Actually, there have been (at least) three popes of African descent, all of whom lived, pontificated and died before "blackness" was a societally recognized and accepted social construction.
So, why am I so nitpicky on this subject? Because "blackness" as a socio-political identity is a relatively new construction -- along with "race" itself (versus nationality or ethnicity). So, these three popes of African descent were essentially pre-Black. And therefore, Jesus wasn't "white": 1) because he pre-dated what would centuries later be deemed "white" and 2) he was much more likely resembled a modern-day Ethiopian or Somalian than Jim Caviezel or Willem Dafoe.
Here are five other related musing in no particular order:
1. What is "black" in the United States is often deemed something else pretty much everywhere else on the face of the earth. The one-drop rule isn't exactly spreading globally like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and hip hop.
Go to South Africa, Haiti, Brazil or France, and see how many black people they call something else. Better yet, count how many times citizens of those countries call some of our most celebrated Blackfolk white (besides Michael Jackson). I lived in the capital of Bahia, Brazil for six months many moons ago. Its capital, Salvador, was the biggest slave port in the New World, and thus, had a population that remains to this day overwhelmingly of African descent.
When I asked a friend there if there had ever been a Black governor of Bahia, he said no. However, when I looked at the portraits of a great many of them, I, 99% of Black Americans and most non-Black Americans would classify many of them as Black. Additionally, along with their color-based racial classification system, Brazilians have an expression, “o dinheiro embranquece”, or "money whitens", adding a class dimension to their assignment of "race" as well.
2. What is "black" today is not necessarily what "black" was
yesterday. Just like culture and language evolve, so too does racial
terminology. Nonato, like most of countrymen and -women (regardless of race) defined black as a very dark-skinned (non-millionaire) individual with West African facial features and hair. I meant someone -- anyone with any discernible trace of African blood. Same word, different worlds, and lost in socio-political and cultural translation.
3. People of color shouldn't mindlessly demand, expect or even find solace in lofty symbols when those symbols have inextricable links to a substance and/or system not entirely or consistently sensitive to and/or actively supportive of their communities' uplift. Don't get me wrong, I applaud the Church's anti-death penalty and anti-war stances, among other positions. But don't get me started on their absence in HIV/AIDS prevention and leadership in Rwanda, the most Catholic country in Africa.
4. As a people, we need to learn to embrace a more textured understanding of the history and politics of race, ethnicity, culture, their interrelations and development over the millenia. Otherwise we will be applying very ethnocentric, untranslatable 21st century standards to cogent and complex world history that merits much deeper study and discussion than what our shallow mainstream framework allows us.
5. By erroneously identifying these past popes as black, we then facilitate the even greater flow of assumptions that, until spelled out, analyzed and discussed, can actually limit meaningful thought and discourse instead of broadening it for the benefit of all people, regardless of race, nationality or creed.
This is a world issue, and the Catholic church -- despite its global flock's declining church attendance and decreasing deference and adherence to Papal admonitions -- it is nonetheless the oldest of the remaining superpowers (i.e., the United States and the Internet). Therefore, it will serve us well to acknowledge and respect the origins and implications of the lexicon we (Americans in particular) seem to use so thoughtlessly.
Perhaps, as the popular American expression goes, it is easier to "call a spade a spade." But by so doing, the unintended consequences of erring on the side of habit or complacency can be something as innocuous as being handed a gardening implement or as hazardous as being handed your head.