Why Do Teachers Keep Having Slavery Reenactments In School?

A Black mom’s suit against LA Unified over a cotton picking project puts the way educators teach about race in the spotlight. (Cotton Field Credit: Photo by Trisha Downing / Upsplash)

by Rashaad Thomas

(Word In Black) — If there’s one thing that seems common sense when teaching about race in America, it’s that having students participate in a cotton-picking project by pretending to be enslaved people is not the way to go.

But on August 10, Rashunda Pitts, a parent in Los Angeles, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of her now 14-year-old daughter against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Board of Education over a cotton field being grown so students at her daughter’s school could pick the crop.

According to the suit, the cotton picking project was inspired by reading Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography and wanting students to have the “real life experience” of being enslaved. 

According to the lawsuit, as a result of the cotton-picking project, the girl continues to suffer emotional distress, “has uncontrollable anxiety attacks,” and suffers from depression.

If you’re thinking, “If it had been a Black teacher, this wouldn’t have happened,” you’re not alone.

“I think such an event would be less likely to happen, but it doesn’t remove the possibility,” says José Vilson, the New York City-based executive director and co-founder of EduColor, a national organization that “mobilizes advocates nationwide around issues of educational equity, agency, and justice.”

“We are Black teachers because we usually are in the position of reflection,” Vilson says. “So much of what we consider culturally responsive pedagogy is about reflection, is about dignity, is about honoring the past.” 

Slavery Reenactments Aren’t Unusual

Some people may think what happened in Los Angeles is an isolated event. But these incidents happen over and over in the United States.

In March, a Raleigh, North Carolina-area middle school conducted a mock slave auction where white students bought and sold their Black peers.

“More should be done around addressing racism in schools because no parent should have to stand here after hearing their son was sold in a slave trade at school,” parent Christy Wagner told the Chatham County School Board.

However, lawsuits over such incidents aren’t always successful. For example, in October 2021, a judge dismissed Waterton City School District in Upstate New York from a federal lawsuit over a mock slave auction in a classroom.

The judge also declined to punish the teacher, Patricia Bailey, who had two Black students pretend to be enslaved people and allowed white students to buy and sell them. Nicole Dayes, the mother of one of two Black students, said her son suffered “psychological issues, pain, and suffering, mental anguish and extreme emotional distress.”

Despite this, the judge said the suit didn’t show the “District acted in a manner that is arbitrary, conscience-shocking, or oppressive.”

They Have No Idea

Why do teachers or schools conclude that the best way to ensure students learn about America’s long, painful racial history is by having Black children play the role of enslaved people in class?    

“It is our lack of understanding and common sense when it comes to the dialogue about race,” says David Carr, a 29-year veteran of public education who taught at Compton High School in Compton, California, and is a former middle school principal. 

Carr, who wrote an ethnic studies curriculum and currently works as a professional services manager at Achieve 3000/McGraw Hill publishing, says that when “it comes to being able to talk about race and teach about American history and different cultures, we’re not that divided.”

“The extreme right and extreme left are both connected in the fact that they have no idea how to talk about race,” Carr says.

Of course, Florida’s been making headlines lately due to its Stop WOKE Act, a draconian law that restricts how businesses, teachers, and schools can talk and teach about race (basically, not at all). But just as educators were remaking lesson plans and removing newly banned books from classroom libraries, a federal judge blocked parts of the law on Thursday, saying it violates the First Amendment.

“They have no idea how to teach [race], they have no idea what it means to actually give students the opportunity to dialogue and learn about these things,” Carr says.

Vilson says hiring more Black educators can help change things. But, schools also need to comprehensively train teachers on race, ethnicity, and cultural responsibility.

Appropriately teaching K-12 children about race and culture is also needed. After all, once students graduate, they’ll either enter the world with knowledge of our nation’s racial history or suffer the consequences — like Arizona State University student Erika Escalante. She went viral this week after posting tweets of herself picking cotton, along with a caption that included the n-word. As a result, Escalante lost her job and may have jeopardized her college education.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District has declined to comment on the suit.