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May 15, 2004

Simon of Cyrene: Black African?

I must confess that I've forgotten my Stations of the Cross. Of all the Masses in the Catholic calendar, the Stations of the Cross were the most painful. Surely there must have been some time when I was twiddling my thumbs in mass as we all sang..

At the cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful mother weeping,
close to Jesus at the last,
Through her soul, of joy bereavd,
bowed with anguish, deeply grievd,
now at length the sword hath passed.

It has been so long since I've been at such a Mass that I am forgetting the melody. The one in my head doesn't quite match the meter of these lyrics and I wish I knew some dutiful Catholic so I could hum this song in my head and know the words which belong.

On my mind have been thoughts relating to integration, 'separate but equal' and affirmative action. So in reflection of Gibson's 'Passion', I wondered what kind of reaction others might have given to seeing a white Simon. Most blackfolks I know who commented on the film found this to be the most(!) troubling aspect of it. I haven't really thought about this controversy much until this morning.

We all know that American Christianity has been whitewashed, just like everything else. The recovery process for the correction of history is complete for the most part as regards what can be made politically significant vis a vis 'The Struggle'. But there are figures, like Simon, who are not so easily politicized. In many ways it doesn't matter if Simon of Cyrene could be considered visually black, unless of course it was true.

It is a truth we are not likely to determine with any accuracy, but as a black Catholic (of sorts), it was a matter of pride and honor in the 70s to assert his black face. It has become something of a tradition in American contemporary culture to depict Simon as black, much the way McDonald's commercials make their appropriate obeisance to the presence and power of black America. It has the appeal of our principles of equality, and it's offensive not to. Despite this realistic although sometimes gratuitous and annoying convention, it's decorous and proper but it's not absolutely necessary. On the matter of Christian Saints, however, I'd say that it is necessary to get it right even if by some dogmatic fiat.

To the extent that we know fact about Cyrene was where Libya is, there is clearly some ethnic heritage of the place which is likely berber, arab and other Northern African. No quick check of the web gives anything definitive. But I'll be checking the Bernal-Lefkowitz debate and see if I come up with something.

Posted by mbowen at May 15, 2004 10:13 AM

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Although I am now nominally a Catholic, I grew up in the Baptist church where we also were taught that Simon was black. Who knows though?

Although the Berbers were in Libya thousands of years before Christ, the city of Cyrene was founded by Greeks and Arabs didn't show up on the scene till much after Christ's death. So it is more likely that he was Greek than Berber and most certainly not an Arab. Also, the Eygptians and even Persians had some control over the area for a time. And considering the importance of the area and the multi-ethnic makeup of the empire he could defintely have been black.

I guess my point is that it is almost impossible to make an ethnic claim on him any more than it is to say someone is an American and assume he is white.

Regardless, he was certrainly an African in the broad sense of the term.

Posted by: walter at May 15, 2004 02:26 PM

Interesting, Augustine was African as well.

Point of information: The Stations of the Cross are a devotion. A sort of para-liturgy, but it is not the Mass.

The tune is Stabat Mater. Man, that reminds me of many Lenten Fridays in elementary school, incense, genuflection, organ, nuns, uniforms. I'd go now if more of the parishes still did it this way.

This is a link to a midi file of the tune.

Bruised, derrided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender child
All with bloddy scourges rent.

Posted by: Patrick at May 16, 2004 10:44 PM

As to the Passion by Mel Gibson. I came to the movie very interested to see how he would handle the part of Simon. I was not satisfied with the mulatto character. However, as stated by previous comments, he was most likly not the hue of west africans or african americans. Even so, I was hoping for a real brother to play the role. You know, we all are drawn to the characters who bear resemblance to ourselves. Everyboby be blessed. Jesus loves you!

Jay Bee

Posted by: Jay Bee at November 9, 2004 09:50 AM

you can find the traditional stabat mater
tune and harmony here:

to hear it, go here:

Posted by: Rita Bosico at January 18, 2005 12:39 PM