The Archivist’s Nook: The Darkness is the Light – Father Cyprian Davis and the Black American Catholic Experience

Father Cyprian Davis. Photo Courtesy of St. Meinrad Archabbey

“Black Theology arises from the experience of being black and oppressed in the United States. It is a theology which seeks, first, to speak to Black people where they are now. It explains what it means to them to be black and Christian. Only then does it look beyond the Black community and present itself, without apology, to the white Christian world.

—Diana Hayes, 1985 Dissertation titled Historical Experience and Method in Black Theology: The Interpretation of Dr. James A. Cone, submitted to the Faculty of the School of Theology at the Catholic University of America.

The quoted text is from the dissertation of a previous Catholic University of America theology student and is representative of the many powerfully-written hermeneutical texts that were authored by students and collected by Father Davis in his exploration of the Black American Catholic experience.

Cyprian Davis was one of the great theologians, exegetes, liturgiologists, homeletes and (what the Swahili call a mwanafalsafa) to emerge from the African American Catholic tradition and the Catholic tradition as a whole. His work was focused on racial reconciliation, racial unity, the unity of the church, the evolution of the African American Catholic identity, and the healing of a people who carry the genetic scars of enslavement.

The History of Black Catholics by Cyprian Davis. Copy from The Catholic University of America Archives

The literatures of the Davis collection are emblematic of what any descendant of the Africans who were brutally snatched from their homelands and placed into a vile system of chattel enslavement in order to build The United States of America into the greatness that it is today, would intuitively know: that the historical and contemporaneous African American experience is one of dizzying permutation. It is a disparate amalgamation of social forces and perplexities that has been aptly characterized by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III as a blue note existence—one in which the existential mood is premised upon the contrasting nature of all things bittersweet. This notion of contrasting forces as coessential to one another, is a conceptualization that is prevalent throughout the history of West African philosophical schools of thought and is critical to the African understanding of the world. The West African cerebration of metaphysic coessentiality and complimentary opposing forces within the natural world was exhaustively investigated and expertly exposited by Marimba Ani in her 1994 monograph called YuruguMetaphysical coessentiality is the ethereal, spiritual marrow that is responsible for the superhero endurance that African Americans have shown throughout the history of the Atlantic World and it is the foundation on which Davis’ epistemology rests.

The Black spiritual and religious tradition is often simply referred to as The Black Church; however, this phrase is indicative of an uninformed, undistinguished, monolithic view that belies the multifactorial nature of the African American spiritual tradition and how it was transmuted by White Christian violence that was enacted as a means of perpetuating African American enslavement and dehumanization, and as a means of destroying African American’s own centuries old West African spiritual traditions by having the church decree them as evil witchcraft that would need to be denounced or one would suffer grave tortures to ensure that this occurred.   

1979 Series by The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, Inc. from Cyprian Davis’ personal library

While Christianity was largely unknown to African Americans, it was a faith that had noble roots in East African societies that are older than those in Rome. Despite the malefactions through which the African American religious tradition emerged, it was transformed by Africans’ creative nature through creolization and syncretism between traditional West African spirituality and the new religious tradition forced on African Americans.  

What is most interesting about Father Cyprian Davis is evident throughout his collection—his remarkable quest to reconcile the ways in which the word of God had been hijacked and weaponized against African Americans. But how did Davis forge a space for African Americans?

As an archivist, Davis was not afraid of facing the ugliness of the Church’s history head on and exploited this history to bolster the physical, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual resilience of the African American Catholic community. Davis understood that the darkness of the past was inextricable from the light of the future, so he sought to prepare African American Catholics for a church that was in many ways no different from the world around it because the church had been historically and contemporaneously a hostile space for African Americans that would require the acuity of self-knowledge to navigate and to repair the institution. It was an incredibly bold way to usher in the spirit of reparation, through directly living out the Church’s values of human dignity and the mandate to protect the sacred nature of life.

