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African American Students, and mother of distinguished Princeton professor Imani Perry, was a former Holy Family Sister and leader in the National Black Sisters’ Conference. Many desegregation triumphs in American society can be traced to pioneering Black sisters in white congregations as well as to the African American sisterhoods and/or their former pupils. So, why is their history not common knowledge? Why is it that so many scholars of U.S. Catholicism and women’s religious life have never stepped foot inside the archives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and Sisters of the Holy Family? How is it that the most recent historical survey of the U.S. Catholic experience does not include even one citation to Father Cyprian Davis’ The History of Black Catholics in the United States? Why do we have documented examples of archival and scholarly erasure and misrepresentation regarding Black sisters’ history and white sisters’ practices of colonization, slavery, and segregation? It is because myths about the Catholic past fall quickly and hard when the lives and labors of Black Catholics, especially women and girls, are taken seriously and centered. 

JWR: Subversive Habits is a sweeping chronological account, from the turn of the 19th century all the way to present day. Having covered such a wide variety of time and topics, where do you anticipate your future research heading? Is there any particular issue that you hope other scholars expand upon? 

SDW: Because U.S. Black Catholic women and girls have been so disregarded, marginalized, and erased within Church history, the rest of my career will be dedicated to documenting their lives, labors, struggles, and faithfulness. As I stated in the book’s conclusion, much remains to be said about African American sisters’ journeys. I have scores of interviews of current and former Black sisters, as well as Black laywomen denied admission into white sisterhoods, that I am working to publish. What Subversive Habits revealed about African American sisters’ epic history was only the tip of the iceberg. I am also working on a documentary history of Black Catholic women and girls, religious and lay, in the United States. I have a few other projects on the horizon that I will not share at this time. But the magnitude of the work waiting to be completed is tremendous. 

The field of U.S. Black Catholic history remains in its infancy. We do not have anywhere close to the number of historical and historically informed studies of Black Catholicism on the local, regional, and national levels that we should have in the 21st century. While Cyprian Davis’ landmark history of the African American Catholic community is a foundational study, it is in no way definitive. And let me go even further—there is no definitive historical study of the U.S. Catholic experience or U.S. women religious. We must confront and accept the field-shattering and paradigm-shifting implications of narrating the history of the U.S. Catholic Church from the perspective of Black, Indigenous, Latino/a, and Asian American Catholics. Where would we be today if every Catholic knew and understood that their Church sanctioned and fueled the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade? What if every Catholic knew and understood what it means that their Church inaugurated African slavery in the Americas and was the largest Christian practitioner of segregation in the United States? How would Catholics respond to Dobbs if they had a full understanding of the sexual exploitation of Black women and girls under Catholic slavery and segregation? What if everyone knew that the Jesuits, who have been full-throated in their celebration of the overturning of Roe but collectively silent about the attack on Black voting rights, whipped enslaved women naked and had to be instructed to stop whipping enslaved women who were pregnant? What if every Catholic knew the name and story of Susanna Queen, an enslaved woman owned, abused, and sexually exploited by the Jesuits, who have also been steadfastly resistant to descendant demands to make more substantive reparations for the order’s extensive slaveholding across the United States? 

Obviously, there is a small cadre of scholars who have been steadily working to disabuse the field and the Church of the enduring myth of Catholic innocence in the United States and global project of anti-Blackness and misogynoir. But we are decades behind where we should be in terms of understanding the full depths of the Church’s foundational and violent commitments to white supremacy and misogyny through colonialism, slavery, and segregation. That includes understanding the complicity and agency of white Catholic women, religious and lay, in nurturing, legitimizing, and propagating the racial hatred and misogyny that fueled the backlash to the civil and equal rights gains of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and led to the contemporary constitutional crises, including the January 6 insurrection, the attack on voting rights, the undermining of climate preservation legislation, and the attack on reproductive freedom. 

I also hope some very courageous scholars and journalists will take up the longstanding sex abuse crisis within the Black Catholic community, which is rooted in the Church’s colonial and slaveholding past. There is a direct link between anti-Black racism, misogyny, and the documented sex abuse crisis perpetrated by white and Black priests and white nuns against Black people—children, women, and men—that has been systematically ignored. As I note in my book, even Father Cyprian Davis—a personal champion of my work—is guilty of this sin of omission. When Father Davis, a founding member of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, failed to document Sister M. Martin de Porres Grey’s presence at the caucus’ inaugural meeting in The History of Black Catholics in the United States, he erased the hostile and overtly misogynist words and actions of the caucus’ founding members toward Grey, then 25 years old, at that fateful 1968 meeting. At least two of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus’ founding members—George Clements and Kenneth Brigham—were later credibly accused of sex abuse. Clements was also closely linked to John Calicott and John Cornelius—two defrocked Black priests who like Brigham were credibly accused and guilty of multiple acts of sexual abuse against Black youth. It absolutely matters that Clements was one of the men that Grey stated surrounded her at the Detroit meeting and screamed at her to leave for 30 minutes. Grey’s battles with the clericalism, misogyny, and conservatism of Black priests, brothers, and laymen were a part of the reason she left religious life. Other Black Catholic women, religious and lay, have similar stories and experiences of misogyny and misogynoir from white, Black, and other non-white priests and nuns, including from those who have been championed for their perceived commitments to racial and social justice.

Jacqueline Willy Romero is an instructor in history at Lanier Technical College. She was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center from 2021 to 2022.

This piece appears in the fall 2022 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter