Miss. School Slammed for Assignment Instructing Students to 'Pretend Like You Are' Enslaved

The district superintendent said the assignment was meant to show students "just how horrible slavery was and to gain empathy" for enslaved people

Purvis middle school
Purvis Middle School. Photo: Google Maps

A Mississippi school district is facing criticism after a class assignment asked middle schoolers to put themselves in the shoes of an enslaved person, and write letters to friends and family.

The assignment given to eighth-graders at Purvis Middle School told students to "pretend like you are a slave working on a Mississippi plantation," according to a screenshot of the assignment that Black Lives Matter Mississippi posted to Twitter.

The students were then instructed to write a letter "to your family back in Africa or in another American state" describing their lives, their journey to America and their daily tasks.

"You may also want to tell about the family you live with/work for and how you pass your time when you aren't working," the assignment said.

The image prompted outrage on social media, including from Black Lives Matter Mississippi's social media manager, Jeremy Marquell Bridges, who said he was sent a screenshot of the assignment by a parent.

"I don't know how a logical person teaches this," he told the Daily Beast. "Like someone who went to school to teach children could think this exercise was helpful in any way. It's not helpful, it's hurtful."

Those who commented on the Twitter post were also angry, like the user who responded: "Really hope someone turned in a blank sheet of paper."

Lamar County School District Superintendent Dr. Steven Hampton, who did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment, confirmed the assignment was given to students, but said it was the end of a PowerPoint presentation meant to show the "atrocities and negatives of slavery."

"[The purpose] was to show our students just how horrible slavery was and to gain empathy for what it was like to be a slave," he told NBC/ABC affiliate WDAM. "We do not discriminate against race. We want to be sensitive to what happened in the past."

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Principal Frank Bunnell, meanwhile, apologized for the assignment, but also claimed that context was missing from the screenshot in an email to parents obtained by the Daily Beast.

"A person could read just the assignment and draw a very unrealistic view of the true tragedies that occurred. That was not intended," he 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."

For some, the assignment's wording proved painful; asking students to describe their "journey to America" referred to the Middle Passage, which moved about 20 million people from their homes in Africa and killed 10-20 percent of people along the way in ships with often horrendous conditions, according to PBS.

"It's just another way that Mississippi is trying to whitewash its history," Black Lives Matter Mississippi President Reginald Virgil told the Daily Beast. "They want us to think slavery was polite."

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