I remember it pretty clearly--as clearly as someone can remember something that happened 30 years ago. The fact that I remember it at all really means something, because most of what happened 30 years ago is pretty hazy. I was in junior high school. 7th grade. He was my history teacher. A big, burly, flannel-shirt wearing bearded man that reminded me a lot of Grizzly Adams. He was definitely a gentle bear who you wouldn't want to mess with. He made history come alive for me.
The 7th grade curriculum at my junior high covered what is, in my mind, one of the darkest periods of American History--the Civil War era. Mr. S taught us that the origins of the conflict really came much earlier, with the beginnings of slavery. He taught us about the slave trade in a brutally honest way, asking us to put ourselves in the place of an African, stolen from her family, shackled and stacked against strangers on a ship bound for the U.S., land of "opportunity." His lectures were graphic and disturbing. He wanted us to learn the truth: that human beings are capable of doing terrible things to each other. He wanted us to learn about slavery so that if we ever witnessed someone attempting to steal a human being away from their home and family, we would not stand aside and allow it to happen. He wanted us to understand our present world in the context of what occurred in the past. He believed that by learning history we could prevent humanity from making the same mistakes twice.
|Image Credit: Flickr/Olivia Hotshot|
Flash forward 30 years. I've spent some hours here on this blog thinking about and discussing the issue of cultural appropriation, and how it compares to the inspiration many artists/writers/musicians say they get from learning about another culture. My 7th grade teacher asked me to put myself into the experience of someone else and write about it. That writing was powerful. I learned from the act of writing (but I didn't publish my work, claim to be any kind of expert, or profit from what I wrote. That writing was only for myself and my teacher.)
This week a middle school teacher has come under fire for making a similar assignment. "Pretend you are a slave in the southern United States. Write a journal/diary memoir about your life." A student felt uncomfortable with this assignment and told his mother, who is biracial, that he didn't want to do it. She says, "For him to pretend to be something he's never been or never will be, that's going too far." She requested action from school administrators and says she has not yet received a satisfactory response.
I am puzzling this out, just like the inspiration vs. appropriation pieces, because I can see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, I know first hand how powerful such an assignment can be if given in the appropriate context. I know, both as a teacher and as a learner, that some of the most powerful learning comes from those moments where we are uncomfortable. Pushing ourselves to stretch our imagination, our math ability, or our understanding of foreign ideas---that is how we learn, and it is not always comfortable or neat. Learning is messy; it stirs things up. But I say all of that as a white woman, whose ancestors weren't slaves. Maybe an assignment asking me to pretend I am someone from my own family, who suffered such inhumanity, would be more than just uncomfortable. It might even be painful.
There were definitely black kids in my junior high school history class. I don't remember talking about anything as serious as our history assignments back then, so I don't know how it felt for my friend Traci to write about her ancestors' suffering. But this news story has given me pause. As my son picks his classes for junior high next year I wonder if he will learn about slavery, if his teacher will ask him to write from the point of view of a slave, and how we will respond to that.
How would you respond?