In perhaps the first event of its kind, a group of Black Catholic writers and allies gathered on Wednesday, December 9th, to discuss—among a variety of related topics—what it means to carry on the Catholic literary tradition in the 21st century Black community.
Black Catholic Messenger hosted the event, with the help of Micha Green, digital content editor of Afro News (a Black newspaper founded 1892). The event was broadcast live (and can be viewed in full) on the Women in the NAACP (WIN) DC Facebook page.
"When you think about literature as art, it's really easy to think about Catholic literature, or Black Catholic literature, as an expression of a culture."
The other two authors on the panel delved into how faith plays into books that may not necessarily have an explicitly Catholic theme, noting that many of the "classics" are seen as secular books—despite being created in heavily Catholic cultures (and often by devout writers).
"If people were to get back to the core of just sitting down and reading through a book... they would see why those elements of Catholicism or Catholic literature are so important," said Lauren Poteat, a journalist, Black authorship advocate, and author of a new children's book.
Poteat, while not a Catholic herself, noted that these elements of classic literature are often present in modern literature, but most readers aren't looking for them.
I also served on the panel, echoing Poteat's sentiment by noting how much bestseller lists and influencers play into what is seen as "good" literature in the modern age.
These lists, in turn, often feature only the most celebritized voices.
Alessandra Harris, a successful fiction novelist and blogger who has built up a large following, noted alongside Barnes that while Black writers of course exist, they often are not seen or published. (Poteat noted that the Black share of overall authors hovers at around 5%.)
"Publishing is overwhelmingly White," Harris said.
"For Black authors, it's important to look at all your options."
Harris started out working with an agent and a small publisher, while Barnes (like Poteat) opted to self-publish.
I myself noted the power of social media in the authorship journey, adding that if you don't have followers, you aren't likely to see much fruit. And in my experience, you have to do some following—or a lot of following—in order to gain a following.
Another obstacle discussed is the dearth of knowledge about the diversity of American Catholicism, a phenomenon that Barnes described as "radio silence" on issues such as the death of John Lewis.
"Sometimes there is this political divide in our country that seeps into the Church and seeps into Catholic media," she said.
"Because of that conservative-liberal divide, sometimes Black voices are simply not heard."
She noted that Black voices are needed to "refocus" the nation and the Church, remind them that Black history "is something that's important for every American and for every Catholic to acknowledge".
One of the earliest commentators in the discussion, Jalissa Pollard, encouraged Black Catholic Messenger to continue its mission as a space for Black Catholic voices to be heard.
She was not on the panel herself, but is a notable author—having self-published a popular children's book last year that highlights Black Catholic culture explicitly, one of the first of its kind in the digital era.
"The people have been desiring [a Black Catholic news source] so much, and I'm so grateful to [everyone involved] for being committed to the cause, being committed to our faith, and living it every day."
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).