Featured, Theory & Essay

On Being Young, Black, Liberal, And…Catholic

As a product of 14 years of Catholic education, I often have a hard time explaining what my educational experience was like as there aren’t many relevant pop culture references. Amy Sherman-Palladino and Curtis Sittenfield seems to have nailed the prep school scene, Josh Schwartz and the producers of Laguna Beach had Southern California down, while Cecily von Ziegesar covered the NYC private school experience (or at least some fictional, soap-opera version of all these high school experiences). But what about me? How was it like to attend a small Catholic grammar school for 10 years and then an all-boys Catholic high school for four years?

“It kind of fucked me up,” I proclaimed to a co-worker over lunch one day last week. “Not academically, but socially. I don’t think everybody experienced these problems, but I remember learning in school that things like sex and drinking were bad and would send me to hell and deeply believing it. I think it took me a couple of years to kind of ‘un-learn’ everything I learned growing up and learn how to have fun.”

The funniest part about the problems I had reconciling my Catholic school upbringing from being liberal is that the majority of classmates growing up couldn’t have cared less about their souls or such big existential questions. I often recalled my classmates asking why my skin was so dark or joking that they couldn’t see me whenever someone turned off the lights—not even realizing that that is not an okay thing to say.

In particular, I remember one event during my sophomore year in high school. In an attempt to control the class, my theology teacher rearranged the seating and put me in the back. At first I was dismayed and thought that my grades would suffer, but I began to become entertained as I listened to my classmates’ conversations with each other. One day, one of those classmates turned around to me. I was writing in my notebook when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Hey, Valcy?”

I immediately turned around and saw this classmate staring at me, smiling. How strange, I thought to myself. As much as I enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations around me, I only did just that – this was the first time I had actually spoken to one of them. What could this student have to say to me?

“There was no homework due today.” I said simply.
“Oh, I know that Valcy. I just wanted to ask you something….”
“Ask away.”
“You know how you’re Black?”
I perked my head up with a look of interest and chuckled. “Yeah. I know that I’m Black.”
“…but the palm of your hands are white.”
“As are the bottom of my feet,” I replied.
“Is your penis, like, white too?”

Before I could respond, this classmate’s friend jumped into our conversation. “Haven’t you ever seen a porno? Of course his penis is Black!”

My classmates’ unfiltered adolescence came across as ignorant and rude—and some may even say racist, but I don’t think that was their intention. There were very few African-Americans in my high school and I think that their questions came from a desire to actually sort racial stereotypes—like the Black man with the big, dark penis—from reality.

Catholicism seems to have a lot of rules. We’re expected to go to Church every week and take communion. We have to confess what other people define as sinful to a complete stranger on a regular basis. We can’t engage in any sexual behavior before marriage. And even when we are married, there are strict regulations on our sexual behavior: only unprotected vaginal intercourse is allowed. Breaking these rules is viewed as mortal sin; and if we die without having confessed these “sins”, the Catholic Church claims that we will go to hell.

The problem with this idea of sin is that it tends to relegate people into definite spheres and give life an air of simplicity. We can all assume different roles; indeed, just as a man can be a bad husband but a good father, somebody can be a “bad Catholic” and a good person. I know several people who assume roles that are at odds with Catholic beliefs—like the gay teenager who wanted to become a priest or promiscuous girl who teaches Bible study classes during weekends. In this same vein, it’s interesting to note how many people actually follow all the rules of religion: I was hard pressed to find someone in my community who actively followed all the tenets of the Catholic Church—which was probably because these individuals weren’t exactly sure what they believed.

For me, college was about reconciling my Catholic upbringing with a college mindset. Indeed, I truly thought I was liberal before matriculating at Yale as a freshman only to realize that conservatism applies to more than just politics. I didn’t drink or party during my underclassmen years and I was always in the library working hard and doing my best. My reputation at Yale was centered on the idea of being a “good Catholic boy”; even though this wasn’t my reputation in high school.

Even to this day, I have to reevaluate my upbringing and divorce my true opinion from what I was told to believe. If I were to masturbate, does that mean my soul will perish? If I supported my best friend’s decision to have an abortion, am I assisting in genocide? As much as I’d like to commend the Catholic Church on taking definite stands, we have to realize that life isn’t black and white. I don’t believe that a person who acknowledges their sexual nature deserves to end up in the same place as a murderer. And a low-income teenager who realizes that she can’t afford to be pregnant (let alone raise a child) should not be condemned for trying to break a cycle of poverty.

