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I participated in the Nature’s Classroom slavery re-enactment in 2003

September 20, 2013

When I was in the sixth grade, I took part in the “Underground Railroad” program at Nature’s Classroom that has recently made national headlines.

Before I begin recounting my experience, I should reveal that many of the details in this story are things I am trying to remember from nearly 11 years ago, at a time when I was unable to comprehend why a program would be controversial. I failed to make a thorough mental documentation of everything going on around me because I was more concerned with hiding from the “slave masters” and “bounty hunters” than taking record of the exact things that were or were not said. There are also several Nature’s Classroom campuses, and I’m uncertain of which one I attended with my class, but I know I participated in this program at whichever campus I stayed at for four days.

We were told that we did not have to participate in the program about 30 minutes beforehand. Naturally, a sixth grader is not going to feel comfortable sitting out of a program he knows all of his friends are doing, especially if he’s “too scared.” Before entering the room where the activity began, us children were told to keep our heads down at all times. If we ever made eye contact with a “slave master” we were separated from our friends and removed from the activity. We filed into the building in rows and sat on the ground, keeping our heads completely down. The instructors pounded on the walls and screamed at us. I remember one male voice being loudest of all. At no point do I remember the n-word being used, but I’m almost positive “Negro” was.

The loud male voice told us a story about how he loves to take his rifle and shoot Negros in the leg while they’re picking cotton and to watch them crawl in the fields, helplessly. The discomfort in the room among the children was extremely palpable. My eyes were fixated on the floor, but I could tell from the sounds of breathing that my classmates were just as scared and nervous as I was.

We were led out of the room in smaller groups from there by teachers playing the roles of guides on the Underground Railroad. I think it’s particularly telling that the one detail I remember most vividly from that lesson is not how scary it was to feel dehumanized for three hours, but rather that the teacher went by the moniker “Virginia Ham.”

We made several stops along the way in the houses of “friendly abolitionists,” who explained how grave the danger was for both us, the “slaves,” and for them, should we be caught. As they said this, a “slave master” came to the door, and we were once again instructed to stare at the ground. One of my classmates was “caught” and the abolitionist was let off with a very stern warning.

I forget how the program ended once we reached the end of the Railroad. What I know is that for me, once it was over, it was over. People stopped looking at the ground, and they started looking at my white face again. The aftermath of slavery has not been the same for African-Americans.

Nature’s Classroom’s clear intention is to build empathy among children, including my mostly white group of classmates, by exposing them to three hours of a high-stress, mildly traumatic experience. It seems to me that instead of building empathy, the end-result is trivializing slavery and its lasting effects.

The Hartford Courant reported some comments, positive and negative, left as feedback by young students who participated in the program. Some choice comments: “Appreciation for what we have today,” “Exciting learning experience to see what slaves actually went through” and “Felt like it was real, felt like a real slave.”

Perhaps sixth grade is too early for children to fully realize and comprehend the effects of institutional racism, unless they’ve learned it first-hand, but the Underground Railroad program leaves several of the participants convinced that being yelled at and led through the woods for three hours is akin to actual slavery. Perhaps I believed this too at one time. If the purpose is to build empathy, it appears many of the students never truly learned it. The takeaway lesson is that slavery was intense and scary because there were loud voices, but then it ended abruptly. These children had the ability to “experience slavery” in the sixth grade, and then move on with their lives.

The writers of the top comment on BuzzFeed's story on the incident and its top reply feel the experience was "eye-opening."

The writers of the top comment on BuzzFeed’s story on the incident and its top reply feel the experience was “eye-opening.”

I do think the program has the ability to enlighten some of its participants, but it’s my belief that these were children already capable of empathy. I’ve always had an informed sense of what is right and wrong, and I’ve always believed slavery to be wrong, yet I’m not sure if I, as an 11-year-old growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, would have had the ability to understand the full extent of my privilege. I knew during the whole exercise that I was not actually a slave. I never lost sight of that fact. I know I was scared, though.

The voices were loud and the danger felt pretty real to me. I knew what I was going through was not as bad as slavery, but I’m not sure if I realized that the two experiences were not even remotely comparable. The unspecific threats of violence directed at my group by someone I knew was just pretending were not as painful or as enduring as a memory as the scars left from a whip would have been.

After I returned home on a school bus, I had the ability to forget I had participated in the activity until 11 years later when I started reading about it in the news. There is no way to recreate that facet of slavery, and I would implore the Nature’s Classroom staff not to attempt it. However, the legacy of slavery in America is too great to ignore, and placing children inside a simulation in an effort to show them how far we’ve come seems disingenuous, because we have not come even remotely close to stepping out of the past.

EDIT: A previous version of this post said I did this trip when I was in the fourth grade. I was in the sixth grade. This piece has been edited to reflect that.

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2 Comments
  1. We have not come even remotely close to stepping out of the past?

  2. Johnd526 permalink

    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point. You clearly know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog when you could be giving us something enlightening to read? fdccffkdckak

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