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No More Classroom Slavery Reenactments

This year, Black History month was challenging. In addition to lots of other troubling news, we saw multiple stories of teachers in classrooms across the country executing Black History Month lessons that included asking Black students to bring their lesson plans to life by pretending to be slaves.

In Rock Hill, South Carolina, a group of students at Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School took a field trip to a cotton field and were asked to pick cotton while singing actual slave songs about making money for their masters. A teacher recorded video from the field trip that showed the children singing along to the words: “I like it when you fill the sack. I like it when you don’t talk back. Make money for me.”

At Madison Trust Elementary School in Loudoun County, Virginia, a gym teacher asked 3rd graders to recreate the Underground Railroad by asking some children to pretend to be “runaway slaves” as their classmates acted as slave masters and overseers who were supposed to catch them. What better way to get some exercise than by pretending to be running for your life?

Not far away in Richmond, Virginia, home of Governor Blackface, the first lady of Virginia, Pam Northam, passed out pieces of raw, prickly cotton to Black middle school students who were serving as Senate Pages and visited the State Capitol as a part of their program. During this part of the tour, Northam encouraged them to think about what it would be like to be a slave picking the crop.

In Long Island, New York, teachers at Roosevelt Middle School created a wall display that included images of nooses (with the label “back-to-school necklaces” with cute pink smiley faces alongside it), then went the extra mile by handing out dolls wearing the noose necklaces to Black students. 

Finally, just last week, in Bronxville, New York, a 5th grade teacher at The Chapel School – a private Christian school in an affluent community in Westchester County – asked Black students to come to the hallway with her as she placed imaginary chains on their bodies, then had them return to the classroom for their white classmates to bid on them in a mock slave auction. 

And this is all just within the last month. I’m exhausted, and my “MOBB disorder” is triggered.

Being a parent of a Black child is hard enough. We already have to give them “the talk” about interacting with law enforcement, teach them not to make any sudden moves or hold anything in their hands that could be deemed “suspicious,” let them know they will be targeted and suspected of being potential thieves in retail outlets and are likely to be discriminated against in many other areas of life, including employment, housing and health care.

But dehumanization and traumatization are particularly painful when meted out by teachers who are supposed to nurture and develop our children to reach their full potential. Other than home, our children spend more time at school than anywhere else. It is critical that educational environments affirm and uplift them versus further victimizing them and tearing them down.

While reading all these stories, I couldn’t help but wonder – Would a teacher ever ask a Jewish child to reenact the Holocaust? I don’t think so. And if they thought reenacting various aspects of slavery was the most effective and yet harmless lesson plan, why not turn the tables and have the white children play the slaves while the Black children chase or bid on them? To be clear, I’m not in favor of this either as I don’t want any child to experience the trauma of slavery, but Black children already bear the psychological trauma of slavery that has been passed down for generations. We don’t need to be reminded of it and re-victimized because we already live with the pain and the ongoing discrimination and “otherness” that this great American sin caused. 

Furthermore, is this really the most creative Black History Month lesson plan that teachers can come up with? If you want to reenact Black history, why not reenact the election of the nation’s first Black President, Barack Obama? Or have them create their own Presidential platforms and campaigns like Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and Senators Kamala Harris and Corey Booker?  Why not have children recite speeches by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth? Or be challenged to create their own inventions like Garrett Morgan, George Washington Carver and Charles Drew? Why not set up a TV studio and let them pretend to be Oprah Winfrey while hosting their own show on issues that matter to them? I could go on, and I’m not a teacher.

In short, teachers, do better. We are counting on you and we need you to be in partnership with us as parents in building our children’s self-esteem, character and paths to success. If slavery reenactments are the best you can do, please go back to school to broaden your Black history knowledge and while you’re at it, find another profession that doesn’t inflict further damage on our children.


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