What’s in a name? More than you think, says priest

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

With America’s current racial picture including everything from the rise of white nationalism to the supplanting of African Americans by Latinos as the country’s largest minority group, black Catholics must keep fighting for “a place at the table” in the American Catholic Church.

So said Father Donald Sterling, addressing the Joint Congress of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and National Black Sisters Conference held this month in New Orleans.

Ordained in 1974 as the first African-American priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Father Sterling urged black Catholic ministry leaders to persevere, evangelize and exemplify the healing power of love, even in the face of overt racism.

“We have witnessed the two-term service of our first African-American president, yet to be accepted and respected. With sadness, we have to admit that America is not willing to judge her children equally or justly,” said Father Sterling, pastor of Baltimore’s predominantly African-American New All Saints Catholic Church, a parish of 1,000 families and nearly 40 ministries.

The priest said the country’s racial dynamics “still call out for balance,” citing hurdles such as poverty, the deepening disintegration of the family, poor public education and a justice system that engages in “the systemic targeting and annihilation of blacks, especially males.”

“So many pains and scars resulting from the enslavement of our ancestors and racism in the United States – these are still realities,” he said. “(But) I submit to you today that we as African-American Catholics cannot use the cultural or the racist values of others in the movement toward self-affirmation. We must consciously develop a powerful set of reality-based and spiritual values to both counteract the venom of racism and maintain sanity.”

Etymology of ‘Negro’

Father Sterling noted that for centuries, “the world as we know it” has been dominated by the traditions and worldview of Western Europe, whereas cultural practices of non-Europeans have been dismissed as primitive, savage and barbaric.

“Classical culture became normative, and anything that was to be considered a cultural achievement had to meet the canons of this classicist mentality,” he said.

In a world where European aesthetics have reigned for so long, people of color began to lose an adequate understanding of themselves and their history, the priest said.

“Who are you? Pick a name. ‘Negro.’ ‘Colored.’ ‘Black.’ ‘African American,” Father Sterling said, listing the progression of collective monikers used to identify people of color. “Call people by any name and they are still the same people, right? Wrong! The name you respond to determines the amount of your self-worth. Similarly, the way a group of people collectively responds to a name can have devastating effects on their lives, particularly if they did not choose that name.”

To illustrate his point, he looked at the roots of one of the names: Negro.

“Asians come from Asia, and they have pride in Asian tribes; Europeans come from Europe, and they have pride in European accomplishments,” he said. “Negroes, I am to assume, must come from ‘Negro-land’ – a mythical country with an uncertain past and an even more uncertain future. Since ‘Negro-land’ is a myth, where did the myth of ‘the Negro’ originate?”

That’s where things get interesting, he said. While negro is literally the Spanish for “black,” tracing it back to its Greek antecedent reveals the word is rooted in “necro,” which means “dead.”

Greeks sat at Egyptians’ feet

Father Sterling explained that this macabre meaning became attached to people of color after the Greeks traveled to Africa as students to “sit at the feet” of the ancient Egyptians 2,500 years ago and found a well-developed culture that was already “ancient” and flourishing in areas such as writing, science, medicine and religion.

“The Egyptians, like other Africans, understood that life existed beyond the grave – ancestral worship is a way of acknowledging the lives of the people who have come before you,” Father Sterling said. “The Greeks thought that the Africans had a preoccupation with death, and the act of ancestral worship became known as ‘necromancy’ – communication with the dead. Another word for necromancy is ‘magic’ – ‘that old black magic.’”

While “negro” would evolve from this distorted understanding of Egyptian religious practices, today’s Christians, ironically, practice many of the same traditions: praying to the “ancestors” of our faith – the saints; erecting temples – churches – in their honor; and setting aside holy days to remember them.

Less than 300 years after the first Greeks went to Africa as students, their descendants returned as conquerors, Father Sterling said.

“They destroyed the cities, temples and libraries of the Egyptians and claimed African knowledge as their own. Not only was the African legacy stolen, but the wholesale theft of African people soon followed,” he said, noting that the slave trade made it necessary “to dehumanize Africans and devalue their historical worth as a people in order to ensure their value as slaves.”

“So there we have it – the Negro: a race of ‘dead’ people, with a ‘dead’ history and no hope for resurrection as long as they remain ignorant of their past. This was a triple death: the death of the mind; the death of the body; and the death of the spirit of African people,” he said. “What was once referred to as a physical condition (having dark skin) is now regarded as an appropriate state of mind (dead) for millions of Africans now residing in America.”

Rising above hate

As education and literacy levels rose after Emancipation and through the Civil Rights era, African Americans sought to redefine themselves, Father Sterling said.

“The evolution of the Negro from ‘colored’ to ‘black’ to ‘African-American’ in the United States represents a progression of self-consciousness,” he said. “As a free people, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and rediscover our African identities.”

“It is only through the acquisition of information that a group of people can develop the ability to control their destinies,” he added. “That’s something we’ve got to keep in front of us as Catholic organizers.”

Encouraging black Catholics to go out “two by two” to evangelize their communities, Father Sterling reminded his audience that the hallmark of the Catholic community of faith is actively loving God and others – not “just dipping and bowing.”

“We cannot claim to love God if we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves,” he said, noting that black Catholics can’t escape “dealing with difference,” even in relation to those who wall themselves off in gated communities and in towers.

“Only together can we make Christ present in the world,” he said. “Let’s come together. Let’s follow the principles. Keep in mind that we are even called to love (those who do not love us).”

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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