Mock Slave Auctions, Racist Lessons: How US History Class Often Traumatizes, Dehumanizes Black StudentsHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, curriculum, racism, African American history, teaching history
On the first day of Black History Month 2021, a group of Wisconsin teachers gave sixth grade students an assignment asking them how they would “punish” a slave.
As the month drew to a close, a Florida high school teacher was suspended with pay after allegedly telling students slaves were not whipped by white people and that the N-word, a racist slur, “just means ignorant."
In February 2020, a student-teacher in Tennessee gave her fourth grade students an assignment called "Let's Make a Slave" about a speech from the 1700s about keeping Black slaves under control.
In 2019, a fifth grade teacher was accused of holding a mock slave auction in which white students bid on Black students in New York.
Such careless assignments and lessons can traumatize students, experts said, and they are just one example of how teachers in the USA have long struggled and failed to teach the complex history of slavery.
"Unfortunately, (slavery is) addressed often in ways that are either marginalizing or it's the only way that Black people ... are brought into the curriculum," said Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies in education at the University of Texas-Austin.
Brown said that when teachers ask students to imagine themselves as slaves or slaveowners, they may be attempting to bring history to life to build empathy or give students a more emotional and visceral experience.
"We can never re-create, nor should we want to re-create, enslavement," she said. "It minimizes the trauma of the history itself."
No groups track how often such incidents happen across the country, but Brown said it's clear these kinds of lessons are being taught at multiple grade levels across the country.
"These are not isolated incidents," she said.
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