Review: The Characteristics of Black Catholic Spirituality in the Work of Toni Morrison

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In 1984, black Catholic bishops in the United States wrote a letter on evangelism, “What We Have Seen and Heard.In this letter, they identified four characteristics of black spirituality: It is contemplative, holistic, joyful and community. All these features are highlighted in At Nadra Nittle Toni Morrison’s Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature.

“In accordance with our African heritage, we are not ashamed of our emotions,” the bishops wrote. “For us, religious experience is an experience of the whole human being – both the feelings and the intellect, the heart as well as the head…. Not only is it possible to counter the dehumanizing forces of our world and our work, but we can restore the human.

Toni Morrison’s characters always find faith in themselves, in God, and in life’s circumstances, without always explicitly naming it faith.

The most obvious characteristic of black spirituality in Nittle’s account is that it is holistic. “In Morrison’s worldview, as in Christianity, the last come first. This means that blackness and femininity should not be hated but revered,” writes Nittle. “Toni Morrison grew up convinced of this fact because the African Americans in her family weren’t just loyal people. They seemed to him in many ways magical, divine.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931 in Ohio, Morrison became a Catholic at age 12. At her baptism, she took the name Anthony in honor of the saint of Padua; later, someone mistakenly called her “Toni”, and the name stuck. A graduate of Howard University and Cornell University, Morrison later became the first black fiction editor at Random House. She publishes her first novel, The bluest eyein 1970. Another novel, Song of Solomon (1977), won the National Book Critics Circle Award and brought her to national prominence. The publication of Beloved a decade later she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and in 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

From 1989 to 2006, Morrison was a professor at Princeton University and Cornell University. She died in August 2019 at the age of 88. Among the panelists at a memorial service held several months later at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York was Oprah Winfrey (who produced and starred in the screen adaptation of Beloved), Fran Lebowitz, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Ondaatje and Angela Davis.

Nittle wrote a story for America in 2017 (“The Ghosts of Toni Morrison: A Catholic Writer Confronts the Legacy of Slavery”) which became the core of The spiritual vision of Toni Morrison. Throughout the book, Nittle explores a dimension of African-American spirituality seen in past generations but still persisting to some extent today: the blending of organized religion with indigenous or tribal religions. I can testify to that myself. My father was from Louisiana, and his parents and sister had very specific thoughts about dreams and premonitions. Like Morrison, they found this compatible with their practice of Catholicism.

I can also recount when Nittle writes how the “Morrison family believed that certain events in dreams represented real-life events, but often in reverse. A dream about a joyful occasion like a wedding meant that a dark occasion like a funeral was imminent. I remember a relative that my family feared because every time she talked about a dream, someone in our family would inevitably get seriously ill or die. Yet this woman was a very devout Catholic who went to mass every Sunday and was the president of the Rosary Guild.

Morrison saw in this form of Christianity the beauty of the ritual. We cannot consider Morrison a Catholic writer because his understanding of the Catholic faith was not always explicitly shown in his writing, but God was often a presence with magical happenings among his characters and their circumstances. Nittle points out that in Morrison’s novel Heaven, there are elements of Afro-Brazilian religions with the representation of the Black Madonna:

In Heaven, a “syncretic cult” that merges West African spirituality with Roman Catholicism inspires hatred from outsiders who call such a belief system evil, but the Kingdom of Kongo shows how Africans have approached religion in this way for centuries , otherwise always.

Nittle also spends a chapter discussing how Morrison’s novel Sula examines the role of good and evil in a community. By setting part of the novel in New Orleans, a very Catholic city, Morrison explores the complicated issues of colorism, the treatment of black women as sex objects, and the existence of multicolored Virgin Marys. In these and other writings, Morrison recreates what I suspect she experienced as a child, like me: the blending of folklore, religion, and dreams. Taken together, these make “the reality of an indigenous African way of being”, writes Nittle. “And in the mold of black oral tradition, his works have a moral core because African-American storytellers primarily serve as teachers who impart life lessons to members of the community, especially youth.”

“In Morrison’s worldview, as in Christianity, the last come first. This means that blackness and femininity should not be hated but revered,” writes Nittle.

I’ve heard so many stories about life, death, and how (and how not to) act in my Louisiana grandmother’s world that their weight has caused me to be extremely cautious as I grow older. Whether these stories were true or not, they had a moral conclusion and were often linked to my grandmother’s work as a housekeeper and cook. She often ended her stories with “May God help them”, to suggest the constant human need for divine intervention.

Nittle says it well: “Healing – through religious syncretism, racial pride and the wisdom of the elders – is at the heart of Morrison’s fiction. She provides context for this claim by exploring the origins and history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, black liberation theology, and the relationship between black Catholics and bad luck– the use of plants, teas and other objects for healing by a leader, called a magician or root worker.

This latest exploration encourages the reader to consider the pervasive role of racism within Christianity and the need to honor practices such as bad luck as a valid expression of healing and a means of restoring humanity. My grandmother believed her healing poultices worked, but her prayers over me for freedom from a cold or allergy always included at least a Hail Mary. I believe this complicated combination of medicine and prayer cured me of my childhood allergies. Faith certainly entered into these experiences.

Toni Morrison’s characters always find faith in themselves, in God, and in life’s circumstances, without always explicitly naming it faith. As Nittle notes, these discoveries lead them to new realizations and moments of deep awareness of life and love. The reader can see God in all areas of Morrison’s character situation – in the “magic”, in pain and suffering, and in the call to healing and wholeness that leads to life.

Boreta Singleton is director of teacher training at St. Peter’s Prep High School in Jersey City, NJ. She is a candidate for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Manhattan.


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