Slave Ships & Crocodile Tears: History at Whitney High
Unorthodox teaching methods are in high fashion right now. Teachers are a disruptive technology in human form, always seeking to serve their students without overserving them, tweaking their approach to get goldilocks-levels of instruction that doesn't overcharge students' time or ability. Just yesterday, I learned of a pre-calculus class where small groups of students got the same grade, and the teacher didn't even teach! How's that for revolutionary?
And this has extended to my beloved (well, kind of) alma mater, Whitney High School. Wildcat parent Shardé Carrington, posted a semi-viral Facebook message that detailed a since-controversial exercise in eighth grade history class. At the beginning of class, the teachers would order the students to line up, have their wrists tied together with masking tape, and lie on the floor side-by-side in a simulation of conditions on a slave ship, while watching the documentary Roots. The students were not told of this beforehand, but the parents were sent an e-mail to explain the exercise – presumably so they could tell the teacher if their kid was claustrophobic or prone to anxiety attacks or whatever. Mrs. Carrington responded to the e-mail saying that her son would not participate in the exercise, and subsequently posted the entire exchange on Facebook (also re-printed in full at the end of this piece). Possibly important is that she – and her son – are black. There are two ways to take issue with this exercise: the sensitivity and the effectiveness. Let's go through each one.
It's first important to understand that this wasn't the brainchild of three rogue teachers during a water-cooler discussion. As stated by department chair Derek Jeans in a response e-mail, "this is not something we have added to our course of study lightly." For whatever it's worth, the exercise also came from a "nationally recognized supplier of curriculum." This kind of stuff has to go through levels of approval, especially when it involves making students do something physically, and obtaining consent for any level of binding.
It would take most people a cursory look at the playground during lunchtime to see that Whitney is not a majority-black school, a demographic peculiarity that is likely a function of residence. When I was there, there were probably like five black kids whose names I knew. And this is purposefully built into the simulation! Jeans explained that it was "designed to immerse a student population that is not majority black… so as to gain better insight into their plight." A school like Whitney can lack empathy for students of certain backgrounds, through no fault of the students or teachers – part of it is exposure. It's hard to have empathy for black people when you grow up in a rich white neighborhood, or attend a school that's heavily Asian (not to say that the Asians themselves are heavy). And it may even be optically problematic to have three white teachers spearheading the exercise. But let's at least acknowledge the intentionality of it all: this was designed to generate that very empathy, not to demean or single out.
A parallel was drawn by Mrs. Carrington to educating students about rape and internment. "Would you simulate rape," she posits, "to encourage sensitivity to its survivors? Will the children pretend to be in Japanese internment camps as a lesson as well?" Yet it's important to note that the children weren't *actually* enslaved. They weren't trapped in the classroom for months, barely able to move an inch and forced to defecate on each other. The activity transpired as explained above, so to that extent, yes! Don't simulate rape, but simulate the steps that a victim would have to take to seek justice against her attacker. Have them read scripts from a mock trial as the defendant tried to assassinate the victim's character. Have them watch a documentary like 'The Deuce' to learn about the exploitation in the porn industry. Have them go through the letter of a rape victim, and the testimony of the actual court case. Don't pretend to be in internment, but have them experience what it'd be like to be separated from their friends and have to follow a bunch of unnecessary rules for a week. Have them listen to 'Kenji' by Fort Minor to hear the story told through music.
Quick tangent: Is it possible that people are getting hung up over the tape part? First of all, it's masking tape, which is the tape that's designed to not rip paint off things, so it's slightly more fragile than Paul Ryan's spine. Does it matter that the students tied themselves up? What if there were no tape involved – let's say the students were simply asked to sit on top of their hands, or hold their hands together in the handcuffed position. Would that incite the same level of rage?
You know sometimes when you watch a comedy special or a late-night TV monologue, the performer tells a joke, and the people in the audience (and you sitting at home) go "ooooh"? It's that instantaneous reaction of outrage, not knowing whether you should laugh at the joke, and more importantly whether it's *okay* to laugh at the joke. That moment when you look around to see whether anyone else is smiling, and quickly rearrange your face to match theirs, paying special attention to the open mouth, furled eyebrows, and questioning eyes. That's what this situation feels like – you see keywords like 'slavery' and 'tie up' and you feel like you should take exception. Ask yourself, which part is it that bothers you? Is it that it was run by white people? Was it that the students weren't told beforehand? Was it the lying on the floor? Was it the choice of documentary? Was it actually the damn tape?
