Ask ARP: How do I talk to my child’s teacher about concerns over a recent field trip?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent:

My biracial son’s 1st grade class recently went on a field trip to a ‘farm museum’ (a.k.a. former plantation) in our Southern state.  While there, the kids were shown a video of slaves bring the master food and coming to get a couple of coins on Christmas Day, all in order to show what life “used to be like.”  It was awful and there was no mention of the black and brown people who were portrayed being anything other than slaves, no other context.  I think they could create a much more full and meaningful experience for all of the kids if they did the field trip to a different location.  I don’t know how to go about making that suggestion, though.  Any suggestions?

Stacie V.

From the Editor:

Ugh. I feel your pain. I enjoy visiting historic homes in general and, when in the South, plantations. I love admiring the grandeur of these locations and the history buff in me is intrigued by how people lived in pre-Civil War America. What I don’t love is the way people of African descent are almost without exception marginalized in the way they are presented. In my experience, enslaved people are either euphemistically referred to as “servants,” their experience as human chattel erased and sanitized. One place I visited had turned old slave quarters into little bed-and-breakfast cottages. Ghastly! On the other hand, you get African people portrayed as victims with focus on the lash and the drudgery and the danger and the subservience. In either case, the “masters” of the house are allowed to be full people with hopes and quirks and skills and personal stories. The enslaved Africans are just, well, property. Same as it ever was.

FYI, the one place that I’ve visited that comes close to doing it right is the Laura Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. For example, tours of the old Creole sugar plantation point out the expert craftsmanship that built the home. It was enslaved Senegalese laborers (if I recall correctly) brought to this country specifically for their expertise in engineering and construction that created the original big house. When I last visited, guides would point to a torn wall that revealed the home’s original construction by Africans, and compared it to evidence of new construction done in the 20th century with modern tools. The original construction was far better. Imagine! Enslaved Africans being expert at something and not just beasts of burden.

I digress though…you want to know how to discuss this with administrators at your child’s school. Try this:

- Acknowledge the spirit with which teachers planned the field trip. They wanted children to learn about their regional culture. That is an admirable and important goal. Say that.

- Be SPECIFIC about where and why you think the field trip fell short. We know that many good and smart people are blind to the marginalization of people of color. Be ready to explain exactly what you mean and give examples. (Ex. Big Southern House is a beautiful place. It was interesting to learn about the Johnson family, but I am concerned that the guided tour minimized the lives and contributions of African Americans. For example, the guide never mentioned how the enslaved families that kept the plantation going lived from day-to-day. When she talked about how the Johnson family celebrated Christmas, she did not talk about the many other families living on the land. I am concerned that the children may come away without not knowing our area’s full and rich history.) You get the picture.

- Ask if there are ways that the planned classroom curriculum will make up for the shortcomings of the field trip. You may be surprised…or not. But don’t assume that the teacher has not recognized the same problems that you did and has not taken steps to correct them.

- Offer solutions. How can your child and others learn a more inclusive version of regional culture? Do you know of better field trip locations? Is there a good speaker that can be invited into the classroom? Are there in-class exercises that will do the trick?

Readers-what do you say?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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