“You are on a slave ship during the infamous middle passage – a captive. You must decide on one of three courses of action: 1) commit suicide by jumping overboard 2) organize a slave rebellion, 3) just tough it ou[t] and wait for better days. What would you do? Pleas[e] write for 15 minutes and support your decision.”
Yes, this is a real assignment that was given on September 8, 2020 to my 16-year-old daughter, Lauren as the opening exercise one day of her Dual Credit US History Course. Lauren was a student at a private, Christian K-12 school in an area northwest of Indianapolis. The teacher of the class who gave the assignment is a college professor from a prominent university in Indiana. Every year, September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. In Indiana, 1 in 5 young people have ended or considered ending their life by suicide. Remember, the title of this blog is “I Just Walk Through Life” because I never have to make up examples. For those who have now moved passed shock to anger, rest assured that September 8th was the last day Lauren was enrolled at that school. Keep reading to take a deeper dive into this experience.
In February 2020, during Lauren’s 10th grade World History course, she was given an assignment to “read a slave narrative and reflect on how it makes your feel.” Lauren was emotional as we talked through the assignment. She was sad that people who claim to love her with the love of Jesus would ask her to reflect on such a painful time for Black people in this country. We were fortunate to have resources as a family to engage a mental health professional to help Lauren process her feelings in a healthy manner. Exactly how does a 15-year-old process the fact that an adult in a position of power is asking her to complete a task steeped in generational trauma? It was a lot of work and prayer.
Because I never assume racist intentions, I reached out to the teacher of the February 2020 assignment to let him know about the impact of the assignment on Lauren. As we know, intent does not equal impact. There are many times, things land wrong. We intended one thing and the impact was something hurtful or traumatic. The teacher indicated that he had given the assignment at his previous school (located in an all-White rural part of Indiana) and received no negative feedback. The intention of the assignment was to teach the students empathy…he wanted the students to have empathy for captured and enslaved Africans, stolen from their land and culture, forced to endure the atrocities of the Middle Passage, and made to work for free for 400 years to build this country. The email exchange was complete with an apology and an explanation on my part of the trauma the assignment caused Lauren.
Lauren shared this September 8th interaction with me via text while I was in the middle of facilitating a training for law enforcement on implicit bias. She wanted me to see the assignment and her response (it’s so good, you’ll be impressed…keep reading). Her response brought me to tears in the middle of my workday. She is so poised at such a young age. I reached out to the college university professor to state my disgust that this assignment is required again. I included the Head of School in the correspondence because surely this is not acceptable behavior as a learning environment for students. Not only is it acceptable at the school, but my reaction is seen as “over the top.” Why was I making “such a big deal” over a simple assignment by “good-hearted” people who are just doing the best they can? There are so many times when they have the inability to experience the learning opportunity because they’re so offended by being called out on their bad behavior. I was furious and yet, mindful that my 12-year-old daughter is still a student at the school and fearful of retaliation against her.
I have so many questions…so many thoughts…
Where’s the accountability on the part of educators who administer such assignments? Does anyone check lesson plans? How did my daughter have virtually the same assignment in February 2020 and September 2020?
How many chances am I supposed to give? How many “I’m sorry” emails do I have to read before realizing there’s no desire to do better while my daughters are being traumatized?
Why isn’t empathy for the captured and enslaved humans the default emotion? Why is that an emotion to be “developed”?
Would anyone ever consider an assignment to ask Jewish students to imagine they were in a gas chamber?
Would anyone ever consider an assignment to ask white female students to imagine they are the wife who went to church with their husbands on Sunday, and then they went to a lynching of a black person after church. The wife then had dinner with her husband and heard him raping a kidnapped and enslaved African. The wife was then still awake as her husband came to bed and fell asleep next to her.
What staff development has occurred around generational trauma and how that trauma manifests in 2020? If teacher #1 had shared his experience and treated it as a learning moment with his colleagues, would there have been the opportunity where teacher #2 was giving the same assignment?
Did anyone at the school turn on the news during the summer of 2020 when the country was burning? When Black people were begging to just “matter.” When our cities were burning after centuries of systemic oppression. When the pot was literally boiling over in front of our eyes every evening during the nightly news.
Lauren’s response is below. She’s an amazing human who has far more grace under pressure than I did at her age.
Just imagine. Put yourself into this traumatic situation for a grade…
No thank you. I will politely decline and take the F if you so choose.
I just wanted to come to you and explain what is going to happen from my end. This subject makes me feel very uncomfortable and the thought of forcing myself to imagine those experiences mentioned in the quick write from today makes me want to cry. So, I will not be doing this writing assignment because of the generational trauma and the negative effects that I know it would have on my mental and emotional state of well-being. If you choose to fail me still based on my reasoning, I will take the F and move on. But no one ever thinks about the generational trauma or the bad affects to imagine things like this. Including the options. I don’t wish to put myself through that pain. And before you say I was stubborn Please consider. Has anyone ever thought about it from the slave owner’s perspective? Has anyone ever picked through the mind of a being who thought it was ok to treat another as property? No. No one forces Caucasian people to put themselves mentally into reliving their ancestors’ trauma like the holocaust (and even if they do it’s done with so much frailty, you’d think your minds are glass). And yet African Americans such as I am commonly forced to; with no thought as to the mental and emotional repercussions. This is my reasoning for refusal to complete this quick write and I’d hope you would understand.