A predominantly White middle school in Mississippi has come under fire over an assignment that was given to students in an eighth-grade class asking them to “pretend” they’re slaves in a letter-writing exercise.
According to the Daily Beast, the assignment in question – titled “Slave Letter Writing Activity” – was given to eighth-graders during a history lesson at Purvis Middle School. The assignment contained tasks including asking the students 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 [as a slave].”
Other tasks in the assignment included: “You may discuss the journey to America, as well as the day-to-day tasks you perform [as a slave]” and “You may also want to tell about the family you live with/work for [as a slave] and how you pass your time when you aren’t working.”
More than 12 million enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean during the Middle Passage – what the assignment supposedly refers to as the “journey.” Over two million of the enslaved Africans who were forcefully packed into the ships for that arduous and dangerous journey lost their lives.
Following the backlash after the details of the assignment were made public, Lamar County School District Superintendent Dr. Steven Hampton claimed the aim of the exercise was to “show our students just how horrible slavery was and to gain empathy for what it was like to be a slave,” KCRG-TV reported. “We do not discriminate against race. We want to be sensitive to what happened in the past,” Hampton added.
The principal of the middle school, Frank Bunnell, also sent an email to parents apologizing for an assignment of such nature to happen under his watch. In his apology, however, Bunnell claimed the assignment was taken out of context as the slide in question was part of a PowerPoint presentation, according to 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,” Bunnell 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 who spoke to the news outlet expressed their dismay behind the assignment and questioned the logic behind it. “I don’t know how a logical person teaches this,” Jeremy Marquell Bridges, the social media manager for Black Lives Matter Mississippi 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.”
Jarrius Adams, the president of Young Democrats Mississippi, also referred to the assignment as “extremely tone deaf”, adding that it was also “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,” Adams continued. “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.”
According to the Daily Beast, the assignment draws similarities to a Christian history textbook titled: Omnibus III: Reformation to the Present. An assignment in the textbook states: “Pretend you are a slave who lives far away from your family. Write a letter to your wife/husband/children. Tell them how you are doing, what your plans are, etc.”
Another letter assignment in the textbook asks students to pretend they’re slave masters, stating: “Write a letter to a relative or friend in the North who thinks that all slaves are mistreated and beaten. Explain how your family treats your slaves well.”
It is yet to be known if the educator(s) who gave the assignment to the students in the middle school drew inspiration from Omnibus III: Reformation to the Present.