MELVINDALE, Mich. – For the second time this month, a highly controversial homework assignment involving slavery has led to stunned outrage, this time just outside of Detroit. The assignment asked sixth grade students at Strong Middle School to pretend that they were slaves as apart of a black history lesson.
Jessica Gibson, 27, said that her 11-year-old son Taylan brought the assignment home from school, which read: “Pretend that you are a slave in the southern United States. Write a journal/diary memoir about your life.” The assignment also had a five-question short answer portion and a video portion that asked the kids to describe what the life of a slave was like.
“He’s never had a master nor will he ever have a master, so why should he have to pretend to have a master,” Gibson told the Detroit Free Press. “That really disturbed me. For him to pretend to be something he’s never been or never will be, that’s going too far.”
Taylan Gibson said that the assignment made him “embarrassed to be black.” His mother told him not to do the assignment and has met with the school’s principal who told her that the school has no plans of changing the assignment.
This is not the first controversial story involving slavery and a school assignment. Last month in Norcross, Ga., just outside of Atlanta, a teacher at Beaver Ridge Elementary School gave a slavery-themed math assignment to her students.
The math assignment, which was used in four different classrooms, used references of beatings and cotton picking as an attempt to connect a lesson about Frederick Douglass to math. One of questions read: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
After news of the math assignment broke, Beaver Ridge Principal Jose DeJesus said on the school’s website that the math assignment did not meet the school’s standards and that he was “working to ensure that this does not happen again.”
The fallout resulted in protests by angry parents outside of the school. The unnamed teacher who created the assignment resigned yesterday amid a human resources investigation. In the case of both schools, while Strong Middle School is a mixture of mostly black and white students, Beaver Ridge is a school where 88 percent of students — and half of the staff — are either black or Hispanic.
In Melvindale, other parents — black and white — are outraged by the assignment and have risked their kids getting zeros on it. As Black History Month approaches, the question of how to teach black history in 2012 is still a point of contention.
“It is important for us to not only give African-American students, but all students, a sense of the agency of African-Americans,” said Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Wayne State University in Detroit. “Yes, African-Americans were enslaved. We were subjected to second-class citizenship, Jim Crow, and de jure segregation.
“However, we’ve always resisted being treated that way. African-Americans are human beings, they resist being in bondage, they resist being objectified and not having a sense of humanity. I think it’s important for us to teach about that aspect of African-American history.”
In the case of the Melvindale assignment, the parents’ outrage comes from the idea of envisioning their child as a slave. Some educators feel that the message of what slavery was must be taught, even if the images are uncomfortable to the students and parents.
“The problem, largely, isn’t the assignment; it’s the conditions of it, which no one seems to be willing to talk about,” said Markeysha Davis, a doctoral candidate in African-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “I agree that the kids are young, and because of America’s tendency to lean towards cultural erasure as social history curriculum, neither they — nor their parents — have any background knowledge or real connection to the history of American slavery other than that it was bad and talking about it now is hurtful.”
Davis, a Detroit native, also teaches African Studies at the undergraduate level. She sees merit in an assignment such as this if it is executed correctly, and wondered if the outrage was warranted.
“There could have been a more useful and educational purpose for this assignment, if contextualized,” she said. “There are texts about slavery for primary school kids, but I’d bet good money that no school in Melvindale has them. Kids should learn the truths of our history as soon as they are able to pass handwriting classes”
The teaching of black history has come a long way from the days of teachers talking about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Underground Railroad. With changes in technology and more information on such things as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other subjects being more readily available online, how the lessons are taught are key. Teachers still walk a fine line between the educational and offensive.
“I don’t think that embodying slavery or ‘becoming a slave’ is appropriate toward anyone unless you have a trained facilitator who can take someone through that process,” Dr. Thomas said. “I would even question what those students know about American history. Were they able to contextualize based upon their prior knowledge? I doubt it.”
On the subject of the teacher’s race, the Melvindale teacher, Michelle Angileri, is white and that fact has led to questions of whether she should’ve been teaching the lesson in the first place. Dr. Thomas did not agree with the idea that a teacher’s race should matter, and saw it as an obligation of all history teachers to address the subject of black history the way they would any other part of American history.
“I believe that it’s every American history teacher’s responsibility to talk about the black experience,” she said.
“One of my problems with hearing people say that only African-Americans can talk about the African-American experience, is that then kids who are growing up in other states where there is really not a large African-American presence will grow up at a disservice,” Dr. Thomas continued.
“It is so important that we’re careful about how we’re teaching about oppression in the United States, and we need to know who the teachers are. It’s very important.”