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Slave Auction: Educational or Demeaning?

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Natalie Jackson, 15, a junior at West High School in Torrance, found her U.S. history classroom assignment--the re-creation of a slave auction--humiliating. The role-playing exercise is part of the school’s multiculturalism curriculum, intended to help students understand the cruelty of slavery. Jackson talked with MARY REESE BOYKIN about how this assignment affected her.

On Oct. 22, I was in my U.S. history class. Mr. (Jason) Snyder, my teacher, had us number off--one, two, one, two. All the No. 1s went next door to Mr. (Drew) Hettinger’s class.

Mr. Hettinger let us pick randomly these cards which were marked for slaves, slave owners, an auctioneer and an assistant. I drew a slave card. My card described me as “Bertha, 55 years old, a good field hand and breeder.” My asking price was $400.

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I asked the teacher why we were having a slave auction. He said it was so we could get the “feel” of slavery. Then I asked why we couldn’t just read about it, why were we reenacting it? The teacher just brushed off my questions. No one else questioned the assignment, including the two other black students in the class.

The class sat down and Mr. Hettinger said, “All the slaves, get up. You are going to be auctioned off.” There were about 18 of us. The kids were taking it as a joke; we were supposed to get the feel of it?

At the end of class, the teacher asked, “How did those of you who were sold for less than your asking price feel?” I answered, “It doesn’t matter. We would all be treated the same.”

I knew that my mom would speak out on an issue like this because it was wrong to have a slave auction, so I waited five days before I even mentioned it to her. But it was constantly on my mind. So one morning as I was jumping out of the car on the way to school, I told her about the slave auction.

My mom was so upset she called the principal from her cellular phone. Later, she talked to my teacher. The next day, she called the local newspaper, the state Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Torrance Unified School District Board of Education. My mother’s goal is to abolish the slave auction from the curriculum.

After my teacher had talked to my mother, he spoke to me privately and said that the slave auction is part of his curriculum, that my mother was passionate about the issue and that he was sorry that I felt uncomfortable.

Some say that I am overreacting, but they didn’t have this experience. I don’t want to go back to my U.S. history class, but I am going back. I am going to do my work and everything that I am supposed to do, be strong and face the music. Maybe my action will break some barriers.


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