I am Black Robe

Black Robes

For the past several years in my colonial North America class, we’ve read several different books that deal with Jesuits as a part of the French colonial strategy. I’ve also had my students read selections from The Jesuit Relations and write essays using them as primary sources, and I usually also show the relentlessly depressing Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991) in class, too. (Fratguy once offered the best review of this movie ever: “It’s Apocalypse Now, only with Jesuits and Indians!”) Every time, I find myself in an awkward position of defending the Jesuit perspective against my students’ reflexive secular and/or evangelical protestant anti-Catholic views about Jesuit missionary work.

It’s a very strange position to be in, as a non-Catholic Marxist feminist scholar. I’m hardly uncritical, but I find myself (perhaps inappropriately) sympathizing with the Jesuit point of view. Then it occured to me just this spring: I don’t just sympathize with the Black Robes, I identify with them. After all, like the Jesuit fathers, I see myself as bringing Truth to the ignorant. I believe in the power of reading, writing, and knowledge to set people free, if not bring them to Paradise. And part of my job is evangelical–selling the notion of college as an intellectual experience as well as offering myself as a guide to that experience. Like the Black Robes, scholars today have to believe in the transcendent importance of our work, because there is little external recognition or material reward for what we do. And like the Jesuits, we usually overlook the complexities and the contexts of our students lives in order to hold onto these beliefs. We need to believe that education can work for everyone in order for us to get out of bed and face our neophytes and catechumens every new semester.

I fully embrace the good as well as the fundamentally clueless and obnoxious realities of being a Black Robe.

Fortunately, my job doesn’t require the kind of physical risks and bodily discomfort that the Jesuits embraced in their world-wide outreach in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When it does, I’m outta here. Sorry, friends: I may play a Jesuit father at my day job, but I’m no martyr, that’s for sure!

19 thoughts on “I am Black Robe

  1. I wonder if anyone has ever shown a double feature of Black Robe and The Mission. (Theme: Jesuits Bite It In The Wilderness)

    I regularly find myself with the awkward position of defending/explaining the perspective of inquisitors in class.


  2. I think that’s why a double-feature would be redundant!

    I saw The Mission only once, and it seemed just too amped-up and Hollywoody. There are moments of exaggeration and filmic dramatizations rather than historical scenes in Black Robe, but I find it rather understated by comparison to The Mission.

    I hear you on the Inquisition. I haven’t yet had to defend it, but I’ve been assigning a lot of books recently on New Spain/New Mexico/Mexico that are based on inquisition records. . .


  3. “After all, like the Jesuit fathers, I see myself as bringing Truth to the ignorant. I believe in the power of reading, writing, and knowledge to set people free…”

    I am not sure the Jesuits believe in that anymore.


  4. I taught Black Robe for years, and I sympathize completely. I realized I had to leave Zenith when, after a decade or so of unproblematic viewing, a student came to my office hours to complain that the movie was too violent and I should have given a “trigger warning” about the “rape scenes.”

    “Ummm,” I said: “That wasn’t rape, that was sex.”

    Yes, Historiann, you are Black Robe. For sure.


  5. “I see myself as bringing Truth to the ignorant.” Do we have the truth to bring? Is there a truth? Are our students ignorant? These makes me very uneasy. Teaching can be viewed as a process, a set of tool and skills. In my course the absorbing, consuming, digesting and analyzing material is taught and practiced. Example: how to read a journal paper, understand it, find the core idea and take away what matters. We expose students to tools that help the process be more productive and more efficient. Example: engineers may need Mathematica for complex calculations. (Lean more and better) Successful people have skills some of which they acquired at school. Example: learn to go over material fast and efficiently.


  6. Just remember that Dean Colbert and the whole management team here, including President Lou (@ #Prezlou) and the Trustees also want you to move a little product while you’re up there in the Lacs, Historiann. So be sure to sample all of the medicine barks that they may offer you, keep an eye out for veins of silvery stuff in any exposed rock outcrops, and if you happen to run into Sieur de LaSalle, tell him he’s still got a package back here that needs to be signed for. As we were just saying at the implementation team meeting the other day after the Board met, Paris vaut bien une messe!


  7. HA-ha, Indyanna.

    Koshembos: I was making fun of myself and the 17th C Jesuits with that line about Truth and ignorance. Like all fashionable academics, I believe that the nature of truth (small t) is consensual, for the most part. But I nevertheless persist in my self-righteousness (or self-delusions?) in my teaching. (And as Spanish Prof suggests–the Jesuits don’t even really believe in Truth any longer.)

