A middle school in Purvis, Mississippi is under fire after students were asked to pen a letter from the perspective of a plantation slave, with the assignment condemned as “hurtful” and “tone deaf” by local activists.
As part of a class project, eighth graders at Purvis Middle School were told to “pretend like you are a slave working on a Mississippi plantation” and to imagine their day-to-day lives, their journey to the United States and the type of labor they were forced to perform, among other things. But a photo of the assignment making the rounds on Twitter on Wednesday has stoked outrage among some residents, insisting the letter project made light of the horrors of chattel slavery.
“It’s just another way that Mississippi is trying to whitewash its history,” Reginald Virgil, president of the Mississippi chapter for Black Lives Matter, told the Daily Beast, which first reported the story. He also criticized the use of the term “work,” suggesting it downplayed the forced labor slaves were made to endure.
They want us to think slavery was polite.
Another rep from the local BLM branch, Jeremy Marquell Bridges, was bewildered by the assignment, stating “I don’t know how a logical person teaches this. Like [how] someone who went to school to teach children could think this exercise was helpful in any way. It’s not helpful, it’s hurtful.”
This is Klan territory… I’ve never seen anything like this before.
While the school itself and the local school district have so far remained mum about the hot-button project, principal Frank Bunnell has sent an emailed apology to parents, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily Beast. In it, Bunnell apologized for “something like this happening under my watch,” but maintained the photo of the assignment circulating online had been stripped of context.
“A person could read just the assignment and draw a very unrealistic view of the true tragedies that occurred. That was not intended,” the principal wrote. “However, intent does not excuse anything. There is no excuse to downplay a practice that (even after abolished) spurs unjust laws, unfair economic practices, inhumane treatment, and suppression of a people.”
The mea culpa did little to tamp down on the criticism, as netizens also piled on condemnation, one arguing the assignment promoted the myth of the “happy Black slave.”
“‘Journey’ to America? ‘Day-to-day TASKS?!’ Free time when not working?? For f**ks sake! They make it sound like they immigrated here and got a cushy 9 to 5!” another user wrote.
This assignment feeds the myth of the “happy Black slave.” It’s the idea that race-based chattel slavery wasn’t all that bad—they had food, clothing, shelter, work. They weren’t rich but they were content. This drivel shouldn’t be anywhere near our kids. https://t.co/cgxM4Sq52L
— Jemar Tisby (@JemarTisby) March 3, 2021
Yet another observer noted that the assignment appears to have been adapted from a “Christian fundamentalist” textbook that asked students to write near-identical “slave letters.” In the original, however, classes were also made to “explain how your family treats your slaves well” in order to rebut “a relative or friend in the North who thinks all slaves are mistreated and beaten.” Despite the apparent similarities, it is unclear if the textbook inspired the controversial project at Purvis Middle School.
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