Bentley Anderson: Defining Differences  

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“If you’re a Southerner whose family settled in the South prior to the Civil War, you are the offspring of a slave, the offspring of a master, or of both,” said Bentley Anderson, S.J., associate professor and associate chair in the Department of African and African American Studies.

Father Anderson believes himself to be a member of the last category.

“Within my family, I’m convinced that my maternal great-grandfather was a person of color,” he said, adding that two years ago he found out that his descendants owned slaves.

“That’s the story of the South. Black families know it and can see it, but white families pretend it never touched them.”

A Revelation Back Home

Father Anderson’s revelation occurred during a trip to his native New Orleans in 2015, when he took his parents to visit the nearby Whitney Plantation Museum. Unlike many plantation museums, the Whitney doesn’t celebrate the “genteel South,” but focuses on the history and experience of slavery, he said. While reading about the plantation’s founding family, he came across a familiar name: Haydel. It is the same name as his mother’s descendants. And the family members, it turned out, are his direct ancestors.

John Cummings, the museum’s owner, took Father Anderson and his family on a tour of the grounds, where the two began a discussion about the Catholic Church’s social justice values and its history with slavery. The discussion eventually evolved into a challenge via a question from Cummings to Anderson: What are the Jesuits and the Catholic Church doing to help right the past wrongs of slavery?

“Because I was the descendent of a slave-owning family, and because John Cummings challenged me and asked ‘What are you doing?’ I wanted to do an academic project that raised the questions he asked. I can’t change the world, but I can, in my own small way, raise the consciousness of Catholics regarding race relations.”

Father Anderson organized a symposium, Slavery on the Cross, held this past April at Fordham. He said that the speakers at the conference addressed the questions directly, but also took the issues of slavery, segregation, and bigotry beyond the local level and examined them as a national and international issue as well.

With the conference fresh in his mind, this past June Father Anderson went to South Africa to continue his research on the Catholic Church’s response to the nation’s apartheid in the post-World-War-II years. (He’s been doing research in South Africa every year since 2004.) There, Catholicism is a minority religion in what is primarily a Protestant country, a dynamic that Father Anderson could relate to, having grown up as a Catholic in the mostly Protestant city of Atlanta, Georgia.

South African Parallels 

He examined how South Africa’s governing National Party attempted to control the education of the black population through the Bantu Education Act of 1953. After the act was passed, black South Africans’ educational opportunities were restricted, he said. The government, in effect, only allowed blacks to receive an education that was comparable to, say, what would be the 4th or 5th-grade level in the United States. Very few black South Africans continued on to secondary or tertiary levels.

“The government did not want the Native peoples to get the idea that they would follow the same educational track as the Europeans, a track that prepared them for college,” he said. “There was no way they were going to be allowed to be equals.”

The ban was a seminal event for the Catholic Church because its mission in South Africa was anchored in “evangelization through education,” he said. The government forced missionaries operating schools (both Protestants and Catholics) to take a stand: Either give up control of their educational institutions or assume full financial responsibility for them. Up to this point in time, the faith-based schools had received government subsidies.

The Catholic Church would not relinquish control of its mission-based schools, said Father Anderson. It continued to support educating the black population until it became financially unsustainable in the mid-1960s.

The result of those educational restrictions, said Father Anderson, was the creation of a “permanent underclass” that will take several generations to undo.

Navigating Faith as a Minority

“What drew me to South Africa is that Catholics were a minority in a Protestant world. I’m interested in questions of how believers navigate in that world. What do you do when you know you’re not really welcome?” Furthermore, “how does a religious body practice what it preaches in an inhospitable environment? Does it follow its precepts and teachings, or does it compromise? And if it compromises, how does it justify doing so?”

He said his love of the Catholic Church, his Jesuit foundation, his experience living as a Catholic among Protestants in Atlanta,, and his recent discoveries about his own ancestry have allowed him to look more deeply at the race question and what it means to be an outsider. He continues to probe difficult questions as they relate to places and institutions he cares most about, particularly the Church and its role in matters of slavery, segregation, and apartheid.

“Racial identity is a construct, so regardless of one’s racial background, the one unifying factor is Catholicism,” he said. “One of the precepts of the Church is the unity of the human race, because we’re all children of God. If you accept that, then there’s no room for separation or segregation. That is the antithesis of Catholic thought.”

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