Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chauncey DeVega says: Charlotte History Teacher Reenacts Slavery with His Black Students or Now that is One Dumb--and Soon to be Unemployed--Black Man

There is a bit of an uproar in Charlotte, N.C., as parents, teachers and the local NAACP are livid over a civil war lesson that supposedly went wrong during a Rea View Elementary school class trip to Latta Plantation on Wednesday.

According to, Ian Campbell, a black historian, had three black students, already a racial minority in their class, model cotton-picking slaves, with bags around their necks, in front of their peers. Kojo Nantambu, president of the NAACP in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, is one of many who believes the demonstration was both insensitive and poorly executed:

There is a lingering pain, a lingering bitterness, a lingering insecurity and a lingering sense of inhumanity since slavery. Because that's still there, you want to be more sensitive than politically correct or historically correct.

Campbell, though, begs to differ. As a historian of 15 years, he argues that he has had kids partake in demonstrations before, and this is the first time there has been a complaint. Campbell also believes he is being historically accurate...


To paraphrase Robert Dinero in the movie Casino, "now that is one dumb black man."

I believe in the power of experiential learning. But, one has to act both appropriately and considerately. For example, in a society where black children continue to be marginalized, ought one to further dis empower them in class? I am less worried about the idea that reenacting slavery "stigmatized" these children because there is no shame in being the descendants of a people who were enslaved by others. Moreover, Africans in America fought at every step for their freedom--and improved American democracy through their efforts--so I feel no lingering embarrassment or lack of pride in my people or their accomplishments.

My concern is that while the lesson was effective in one sense (for the white kids in class, having to see how a seemingly arbitrary decision about the personhood of their friends can be based on something as "simple" as the color of one's skin) can never replicate, not in any way, the dehumanizing, violent, and debasing experience that was chattel slavery. In fact, if the point of Mr. Campbell's lesson plan was to encourage the children to reflect on slavery as something more than a historical abstraction and mere curiosity, he could have instead made the white children slaves. Or if he were really sharp, Mr. Campbell would have auctioned off the white children in an imaginary slave market where their peers, as well as students from other classes, could have bid on them.

Alternatively, Mr. Campbell could have even done some version of the classic blue eyes/browns eyes experiment to greater effect and far less controversy.

I have tried to use experiential learning techniques in my classes on race with mixed results. The white students resented having to discuss their relative privilege. In fact, several opted out of the exercise (here: the privilege walk). In the same instance, the black students (with the other students of color somewhere in the middle in terms of their comfort level) were disgusted with having the present and persistent realities of racial privilege as inextricably tied to past inequalities of race, wealth, and opportunity laid bare for all to see. I suppose they wanted to keep this naked "secret" all to themselves.

For those teachers and educators among us, how have these exercises worked out for you in class? Are we being too hard on Mr. Campbell? Is this all to do about nothing? How would the public respond if it were a simulation of the Holocaust for example? Would there be the same amount of controversy? Is Mr. Campbell a visionary who we should be encouraging?

The story follows here.


Anonymous said...

Can I post Privilege Walk on my Facebook page? Of course, I'll credit where it came from.

Anonymous said...

Do not P*** on my head and tell me it's raining.

Mr Campbell is an excellent historical interpreter.

God forbid , that anyone actually researches the history of Latta and Mecklenburg ( and also Gaston ?)Counties in the 1840's and '50's.

Mine and your PC history is not actual history.

GGG of S. ****
2nd NC Mounted Infantry

chaunceydevega said...

There are quite a few different exercises like these around. One is the hunger banquet, the "tunnel of oppression" and of course Peggy McIntosh's invisible knapsack of privilege piece.

Google them and you should find details easily.


Citizen Ojo said...

My wife came home and told me about this because of where she works. This really hasn't become a big conversation piece yet. We'll see what happens next week.

speak the truth said...

Yeah...I'm in Charlotte and this is the first I'm hearing of this. I don't know if I support removing this Black professional with FIFTEEN years experience in the classroom. There aren't many black men in there to begin with. In my opinion history books still don't give slavery it's due importance. And come on, I've seen our kids in public doing things and/or dressed more provocative than faking a slave. I wish the NAACP would focus on some real issues.

Diedre said...

I work with high school students and I have had small to moderate success using exercises such as these to elicit student perspectives on race and privilege. Instead, I use books that address these issues then ask my students to recommend the reading to a particular group of people and tell me why they would recommend it.

This gives them the safety to air their own perspective under the guise of critiquing the work for others. Then I use their perspective as a springboard to further explore their insights, stereotypes and experiences.

...The brotha who did this was nuts.

bruce said...

you negroes are the most racist bums in america and affirmative action ginger mac should not be teaching any where other than negro college.