Undoing the Knot: Five Generations of American Catholic Anti-Blackness


David O’Brien, Editor

Beacon Press

On Monday April 11, Dr. Maureen O’Connell, a religion professor at La Salle, presented a lecture based on her new book, “Undoing the Knot: Five Generations of American Catholic Anti-Blackness.” O’Connell opened her lecture by presenting a New York Times article on Georgetown University’s sale of 272 enslaved Africans in 1838 to Henry Johnson and Jesse Batey in exchange for $115,000 (about $2.79 million today). In 2015, Georgetown renamed buildings after descendants of the people sold and the Jesuits pledged to raise $100 million for descendants of slaves possessed by Jesuits. After discussing this article, O’Connell begged the question of what other universities owe to people wronged in their own institution’s past.

O’Connell focused on three primary issues surrounding talks about the past: remembering, gatekeeping and curriculum. The remembering section focused on the failures of communities in acknowledging that these issues occurred. Gatekeeping focused on institutions’ failures to validate and take into account the opinions of victims of these phenomena. The curriculum section focused on the failures of institutions to teach how and why these events occurred, the importance of them in the foundation of modern institutions and how we can properly educate people on these issues going forward. O’Connell reflected on these three primary dilemmas through her own research surrounding Rosemont College and Saint Joseph’s University as well as her own familial history and La Salle.

She followed each of these topics by asking the audience how they themselves have caused or experienced these issues and asked the community how the University can go about resolving them. A wide array of students, faculty members, parents and even some of the LaSallian brothers provided their own thoughts and insights and agreed that the goal of La Salle is to provide a campus where people can address and resolve the major social issues throughout the United States and improve the Catholic Church through doing so.

O’Connell encapsulated her entire lecture in a brief quote, “our belief in our own moral goodness goes unchallenged and in fact is reinforced by our inequality-sustaining charity. We have bought into the fragile myths of how we got here and promote false rationales as to why others haven’t been able to achieve the same things.” The purpose of this lecture and the vigorous research done to prepare the new book is to help guide members of the LaSallian and Philadelphian community towards accepting the sordid truth surrounding their past. O’Connell’s work pushes people in the Catholic Church to challenge the traditional narrative that has been enforced for generations and to attempt to find the truth behind our community as well as remedy numerous injustices from the past that have led to inequality within the current systems.

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