Education

New Jersey Elementary School Asks Students to Design Their Own Slave Auction Posters

We should be confronting the horrors of the past, not recreating them.

Photo Credit: Screenshot / Facebook

Today in #facepalm: A school in my home state of New Jersey came under fire for a quite the peculiar homework assignment—make your own slave poster! Some teachers mistakenly thought it’d be a good idea to include this in their Colonial America Project. Parents rightfully disagreed.

Parent Jamil Karriem wrote a public post showing how awful this assignment is. Asking children to think like a slave owner or slave seller is offensive and unnecessary. The horror of slavery is quite clear; we don’t need any children doing some light roleplay for “education purposes.” 

The assignment made me raise eyebrows, but reading a description of the posters in Jezebel made me slightly sick to my stomach:

Posters included images of people with dark skin and descriptions like “Anne, aged 12 years, a fine house girl” or “Men: aged from 20-26, strong.” Some students also drew advertisements for runaway slaves which offered dollar rewards. One depicted the face of a brown-skinned man: “Wanted,” the poster read in large letters above the picture — and then, underneath it, “dead or alive.”

The school heard the displeasure of the assignment and offered an “apology” that shows why a school managed to get into this mess in the first place (they just don’t get it). Here’s what they said, according to CNN:

"While it was not our intention, we recognize that the example of a slave auction poster, although historically relevant, was culturally insensitive," said Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood School District.
 
"We certainly understand and respect the strong reaction which some parents had to seeing slave auction posters included with other artwork from the assignment," he added in a statement sent to CNN. "We are rethinking the Colonial America Project for next year, and will eliminate the example of a slave auction poster."

I think this is a great example when we have clueless educators in charge of teaching really important and sensitive matters, especially in the context of history. Most Americans learned a Eurocentric, whitewashed version of history in school growing up and thus don’t have the nuance and sensitivity to properly address these issues. The principal might mean well, but I wouldn’t trust him to properly teach anyone about racism and slavery.

Students at the school in South Orange were assigned to examine "the ugly and foundational role that slavery played in Colonial America," Ramos said. They were asked to select a colony to research and then complete tasks, including creating ads for slave auctions, using their research, he said.

We are supposed to learn our history so we are not doomed to repeat it. So why make children literally repeat racism by participating in the creation of media that dehumanizes Black and Brown faces? Research shows media representation has a marked impact on the self-esteem of children—leaving white boys feeling good, but Black children feeling badly. We should actually challenge and counter the horrors of the past. Not recreate them (with some factual inaccuracies) and place them for display without the proper context and opportunity for learning.

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