The Catholic Church was deeply involved in legitimizing and regulating slavery – a very unsaintly legacy.
“Saints like Peter Claver promoted Africanized slavery.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. Today’s featured author is Katie Walker Grimes. Grimes is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.Her book is Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Katie Grimes: Fugitive Saints helps U.S. Catholics, especially those who are white, to confront operative myths of ecclesial racial innocence and heroism. Too often, white Catholics have remembered the church not as it was, but as they wish it had been. It also encourages Catholics to recognize that the saints like Peter Claver promoted Africanized slavery not despite his Catholicism but in, through, and for the sake of it.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope this book encourages activists and community organizers to continue lifting up fugitive histories in all aspects of society. I hope it compels white activists and community organizers to resist or at least interrogate their own desires for white heroes and saviors.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope readers will un-learn the widespread belief that Saint Peter Claver in particular and the corporate body of the Catholic Church in general either resisted Africanized slavery or helped to ameliorate the conditions of enslaved people. I also hope they gain a newfound suspicion of narratives that connect saintliness with servitude; in a world still shaped by what Saidiya Hartman terms “the afterlife of slavery,” these tropes act as antiblackness supremacy’s ally.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
The indigenous theologian George E. Tinker, especially his book Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide, influenced me tremendously. He does in Missionary Conquest many of the same things I tried to do in Fugitive Saints. I also drew upon the work of thinkers such as Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Frank Wilderson, and Jared Sexton to shape my thoughts on the concept of fugitivity deployed as a tool of ecclesial reckoning. And of course, M. Shawn Copeland, my former professor, inspires almost everything I write.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Enlisted as hagiographical strategy, fugitivity enables the church to forge a new way of remembering its past. Taking inspiration from actual black fugitives, it instructs the church to listen to the repressed and excluded voices of the racial prophets of the past without claiming them as its own. A fugitive approach to Catholic sainthood proposes the following: rather than seeking retroactively to place its saints on the side of racial justice, the church ought to permit the dangerous memories of the racially righteous to remain outside of it, undomesticated and fugitive. The church ought to judge all candidates for and articulations of racial holiness by their relation to black fugitivity. A person does not bring racial “good news” unless she makes black fugitivity, as both a historical practice and an interpretive principle, more possible, not less so.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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