Still, those Americans who read the document will find it a bracing experience. As I sat with it, I wondered if it offered a path between several yet unresolved ways of approaching race, identity, and culture that haunt my questions about this country. Francis’s fine parsing of the local and the universal, the collective and the individual, made me think—as, admittedly, I often do—about whatever we mean when we talk about “Blackness.” Some insist that it is an immutable category, more a kind of fate than a record of histories and experiences, and that Black people are resigned, always and everywhere, to a state of unfree sub-citizenship. The particulars of Black life, they say, make it impossible to draw analogies between our experiences and those of other oppressed peoples around the world—solidarity, for them, is an impossibility, more a cruel joke than a strategy for change. And some, focused on the history of chattel slavery in the United States but unwilling to engage with the history of American imperial behavior, try to erect a hierarchy of racial-political claims to redress, placing the concerns of African Americans above those of immigrant groups and other people of color: a politics of “blood and soil” with Black blood, at long last, made a priority. Others imagine a world utterly evacuated of racial concerns. In this vision, we’d all step out of our labels, stop calling some people “Black” and others “white,” and finally shrug off the nastiness of history. All we’d need is to stop relying on the false charms of the group, and finally live our lives as cosmopolitan individuals, ready to face the world alone.
These unsatisfactory options seem to rhyme with the scheme that Francis puts forward in the fifth chapter of Fratelli tutti, in which he repudiates both an unthinking, demagogic populism and a “dogma of neoliberal faith” that leaves all of a person’s problems up to the global market to fix. He posits, instead, the importance of a third kind of arrangement, that of a “people” who, keeping their common experience in mind, sail through history together, always looking for a fresh wind, open to the possibility of change. “The concept of ‘people,’” Francis writes, “is in fact open-ended. A living and dynamic people, a people with a future, is one constantly open to a new synthesis through its ability to welcome differences. In this way, it does not deny its proper identity, but is open to being mobilized, challenged, broadened and enriched by others, and thus to further growth and development” (160).
Here Francis reminds me of the Black feminist scholar, critic, and activist Barbara Smith, who coined the much-misunderstood term “identity politics.” Smith’s great insight was that a politics centered on our experiences as members of shunted-aside groups—as Blacks, as women, as lesbians, on and on—can refine our notions of freedom, first for ourselves and then, crucially, for others as well. Francis is just as attentive to the lessons offered, often harshly, by daily life. “Realities are greater than ideas,” he says in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium. This has been the bent of an American lineage that stretches from the later W.E.B. Du Bois, runs through the life of the entertainer and radical publisher Paul Robeson, and is evident in the works of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Each of them was an ardent internationalist, as interested and involved in the drama of decolonization in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as in the grand twentieth-century struggles of Black people in America.
I can imagine Francis nodding happily toward Julius Nyerere, the late Tanzanian president and anti-colonialist, who grounded his arguments for pan-African socialism in the cultural memory of his own people. Nyerere—a pious Catholic who has inspired a local cult and a case for canonization—invoked what he called “traditional African society” as a goad for movement into the future, toward what Francis calls “a universal horizon” of solidarity among sisters and brothers. “Both the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ individual were completely secure in African society,” Nyerere wrote in his essay “Ujamaa—The Basis of African Socialism.” “Nobody starved, either of food or of human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth; he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member. That was socialism. That is socialism.”
That is the Blackness I want—an open attitude toward identity and group experience, a peoplehood hungry for the future. Its voice rings out so clearly in those fleeting moments of the Mass and now, perhaps unexpectedly, in Fratelli tutti. It has its feet on the ground of race and ethnicity and place, and stretches outward, its heart and its arms aimed at the rest of the world.
This article appeared as part of a symposium on Fratelli tutti in our December 2020 issue, alongside “Freedom & Equality Aren’t Enough” by Charles Taylor; “Radical Truths” by William T. Cavanaugh; and “Reconsidering ‘Chisme’” by Neomi De Anda.