Is Picking Cotton Really the Best Way to Teach Kids About Slavery?
Photo: Sze Yin Chan / Unsplash

Is Picking Cotton Really the Best Way to Teach Kids About Slavery?

An L.A. school district is being sued after elementary school students were instructed to pick cotton. Yes, actual cotton. Like, from the plant. In a field.

Death and taxes used to be the only two certainties in life—but no matter how much progress it feels like we’re making sometimes, the sad fact is you can probably slide racism into that list, too. Are we in a moment of uprising that feels like it has the potential to create real, systemic change? Yes. Do people and organizations still show their ass on a daily basis? Oh, most definitely. And to keep tabs on all that ass-showing, we’re pleased to present our semi-regular racism surveillance machine. Stay woke, and keep your head on a swivel out there.

Just how real should teaching slavery to kids in school get? That's the question we're asking ourselves after the Los Angeles Times reported the L.A. Unified School District has been sued for a 2017 incident in which kids were made to pick cotton in a field set up in front of Laurel Span School, which has since closed.

Rashunda Pitts, the mother of a now-14-year-old girl, says her daughter didn't participate in the mock servitude, but was traumatized by witnessing it and has suffered depression and anxiety attacks over the "Cotton Picking Project."

According to the report, the class was reading Frederick Douglass' autobiography. The associated group project, which also included tending to other crops, was intended to give a "real-life experience" of slavery, presumably with more focus on agriculture than, say, torture, death, the birth of institutional racism in America, and multigenerational trauma.

The Times report mentions there was disagreement over how quickly the cotton field could be taken down once Pitts complained to the school. Additionally, students reportedly weren’t required to have parental permission to participate in the project. That might be understandable; imagine being asked to sign a permission slip that says, "OK for your child to pick cotton in school this week? You know, to learn about slavery?"

It might be tempting to call the lawsuit a cotton-picking overreaction until you remember some other slavery lessons gone awry, from mock slave auctions in schools to teachers making whip-crack sounds in history lessons. Pardon us stating the painfully obvious, but maybe the takeaway here is no interactive curriculum will ever convey the horror of slavery. Yes, teach history, but for chrissakes stop trying to make students active participants in it.

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