A Mississippi school district is facing harsh criticism after a class assignment asked middle school students to pretend they are an enslaved person. The children were told to write from a slave’s perspective in letters to friends and family.
The writing prompt given to eighth-graders at Purvis Middle School instructed students to “pretend like you are a slave working on a Mississippi plantation,” according to a screenshot of the assignment that Black Lives Matter Mississippi posted to Twitter.
The children were told to write to “family back in Africa” and other slaves in American states.
Students were asked “to your family back in Africa or in another American state” describing their lives, their passage to America, and their daily responsibilities.
“You may also want to tell about the family you live with/work for and how you pass your time when you aren’t working,” the assignment reads.
The writing assignment prompted a backlash on social media including from Black Lives Matter Mississippi’s social media manager, Jeremy Marquell Bridges, who said he was sent a screenshot of the assignment by a concerned parent.
“I don’t know how a logical person teaches this,” Bridges said to the Daily Beast. “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.”
yes, because american slavery really graced slaves with past times when they weren’t working. or, for that matter, provided them with letter writing supplies and allowed them to learn reading and writing. or gave them access to their ancestry/familial records.— kennedy burdine (@kennedy_burdine) March 4, 2021
Those who commented on the Twitter post were also angry, like the user who responded: “Really hope someone turned in a blank sheet of paper.”
“yes, because american slavery really graced slaves with past times when they weren’t working. or, for that matter, provided them with letter writing supplies and allowed them to learn reading and writing. or gave them access to their ancestry/familial records,” another person added.
Lamar County School District Superintendent Dr. Steven Hampton verified the assignment was given to students but said it was the end of a PowerPoint presentation meant to show the “atrocities and negatives of slavery.”
“[The purpose] was to show our students just how horrible slavery was and to gain empathy for what it was like to be a slave,” he told NBC/ABC affiliate WDAM. “We do not discriminate against race. We want to be sensitive to what happened in the past.”
Principal Frank Bunnell, meanwhile, apologized for the assignment but also insisted that context was missing from the screenshot in an email to parents obtained by the Daily Beast.
“A person could read just the assignment and draw a very unrealistic view of the true tragedies that occurred. That was not intended,” the email reads. “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.”
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The wording of the assignment proved clumsy and thoughtless to some. The “journey to America” phrasing proved painful for many as it washes over the gruesome details of the Middle Passage, which moved nearly 20 million from their native home in horrendous fashion, killing some 10 to 20 percent of the abducted people.
“It’s just another way that Mississippi is trying to whitewash its history,” Black Lives Matter Mississippi President Reginald Virgil explained to the Daily Beast. “They want us to think slavery was polite.”
Professor, historian, and writer Marcus Rediker who wrote, “The Slave Ship: A Human History” argues that there is a comparison to be made between the slave trade and the Holocaust. He argues that the slave ships were no different than concentration camps and that the term “African Holocaust” serves as a better name for the African Slave Trade.
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