    Tenured Radical: WOW and OMG. SPOILER ALERT: I assume your student was disturbed by the seduction-to-escape scene, not the hotsexyfun scene with Daniel and Annuka, or the businesslike married sex in the wigwam. I have never had a complaint from a Baa Ram U. student about any of the sex or the violence–never a comment or a question, even. That may be because BRU students are a lot less entitled-feeling than Zenith students. But honestly, like you, it never occured to me that those scenes could be read as rape scenes.


  8. See, the funny thing is that what I really liked about Black Robe (back in grad school when I saw it) was that it made the Jesuits way more unfamiliar/”other” than the Indians. The Indians all seemed pretty reasonable, or at least rational/comprehensible, while the Jesuits – who the hell would want to be a Jesuit?? (Based on that movie, at least.) So I certainly didn’t identify with the Jesuits!

    (That said, I spent much of my teaching career defending Catholic orders from student attack/incomprehension – students always saw Benedictine et al. monasticism as a cop-out (what, just withdraw from the world??? how selfish!), or as the equivalent of getting three square and a cot in a difficult world (though I did try to explain that entering monasteries wasn’t exactly an option for the poorest of the poor). We didn’t address the missionary orders nearly as much, but students had a reflexive negative reaction to same-sex groups based on god and celibacy, so…)

    As for the sex scenes: the seduction-to-escape scene is exactly why NLLDH never showed that movie in class, though otherwise he’d have liked to. I can actually see how that scene could be disturbing to people who’d gone through certain kinds of abuse, but calling it rape is pretty inartful.


  9. @New Kid: I had a student write a paper about a Famous Female Saint. Student wrote that she wasn’t holy at all because all she cared about was her own salvation.

    I was gobsmacked. Since then, I start all my classes with pre-modern Christian ideas 101.


  10. New Kid: it’s the Jesuit’s foreignness that I identify with as a tenured university professor. No one thinks they particularly want or need my work, and most are probably right about that.

    Maybe retreat into the cloister is the best option, like your Benedictines?


  11. Oooh, I was hoping that the clip would be the “magic writing” one! I show this to students in my class on early modern European travel writing. The magical, almost religious power of the written word when encountered by oral cultures is a recurring theme of the writers we read. (Then we read John 1 – in the beginning was the Word and all that – and talk about Words as missionary vehicles, about our own sometimes mystical relationship to them, etc – it’s one of my favourite class sessions.)


  12. Historiann, try using a magnifying glass on a sunny day to set a syllabus on fire, or predicting an eclipse that no one in the class had time to hear about in the mad run-up to the Homecoming parade or Halloween parties. That kind of stunt usually shatters indigenous resistance to “foreignness” in the Hollywood playbook, anyway.


  13. I think my powers of detecting plagiarism without Turnitin or Google have brought many students to their knees. I’ll keep in mind that burning syllabus trick, though.


  14. This post and thread warms the cockles of my heart. As a medievalist I find myself defending/identifying with so many strange things (last day of one of my classes this semester we performed a crucifixion play! yay!). And as a result, my students always assume I’m a believer myself. That follows partly from their strange assumption that if you assign it, you must approve of it and everything it says, but it’s also about the kind of defensive position my field puts me in, also against secular and/or Protestant anti-Catholicism (though in Rust Belt, a good proportion of them are Catholic, but many still in that “thank dog I escaped” recovering Catholic mode).

    Also, I saw _Black Robe_ when it came out, with my then-boyfriend, a lefty evangelical. Good times. Not at all a weird and awkward choice for a date night! LOL.


  15. “And as a result, my students always assume I’m a believer myself.”

    I’ve wondered why I occasionally get student evaluations accusing me of being a religious nut. It must be because I insist that they take religion seriously–and in my field, which is largely the provincial hangover from the European Age of Religious Wars, religion is pretty unavoidable.

    Interestingly, I’ve never been accused of atheism in my evaluations, whereas that would actually be accurate! At least my atheism hasn’t offended students to the point where they believe it interferes with their studies.


  16. You know, if you’ve migrated your sylla to one of those, what do they call them, “learning management systems,” and burned one by concentrating sunlight, the fire would have to be in the instructional workstation hardware or an expensive descending screen. This would bring out an apocalyptically furious dean, an enraptured technology vendor rep, an intrusive chief campus officer, and doubtless take up at least a month of hearings. What a grand teachable moment on the folly of having multiple gods, to say nothing of false gods. I wonder why I haven’t tried this (migrating the syllabus, I mean)?


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