Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Colors of Catholicism

I grew up in a Catholic household in South Los Angeles.  Millions of Americans didn't even know we existed.  Not my family (although they didn't).  I mean...Black Catholics in America.  Most of my education was received in parochial schools.  I graduated from Marquette University, a Catholic institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  But, if you looked at entertainment on television, if you looked at Hollywood films, if you looked at the local or network news, you really weren't aware that we Black Catholics existed in America.  It was sort of like the experience I had early in my freshman year at Marquette.  I still remember Rich Gilman, an Anglo dude from rural Plymouth, Wisconsin, who majored in Engineering.  We were in the same dorm.  Not that we became good friends and still keep in touch.  We didn't and we don't.  But, one day, we attended the same mass on campus during freshman orientation.  On the way back to the dorm, we chatted.  He was impressed that I knew when to stand and when to genuflect during the service.  He was also surprised to see me receive Communion.  I said to him, "Rich...I'm Catholic.  I was an altar boy."  He stopped and innocently replied, "Oh!  I thought all you people were Baptists."  This was in the 1970s.

Maybe Hollywood and news producers thought the same thing.  During network coverage of the Papal Conclave, I was thrilled to see ABC News present Archbishop Wilton Gregory to give anchor Diane Sawyer commentary on today's historical events in Rome.
He reflected the world I knew.  The world of my youth.  A world I loved.  My world.  We saw black members of the College of Cardinals.  The conclave is racially diverse.
I graduated from Verbum Dei High School in Watts.  The community had made national headlines when days of race riots erupted in the 1960s.  Some of my favorite teachers, some of the most memorable teachers I ever had, were the black, Latino and white priests who taught there.  The New York Times carried the obituary of Bishop Joseph A. Francis.  After his time with Verbum Dei, Father Francis went on to distinguish himself elsewhere.  The obit noted that he was Auxiliary Bishop of Newark.  Fr. Francis was the fourth African-American Catholic who became a bishop in the U.S.A.  When I first met him, he was our high school principal there on South Central Avenue in Watts.  He was one of the first priests to speak openly on racism.  To me, Fr. Francis was like a rock star at our all-boys high school.  We sons of the Civil Rights era needed his vitality and inspiration.  Growing up, one of the few (if only) black priests we ever saw on film and TV was the one Ossie Davis played in 1963's The Cardinal, starring Tom Tryon.

Before he's ordained as a cardinal, this young Irish priest deals with issues of sex, abortion, inter-faith marriage, Naziism, war and American bigotry in the name of Christ.
Director Otto Preminger, who guided the late Dorothy Dandridge through a fabulous crash through the Hollywood color barrier as the first black woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress thanks to her sizzling 1954 musical performance as Carmen Jones, showed movie-goers that black Catholic priests are a reality.  As a black youth, seeing Ossie Davis in this Preminger film made me feel significant.
The Vatican tossed some money into this big production.  The Vatican's liaison dealing with the famed  Hollywood filmmaker (Laura, Anatomy of a Murder) was a young man named Joseph Ratzinger.  He went to become the now ex-Pope Benedict.

If, in the year 2000, a casting call went out for actors to play a bit part as a Catholic movie critic in a dramatic TV episode, I probably would not have been submitted by my agent at that time.  Not unless it said "seeking African-American actors" or "race unimportant."  With the impression they get from TV and film, agents wouldn't think that there are A) black people who review movies and B) black people who are Catholics.

ABC was one network that had awareness.  I saw black priests on its fine and greatly under-appreciated 1997 dramatic series, Nothing Sacred.  ABC News had Archbishop Wilton on today.  Carmela consulted a black priest during a spiritual crisis in an episode of HBO's The Sopranos.  Little Jordy attended parochial school on the wonderful sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show.  Viola Davis got her first Oscar nomination for playing the conflicted parent of a Catholic grade schooler in Doubt opposite Meryl Streep.  That drama, based on a Broadway play, was set in the 1960s.  Bryant Gumble had an endearing altar boy-like glee when he did a remote from Vatican City during his years anchoring the Today Show.  He's Catholic too.

I've been in parochial scholastic experiences where there was only one white student in the class.  In 7th grade at Mother of Sorrows in Los Angeles -- tall, lanky Michael Cox from Arkansas was the only white kid in a class full of Mexican-American and African-American Catholics.  As Dad used to say about Michael, "He's one of us.  Poor is poor."  Michael's family was scufflin' just like most of ours were.  Robert Enkosky was the only white guy in my Verbum Dei High School graduating class.  He, too, was "one of us."  The school still stands. I pray that I can resurrect my TV career this year and make some Al Roker-like money so I can joyously make a donation to my alma mater.  Things I learned at this school, fine arts events that Verbum Dei made possible for me for enjoy, helped me years later when I became a prime time celebrity talk show host on VH1 in New York.

The Black Catholic life and presence has been an under-reported and under-reflected image in network news and popular entertainment.  There's history that should be acknowledged.  I benefitted educationally and spiritually from a priest who helped make some of that history.

By the way, the late Bishop Joseph A. Francis, the former principal of my high school, would have been one excellent pope.  He made us feel safe.  He spoke out against intolerance.  He knew a thing or two about the importance of diversity.


  1. very interesting post! great share.

  2. I am very honored that you took time to read it and comment. Thanks so much for that. Did you ever see that Preminger film, THE CARDINAL?


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