Indeed, just as my high school classmates challenged their conceived notions of race through blatant inquiry, I too have learned to question the world around me through observation and inquiry. As of now, I’m not sure where I stand on many of these issues on religion, sex, and politics–but I’m glad that I’m beginning to at least grapple with them.

Valcy Etienne

Valcy is a rising senior at Yale University where he majors in Political Science. He has most recently worked at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Yale University Press and Cory Booker for US Senate and is originally from Stony Point, NY. Until leaving for college he always carried sriracha sauce with him.

  • Sahel

    Religion teaches us not to question but to accept. The hardest thing is to question faith that you grew up in,i know that all to well mate.That being said,i love me some catholic girls.

    • Lea Thrace

      I have missed you so…

      • Sahel

        Come closer and give Papi a hug…

    • TJ

      Everyone loves a Catholic school girl. Lmao.

  • TJ

    S/o to the Haitians, because name and Catholicism. Lol.

    I completely As someone who is Haitian/Black, Catholic and Catholic School educated too…the upbringing really messes with you, especially in college. It’s also interesting going to Catholic school and mass and being the minority. And I always get a kick out of other Black people give me the, “You’re Catholic?” face. Like I’m some kind of unicorn.

    • ED

      Lmao I went through the same thought process!

      I went to Catholic school in Haiti. Luckily for me that only lasted through the 6th grade. 7th grade and up were in public school in Brooklyn.

    • Asiyah

      “And I always get a kick out of other Black people give me the, “You’re Catholic?” face.”

      It’s funny you say this because that was my thought when I saw the headline for this post

      then I saw his last name

      then I said, “oh that makes sense! He’s Haitian!”

      then I felt bad because I can be ignorant sometimes.

    • NOLA_Shawn

      This article is really humorous to me because I live in a city of “unicorns”. I’m from New Orleans which is a very Catholic very Black city so I didn’t realize that it is an outlier until adulthood. Anyone who can afford Catholic school send their kids there and most are not Catholic. We’re so Catholic that people talk about the Pope’s visit in the 80’s as if it was the Beatles. I wasn’t raised Catholic but like most New Orleanians I observe some Catholic traditions like giving up a bad habit for Lent or not eating meat on Friday during Lent or fasting on Good Friday.

      Continue to seek your truth and know that there are plenty of people like you.

  • Agatha Guilluame

    I don’t know this life of being black and being Catholic and feeling different. I grew up on an island where it’s one of the predominant religions and we’re all dark. Ain’t nothing amazing about a black Catholic to me.

    My Catholic church here in New York has all shades, truly. After reading your account I’m glad my story is different.

    But I do get some, emphasis on some, of your Catholic experiences. Like your irrational list of sins. I got my ears pierced at 12 against my will. My mother didn’t understand that in school they’d thought us that piercing the flesh was a sin. I cried the whole way home believing I’d done something against God. I also get how attending a school all one gender can mess you up socially later in life. My cousin went to an all girls Catholic school until college and if she isn’t the most awkward of hoes. So uncomfortable around men. So lacking the natural ease in her interactions with them. It’s a shame.

    • *Adds “the most awkward of hoes” to my list of band names.

      • Kim

        lol that one got me too

        • It actually sounds like the name of a Rolling Stones album.

      • miss t-lee

        YASSSS.

    • MsSula

      I think having the Catholic faith as the dominant faith where I grew up helped in not having the “awkward” experience thing.

      I went to all girl schools from 3rd grade to 12th grade. While they breed some awkward ones, some of us are actually normal and even liberal. :-)

  • Asiyah

    Valcy,

    You are a true human being. To grapple with such issues means to be alive, to have a mind, to be using your intellect, to connect with your soul. I don’t have any answers or advice but I wanted to point that out. I enjoyed reading this as a person who is religious (though I tend to be very personal about it).

    That being said, I can’t believe somebody asked you about your penis at Catholic school. I know they were just kids but sheesh manners.

    • ED

      Even though I was out of Catholic school by age 12, I’ve met very few people who were as vulgar as my classmates.

      • Asiyah

        I’ve seen it too, not just with Catholic school kids but kids who attended Madrassas (Islamic schools). I’m just taken aback because it happened inside the school. smh

        • ED

          All my experiences were in school lol

        • Sahel

          How curious,you are muslim

  • Even though I was raised Catholic, went to church every Sunday up until my parents divorced, very little of My actual schooling Was in Catholic schools thankfully. I do remember this white girl who was in a grade ahead of me who used to always hug me so tight everyday after class. She was very affectionate with me.

