Assignment asks students to ‘pretend’ they’re slaves, ‘write letter to family in Africa’
The goal of the assignment was to show 'how horrible slavery was.'
A ‘Slave letter’ writing activity has sparked outrage at a Mississippi middle school in Lamar County.
Earlier this week, eighth-graders at Purvis Middle School were asked 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.”
A screenshot of the history assignment titled “Slave Letter Writing Activity” has been shared across social media, The Daily Beast reports. One bullet point on the exercise tells students: “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.”
Lamar County School District Superintendent Dr. Steven Hampton Hampton said the goal of the assignment “was to show our students just how horrible slavery was and to gain empathy for what it was like to be a slave.”
“We do not discriminate against race. We want to be sensitive to what happened in the past,” Hampton said.
Frank Bunnell, the principal at the mostly-white Purvis Middle School, sent an email to parents in which he apologized for “something like this happening under my watch.”
Bunnell also noted that the screenshot showing one of the slides from a PowerPoint presentation 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. “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.”
Activists called the exercise at demoralizing.
“I don’t know how a logical person teaches this,” said Jeremy Marquell Bridges, social media manager for Black Lives Matter Mississippi. “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.”
Jarrius Adams, the president of Young Democrats Mississippi, also noted that “It is extremely tone deaf and inappropriate to have Middle Schoolers put themselves in the shoes of slaves without proper context. It does not matter what the intention was, the impact is the only thing that matters,” he said.
“If I were a parent of a student in the classroom, I would be pissed. There are proper ways to educate students about the history of this nation—this was not one of them,” Adams added.
The “slave letter writing activity” comes a month after teachers at a Madison, Wisconsin school were placed on leave for creating an assignment asking students how to punish slaves appropriately, theGRIO reported.
Sixth-grade students at Patrick Marsh Middle School were studying the laws of King Hammurabi in ancient Mesopotamia when they were asked how they would “punish” a slave as an assignment.
Dazarrea Ervins, whose son attends the school, said what made the assignment even more piercing is the fact it happened on the first day of Black History Month.
“I can see how they’re learning about this era, but the wording of the question and the statement—it was just wrong,” said Ervins, per NBC 15. She continued, “I was just shocked, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.”
Ervins took to Facebook to further express her outrage. She posted a photo of what appeared to be the assignment, asking students, “A slave stands before you. This slave has disrespected his master by telling him ‘You are not my master!’ How will you punish this slave?”
She also shared her concerns with the school’s principal who acknowledged the incident in a statement.
“We regret that this assignment was not racially conscious and did not align to our district’s mission and vision of equity,” said Principal Rebecca Zahn and Associate Principal Amy Schernecker.
*theGRIO’s Keydra Manns contributed to this story.
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