Harming Students with “Slave” Assignments

Kelly Wickham Hurst
Jun 2, 2018 · 7 min read

In my first few years of teaching I learned, the hard way, about making mistakes with classroom assignments I was creating. We had our standard textbooks with ancillary materials that we could use but I also learned that the objectives of a lesson didn’t always match up to what those provided us. For instance, the first 4–5 questions after a chapter in our textbook were simply recall questions. They asked students to repeat facts about what they’d just read.

The money questions were always after that. They were deeper, reflective, and asked students to dig deeper on the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid. After a while, I’d forego the first questions and jump right to evaluation, application, and analysis portions. That’s where the meaty conversations happened in the classroom.

As I considered my early mistakes while reading about an assignment from a teacher in New York I wondered if I had ever made such egregious judgments in my assignments. After digging into what was wrong with this assignment, as posted on Twitter by the parent of a student who got it, I realized that I had never done the harm this one did.

Photo credit to Malik (@Meeky_Meek09)

Those warm, muggy days in the afternoon classes were, as I recall, fraught with tension and irritability so the thought of adding on a harmful assignment towards Black students is rather unconsionable. The Port Chester School District in Westchester, NY has been called out for this assignment as shared by Malik, the father of the student who brought it home.

After it was shared online I rolled my eyes because this is the umpteenth assignment I have seen shared like this. Normally it would illicit a “wow” or “not again” as I retweeted it but I decided to break down the specific harm for students in the hope that this kind of classroom project would cease.

First, I pointed out that the “8” in 2018 looks drawn in as if this assignment had been given before and, as a shortcut to printing it out again, the teacher simply wrote it in before copying them for distribution. There appears to be handwriting on the project as well but I’m unsure if it was by the student or teacher. This isn’t uncommon in schools when you’ve printed 120 copies of assignments for your students and realize you left something out.

Now, let’s take a deep dive into the harm of this project:

  1. From the outset, this assignment requires students to assume the role of a white slave owner. Any student in that classroom who is is asked to erase their own background and deny it in order to complete this. White students may not see a problem with this because no amount of suspension is required on their part to step into this role. However, the damaging request to every other student of color in that classroom is massively horrific. Indigenous students are asked to deny their heritage and the history of massacres their people continue to undergo in this country. Asian students are asked to ignore any part of their heritage and elevate themselves as ‘superior’ whites. Black students are asked to do the unimaginable and disavow historical legacies of kidnapped and enslaved ancestors while refusing to consider how those people from their families might have felt. It’s psychological warfare to request that any Black student participate in this and ignore all of their ethnic, cultural, and racial lived experiences.
  2. Considering the points I just laid out it stands to reason that white students would consider this extra credit assignment. It would be to the benefit, it would require them to assume the race they already are, and some might even think this was “fun”. So, not only is this teacher’s creation advantageous to white students, since it’s extra credit it sets them up for the best grades in class.
  3. No objective is stated. What, exactly, are students to from this? That’s not always required but she simply calls it “extra credit” and then writes a numbered list as to how to complete it. That is really lazy teaching that fails to meet most standards of assignments. There’s no rationale for this, no rubric, and creates a point system for imagining “how” an enslaved African would have gotten “lost”.
  4. Let’s focus on the word “lost”, shall we? Any fundamental understanding of American history pre- and post-Civil War would tell you that enslaved Africans didn’t get “lost”. That’s intellectually dishonest. White men and women who found it beneficial to invest in capitalistic economies while claiming to “own” other human beings didn’t “lose” people. Those people ran away and tried to escape horrific conditions that tore families apart, dehumanized them, and created the foundation this nation has yet to reconcile. You can “lose” a hand tool or any other random object. You don’t lose people. They were trying to escape.
  5. Requesting that students create a new identity for this project is frighteningly ignorant. While this assignment is from a school in the north we often fail when blaming the south for all the racism in this country. The teacher is perpetuating this while, yes, trying to remain historically accurate. But let’s not forget that plenty of northern white men and women were perfectly fine with posting these signs, rounding up , and collecting the rewards that came from it. If we want to discuss identities in this country and do it in ways that challenge students to consider the foul ways in which their ancestors behaved toward Black folks this is really not the way to do it. There’s no lamentation or reconciliation there. Grappling with this shared history simply cannot be done lacking a deep and careful understanding of presenting the material considering how much care you are responsible for after doing so. Too often, we leave students to handle those difficult emotions that are evoked from assignments like this. Either tease that thread all the way out and be the human salve they require once you’ve ripped that scab off or stay away from it altogether.
  6. Let’s look at the examples provided on this assignment. There are two of them and both of them let us know this assignment is strictly to create an ad for kidnapped and enslaved Africans. [If you wonder why I use that phrase please know that “slave” is too often used to dehumanize and I want to be clear that these peoples were stolen from their land and forced to work under brutal conditions. I aim to give them more dignity than that.] The first example uses a kidnapped and enslaved African with an Americanized name, Aaron. Clearly, his native ancestors would have given him another name but that’s another issue. It’s the nickname that’s breathtakingly offensive: “Ape”. That historical legacy is well-known in this country except by people who would deny it for selfish plausible deniablity. In fact, we have an example about using that term. Too much of our own history tells us this so claiming ignorance is not an option. Both examples use the antiquated term “negro” which might not be something young students are even familiar with so introducing this to them comes with the responsibility of explanation. Neither “ape” nor “negro” should be used when teaching American history absent of the long history of harm that accompanies them.
  7. Setting this monetary award assignment up is harmful. This assignment is obviously hurtful and damaging to Black students in the classroom. That seems to go without saying. But let’s jump into what that means for any white student doing this extra credit. White children are likely to have already experienced unearned credit, macro-affirmations, and a centering of their lives throughout school curriculum. The Eurocentric history in textbooks is already dangerous and, frankly, any teacher in a school system in the U.S. who is teaching it uncritically and without supplementary primary source documents with a culturally responsive lens is doing harm. Full stop. When you add in that children are supposed to assume that finding their “lost” kidnapped and enslaved African people means they will be financially rewarded then it compounds it in pernicious ways. The idea is that the student will get rich while on a hunt for another person. I can barely wrap my head around that thought.

Setting up our classrooms in ways that continue to center and normalize white students is, in effect, white supremacy. It asks students to continue the traditions of this country in ways that leave out every other racial group as constructed by the founders and writers of our Consititution as well as the revisionist history our schools are complicit in when they don’t seek diverse voices for curriculum councils. While this is a mess from top to bottom as an assignment there are fully a dozen examples of this every school year and, thankfully, we see them on social media and share them in ways that force teachers and districts to consider the damage these thoughtless parts of our teaching create.

Make no mistake: these are white-dominated systems operating for children. The gatekeepers are administrators, teachers, lawmakers, parents and curriculum experts who are continuing to allow harm in a multiplicity of ways that oppress students. It’s not uncalled for to ask us to consider our complicity in this system and, in fact, it’s the only way anything will change. I encourage all of us to demand to see assignments, curriculum, assessments, and projects that are being taught. Criticize it heavily. Ask who benefits and is affirmed in texts and who is privileged in our textbooks. Question who is centered, who is missing, and who is continuing to be marginalized with what we present to students.

The system isn’t going to change itself.

There are a number of us seeking that shift and, if teachers are going to send these kinds of assignments out that will be consumed by the masses who disagree with them then we’re going to demand that they do something they often require of their students: