from Daily Theology
Over the last month, I have had the privilege of interviewing, via email, Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Williams is currently working on the manuscript for her first book entitled, “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America,” which unearths the forgotten history of black Catholic sisters in the fight to eradicate racial and gender barriers in the U.S. Church and wider American society. When published, it will be the first historical monograph on black nuns in twentieth-century America.
John Slattery: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of the conversation here at Daily Theology. If you don’t mind, let’s start with your background. Could you tell me a bit about your own journey, growing up in the Catholic Church?
Shannen Dee Williams: Growing up, I could count the number of black Catholics that I knew on two hands. They were my mother, my sister, me, the four-member African-American family who attended our suburban and nearly all-white parish, and by 1993, the bishop of our diocese. At some point during my childhood, I became aware of the existence of the two predominantly black Catholic churches in my hometown, and I recall often begging my mother to take us to the “black parishes” on Sunday mornings—especially after we endured some form of humiliation or rejection at our parish. However, my mother always said no stating that the black parishes were too far away from our home and that the people at our parish who refused to shake our hands or always looked at us like we were lost weren’t real Catholics.
For the longest time, I could not wrap my mind around my mother’s staunch loyalty to the Catholic Church, especially since I knew her experiences in the Church had been less than ideal. You see, my mother was in the first class of women admitted to the University of Notre Dame in 1972, and I grew up with a large, extended family that often celebrated the fact my mother was Notre Dame’s first black woman graduate. But, over the years, I watched my mother (who was at St. Mary’s College before transferring to Notre Dame in 1972) cringe every time the fact was mentioned and quickly change the subject. When I finally mustered up enough courage to ask my mother about her experiences at Notre Dame, she simply intimated that it was better left unspoken and immediately tried to change the subject. When I pushed harder, she made it plain that she did not want me to attend Notre Dame for college and then shut down completely…