Hawthorne Middle School in California has parents up in arms over a controversial school assignment focusing on slavery.
The English class assignment given to eighth graders at the school asked students to keep a diary for five days, writing as if they were a slave.
The English teacher is white. The parents and students who found the assignment to be “inappropriate and demeaning” were black. One parent pointed out that it would be impossible to write as if they were a slave because most slaves were not allowed to learn how to read or write. Other parents said they would be transferring their children to another school.
A few of the students refused to complete the assignment, with the support of their parents. One student told KTLA the assignment “made her feel bad” and she “wouldn’t want to imagine being a slave.”
However, school officials are standing in support of the assignment. Hawthorne School Superintendent Helen E. Morgan released a statement:
“Asking students to write a journal as if they were experiencing a historical event is an appropriate teaching strategy. It requires the writer to think critically about the facts and emotions that may have impacted someone in that situation.”
The topic is gaining speed across the country. Schools in Brookline, Massachusetts are removing the 2003 edition of their fifth-grade textbooks, “Harcourt Horizons: United States History,” which downplayed slavery by saying: “Slaves were treated well or cruelly, depending on their owners. Some planters took pride in being fair and kind to their slaves.”
Brookline lawyer and activist Brooks Ames first raised the issue with the textbook at a School Committee meeting on November 13, after seeing the passage in his daughter’s textbook at the end of the school year last year. He had complained about the passage to her teacher, after which he joined forces with multiple other parents and activists and contacted Superintendent Bill Lupini’s office.
“What bothers me about this book is the way we’re teaching about racism,” Ames said, according to a videotape of the Nov. 13 meeting. “Slavery was a racist system. It was a cruel system. It was an evil system. And when you start talking about good slave owners and bad slave owners and happy slaves and slaves that weren’t so happy you’re completely missing the point. And the fact that this textbook was in our schools for 10 years is a system failure.”
Lupini had first heard complaints concerning the passage last December, and then instructed teachers to no longer use the passage, although they were still allowed to use the rest of the book. Officials had considered allowing the use of the passage for critical thinking lessons, until complaints starting up again last month, causing the removal of the book as a whole, writes James H. Burnett III for The Boston Globe.
Tyrone Howard, an African-American English professor in the University of California Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and director of its Black Male Institute, had co-edited the book in the early 2000s and expressed his wishes that the district had offered him to weigh in on the issue before they tossed the textbooks. He believes that while the book is not politically correct, it portrays a more accurate picture of life as a slave.
“I’ve said that a number of scholars have written about the complexities of slavery,” Howard said. “It was a cruel, horrible institution. But there were conflicted slave owners, whose slaves were treated differently than others’. ”