A Mississippi school district is facing criticism after a class assignment asked middle schoolers to put themselves in the shoes of an enslaved person, and write letters to friends and family.
The assignment given to eighth-graders at Purvis Middle School told 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.
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.”