    Anyway, my biggest confrontations with Catholicism has always been with other black people who had zero experience with it. Asking me strange questions like whether or not I pray to the pope. Or them having no reverence for the virgin mary was always strange to me.

    • miss t-lee

      “Anyway, my biggest confrontations with Catholicism has always been with other black people who had zero experience with it. Asking me strange questions like whether or not I pray to the pope. Or them having no reverence for the virgin mary was always strange to me:”

      Think about it from the other way.

      I literally knew no Black folks that were Catholic until my 20s.
      Even now all my friends that are Catholic are Hispanic.

      • rlgreen91

        That’s interesting. You’re from Houston, right? Or at least in Houston. I’m actually from Beaumont, but I feel like Southeast Texas tends to have a decent amount of black Catholics, probably because the ones in Louisiana crossed the border.

        • miss t-lee

          No. I’m from Austin. Central Texas is a whole different animal…lol
          And yeah, I can definitely understand the big amount of SE Texans who are Catholic. Once you get into that area, you might as well be in Louisiana.

    • One of my high school teachers was the first black Catholic I ever met. There’s a predominately black Catholic church here in Charleston too.

    • Asiyah

      Those questions about praying to the pope remind me of people who think Muslims pray to Prophet Muhammad (SAWW) or that Shia Muslims pray to the Prophet Muhammad’s family.

      I also find the lack of reverence for the Virgin Mary strange. I understand not seeing her as a deity or as the mother of God but it bothers me that some non-Catholic Christians practically dismiss her.

    • LMNOP

      I never understood how there are so many Christians who are so indifferent to Mary. Being the mother of god is kind of a big deal.

    • Agatha Guilluame

      Do you ever get questions about whatever latest decree the Pope/the church has made? One thing people don’t realize is regardless of the church’s stance on gay marriage, abortion, etc., NONE of that is ever preached at the pulpit. EVER. I feel like non-Catholics pay more attention to that stuff than Catholics do. And I feel like those issues are more often “preached” about in other Christian churches. And that’s another thing, when you go to Mass, they don’t interpret scripture. They just read it. You’re left to take from it what you will.

      • I used to all the time when Emperor Palpatine was the Pope. Catholic church really treats the Bible as The Holy Book. You’re here to hear the word as it is written. That’s it. The personal opinion or interpretation is irrelevant. That’s why we get out 60~80minutes instead of the 4 hour concerts and personal diatribes in other churches.

        • Agatha Guilluame

          Right!

        • Delia

          Amen to two posts above! Black, Catholic and Liberal over here!

      • Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That

        I still get annoyed when people are shocked to find out I am both a practicing Catholic and a hardcore liberal. Minus issues relating to reproductive rights and gay marriage, the Catholic Church is INSANELY liberal. Gun control? Pope says it’s a moral obligation. Helping the poor? Absolute requirement. Global warming? Must do something about it NOW. Papa Francis’ stance on that one got Fox News to label him the “most dangerous man on the planet”. That’s when you KNOW you’re doing something right.

        • Delia

          Did they really state that???

          • Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That

            State what? That the Pope is the most dangerous man on the planet? Oh yes they did! This Pope is TERRIFYING the Right Wing and I LOVE IT!

            • Delia

              Now I get it

  • miss t-lee

    I don’t much about the Catholic faith outside of what I’ve learned from friends.
    Thanks for sharing your story.

  • RewindingtonMaximus

    You made it. And you’re mad not at God.

    I think that’s what truly matters. Good post sir.

  • towninc

    i thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.

  • CrankUpThe_AC

    Catholic and Haitian. If there was an olympics for self-deprication that combo would be the gold medalist every time lol. Great post.

  • My grandfather calls us, cafeteria Catholics.
    He argues that you can’t pick and choose what rules to follow. I argue that I don’t think God cares about my musical choices. I think he, God, has more important things to focus on. As a cradle Catholic I understand the unlearning of what has been taught to me my entire life. I love being Catholic, but ultimately I believe that each person has to form their own personal relationship with God.

    • Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That

      One of the basic tenets of Catholicism is the belief that above all, we should follow our conscience. A conscience is a gift from God and therefore it is our responsibility to utilize it. Catholicism has a lot of rules, but it’s also OK to question those rules.

More Like This