Father Cyprian Davis Photo Courtesy of St. Meinrad Archabbey

The Cyprian Davis collection consists of 32 boxes of materials from the estate of Benedictine Fr. Cyprian Davis of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana. The collection reflects his research into and interest in the history of black Catholics in the United States, black spirituality, and the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, which he helped found in 1968. The collection includes a wide range of materials, mostly printed, and reflects Davis’ multifaceted interests. Among the items are the records, agendas, and minutes from various conference proceedings, especially the National Black Clergy Caucus, the National Black Catholic Congress, and joint conferences. Also included are the records pertaining to a range of projects in which Davis was heavily involved, including the Black Hymnal Project and the Historical Commission in the Cause of Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897). Davis’ notes and assembled research material relating to his most famous book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (publ. 1990), and other research projects are also included, along with the texts of his various public addresses. The bulk of the materials span the period from the late 1960s to the mid-2000s.

 

 

The Archivist’s Nook: The Brutal Archives

1920s CUA Brochure to Prospective Students from the CUA Archives Photographic Collection Ca. 1887-1999: Box 71, Folder 7.

The construction of a Brutalist building at The Catholic University of America marked a departure from the existing architectural style previously seen at CUA and it was a departure from original conceptions of the growth of the university taking shape in a form that resembled a medieval village.

How did this shift in architecture challenge the ideas of public space? Was it a social experiment that was well suited to the academic environment?

I recently chatted with Eric Jenkins, a Professor of Architecture at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning to get the answer to this question:

It was very expressionist; a lot of architects in the 70s were not concerned with making a typical campus, such as Yale, with its unified and orderly sense of space; they were concerned with making a modern statement” This modernist statement was invoked in the form of Aquinas Hall, the current home of The Catholic University of America Archives and 1 of 4 Brutalist expressions currently on campus.

The grand entrance stairway consists of a set of angulated right vertices and rectilinear striations of concrete whose descent to a planular surface of alternating rectangles adds an ethereal level of depth to the viewer’s field of vision.

Washingtonians are organically familiar with the Brutalist Aesthetic, due to the ubiquity of Government Brutalism in Washington D.C. In fact, The District is home to extremely beautiful examples of the Brutalist architectural style. From the trip to work, to the work place itself, a Washingtonian’s daily routine is saturated by the atmospheric essence of Béton Brut, which can be seen in the ceilings of the Metro’s cavernous stations and seen deep within the bowels of Downtown.

Washington’s Brutalist buildings are a communique of power, impenetrability, and the performative use of materials to create a remarkable psycho-social demarcation through jarring exaggerations in building scale that coerce the viewer to process the architectural form from a macroscopic perspective, in what Professor Jenkins noted as “object-oriented landscaping, in which the building becomes a landscape object.”

The atrium central staircase is an act of paradox: an acute involution of inflexible materials around a softer hexagonal social area presenting an unusual mix of refined textiles and raw materials.

Brutalism was the Federal Government’s de rigueur style during the 1970s; but tucked away at The Catholic University of America, a new player entered the field, in the form of a quieter, more pensive expression that emerged in divergent transition to the Federal Government’s translation of the Brutalist aesthetic.

In 1965, candidates for the Master of Arts in English, at The Catholic University of America, were asked during their comprehensive examinations to ruminate on a complexly layered observation made by Mark Shorer in the foreword of Society and Self in the Novel, a 1955 treatise edited by Shorer in which he made the following annunciation:

“…the problem of the novel has always been to distinguish between these two, the self and society, and at the same time to find suitable structures that will present them together.”

The central staircase appears dramatic in the morning sunlight due to the striking contrasts created by the deep shadows of the opposing faces.

From an interdisciplinary standpoint, the ontological consideration of the parallels, partitions and implications of what is real, what is imagined, and what can become, is one of the core considerations of designing a building—in other words: how to reconcile between anthropocentricity and design aesthetics to create a unified conversation between these aspects that are at times in harmonious communication and at other times in discordant miscommunication. The design of CUA’s Aquinas Hall squares this circle because the building was not designed through a psycho-social lens but rather as a form of psycho-geographical praxis in which scale is downplayed and the viewer’s gaze is shifted to the granular level. In this context, the juxtaposition of raw, coarse, unpolished, imperfect, cacophonous materiality results in theatric, unexpected geometries.


A melodic, psychogeographic exploration of the geometry and materiality of the Brutalist home of The Catholic University of America’s Archives.

Images and video of Aquinas Hall are by the author, Juan-Pablo Gonzalez.