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‘Pretend You’re a Slave’ Assignment Shows That Some Teachers Still Don’t Get History

We are going to say this one more time for the people in the back (of progress): School assignments asking students to pretend to be slaves or slave owners are not OK. This is offensive. Got it? The reason we have to go over this yet again is that, just this week, an assignment asked eighth-graders at Purvis Middle School in Mississippi to “pretend like you are a slave working on a Mississippi plantation” and “write a letter to your family back in Africa… describing your life.”

Jeremy Marquell Bridges, social media manager for Black Lives Matter Mississippi, shared a photo of the PowerPoint slide after a parent of a student at the school sent it to him.

“I don’t know how a logical person teaches this,” Bridges said. “Like someone who went to school to teach children could think this exercise was helpful in any way. It’s not helpful, it’s hurtful.”

The Daily Beast obtained an email that Frank Bunnell, the principal of Purvis Middle School, sent to parents, in which he apologized for “something like this happening under my watch” while also saying that the slide was taken out of context.

“A person could read just the assignment and draw a very unrealistic view of the true tragedies that occurred. That was not intended,” he wrote in the email. “However, intent does not excuse anything. There is no excuse to downplay a practice that (even after abolished) spurs unjust laws, unfair economic practices, inhumane treatment, and suppression of a people.”

Well, we are glad he seems to get how completely wrong this is, but does he really? How did this slide even make it into the teacher’s PowerPoint presentation in the first place?! Assignments like these have been skewered several times lately — from a similarly offensive slave role-play letter in a South Carolina school last December to a repulsive “let’s make a slave” assignment for Nashville fourth graders last February — so there is ample evidence that this type of “educational material” is not acceptable. Plus, you know, there’s the whole Black Lives Matter movement, which one would think would make it totally obvious that education about racism and slavery should be done with far more respect and empathy. For a Black child, the very act of “pretending” to be an enslaved person can be quite traumatic, and for non-Black children, it could seem like a game. Bad outcomes all around.

Let us also be clear that teaching honestly and completely about slavery is absolutely important. It is ugly, but it is a massive part of our country’s history and, as Principal Burnell rightly said, the United States today is still affected by it, even though slavery was legally abolished more than 150 years ago.

“Understanding American slavery is vital to understanding racial inequality today,” wrote Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University and chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board, in the “Teaching Hard History” article for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Although we teach [students] that slavery happened, we fail to provide the detail or historical context they need to make sense of its origin, evolution, demise and legacy. And in some cases, we minimize slavery’s significance so much that we render its impact — on people and on the nation — inconsequential.”

There is good news for educators who don’t know how to teach about this hard history. Plenty of free resources are available, so you can update your lesson plans and get rid of all those terrible assignments and incomplete narratives. Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, a multi-year collaboration from Teaching Tolerance, educators and scholars, offers truthful, age-appropriate accounts of our past for grades K through 12. It includes student texts, teaching tools and professional development.

There is no excuse for not teaching our kids about the role slavery played in the development of the United States — or how its legacies still influence us today. It’s too important for out country’s progress not to educate our future leaders about our past.

Check out these amazing children’s books by black authors and illustrators.

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