The productivity of the exercise is another matter entirely. Whether anything came of it is something that can be judged from the work product. Following this exercise, students (speaking of which, let's actually ask the students what they think about this) wrote "reflective essays" – which is probably the part I'm most pissed at, at least weasel a presentation out of the kids – to demonstrate their understanding of what they'd been shown. While it's difficult to gauge sincerity and raw authenticity of tone through the written word of a pre-pubescent kid, I'd leave it to their words to exhibit whether this exercise was successful. Regardless, it's hard to argue that there are other ways to foster this kind of discussion. Textbooks and lectures are simply words, and that's all they'll ever be, irrespective of the severity and weight they carry.
It's like teaching projectile motion, air resistance, and special triangles, and expecting a kid to use that information to successfully shoot a three-pointer. They might just make one, but a lot of them are going to miss unless they put in the dirty work first. And racism a topic on which we can't afford to miss, especially when it comes to how it's perceived by future generations. For all the talk of the need for uncomfortable conversations in this country, it's telling that the conversation gets shut down at the slightest hint of discomfort. If something like this is enough to psychologically traumatize a middle schooler – someone old enough to have some measure of critical thinking ability – then it's likely that they won't be conditioned to cope with distress in any future instance.
Situations like these channel the uneasiness that's necessary for stimulating some relevant back-and-forths. If you've ever been in an eighth-grade classroom, the level of conversation is generally nonexistent. Maybe changing the medium of information of intake is enough to make them talk. Of course, a black kid's point-of-view would be the most valuable in all of this. They can talk about how they were uncomfortable throughout, which could be incredibly impactful on their non-black classmates. Personally, watching certain films is what put an end to my casual middle-school use of the word 'nigga'. Going to the Museum of Tolerance was what stopped me from making 'Jews in the oven' jokes, unless they were like really really funny (Sheesh, that was a joke too. Close your mouth and unfurl your eyebrows).
Shardé also levels an unfair criticism, when she states that the teachers' reference to the transportation of the slaves across the Atlantic as the 'voyage to the new world' is "a disservice", as it is "unwilling to call the harrowing, vile experience suffered by Africans exactly what it was." What would you have them call it? It's called the slave trade in textbooks and in class. And it's exactly this harrowing and vile experience that these teachers are trying to draw attention to and make their students understand. It's evident in the teachers' responses that this is not intended to undermine the actual hardships that Africans faced, but rather intended to educate by scale. It's more along the lines of 'if this thirty-minute experience was mildly unpleasant, then imagine what it was like for months on end for these people.' The activity never claimed to be a flawless analogue, and wasn't presented in such a fashion to the parents. Given that no one in that classroom will (hopefully) ever experience slavery firsthand, and most people won't experience what it's like to be black, should we then choose to not talk about it at all? Can we gloss over the ignoble parts of history for our inability to live it? Do we lash ourselves to the cross to learn of Christ's pain before we allow ourselves to read the bible? Or do we read and watch and understand, so that the only pain we witness remains firmly fixed in the past?
(Unrelated, but she goes on in a comment, "Black people can not be racist but that's another post entirely." That would take me another post to dissect entirely, so let's not get into it here.)
Lastly, my most unpopular take: it's not like any black kid today has experienced slavery or a slave ship. Yes, they have experienced a degree of bigotry, racism, and microaggression that eclipses that of any other minority or group in this country. But not slavery itself. As such, participating in this exercise is not necessarily evocative of Jason Bourne-like flashbacks to what their ancestors must have endured. If anything, watching a documentary is far more visual and redolent of the horrors of such an institution. Is it by extension reasonable to remove such films from a grade school curriculum? Can we only allow those directed by black people? Should we just learn about it from books? Or does that count as a "disservice", since it would downplay and whitewash the history itself?
Of course, take into account that these are opinions coming from a brown man. Denying that I have privilege in this particular sense is silly. My ancestors would have probably been enslaved if Chris Columbus knew where the fuck he was going, but we got lucky.
She followed up her post with a Facebook comment reading, "I am disturbed by the insistence of so many that you have to experience something, even a watered down variation, to understand the significance." Unfortunately, Shardé, the States' current political climate makes it abundantly clear that a lot of people simply don't understand the significance. She continued, "You all need lessons in empathy." Precisely.
Disclosure: Of the three teachers whose classes participated in the exercise – Derek Jeans, Renee Olson, and Kevin Harp – two served as teachers for classes that I was enrolled in during my time at Whitney High School. This exercise was not in place when I was in eighth grade.
(1) E-Mail by Whitney High School teacher Kevin Harp to parents of 8th-grade history students
(2) E-Mail response by Shardé Carrington to teachers
(3) E-Mail response by history department chair Derek Jeans to Shardé Carrington