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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Vol. 31 No. 1  Spring 2004

In the Matter of Race, Memory and Transformation:
The Use of Sacred Sites to Teach Social Justice

Angela M. Leonard


This paper is about "Race" in the Classroom, not any classroom, but a classroom situated in a predominately white "catholic" institution of higher education. It is a classroom where most students drop their heads when the "r" (race) word is introduced. It is a classroom that rarely includes an African-American student, or any student of color. It is the classroom where I teach. I think of myself as a constructive and pragmatic teacher who happens to be an African-American woman who teaches mostly white students (originating mostly from the mid-Atlantic states). Many of them are Catholic either by baptism or sensibility, the latter due to private school backgrounds. I am one of the minority of the faculty population, who, like many of my students, is a "cradle Catholic"—meaning I was baptized at birth, my mother, my maternal grandmother, and my maternal great grandmother—all Catholics. I am a seasoned teacher (with family roots in the deep South and the Civil Rights Movement), who is probably the only person my students will encounter who teaches African-American history. I am an academic, who like all of my departmental colleagues, was trained in predominately white schools of higher education in America. I am the only African- American teacher in my department; I am the third African-American to be tenured at my institution that was founded in 1852, and is the first American institution of higher education to bear the name of Ignatius of Loyola; I am one of two African-American women who has been tenured at my institution, the first, who also marked the first for African-Americans, was tenured within the last eight years. It is a Jesuit school, and I am a teacher who genuinely feels called by Ignatius of Loyola to heed his message: to do service that bridges the communit(ies) where I live and work; to teach in ways that jettison students beyond their "homogeneous" comfort zones to develop acceptance of the world’s differences; and to do research that informs my teaching and advances the value of a life of the mind.

This paper will address the use and the potential use of gravesites of enslaved people of African descent and the "memory-work" that can be performed at those sites as a pedagogy to introduce my students to tenets of social justice, as well as how this pedagogy informs my own research agenda.

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