According to the Chicago Sun Times, instead of celebrating Black History Month with assignments on historical Black figures, three white kindergarten teachers assigned their students a project about African animals.
One parent, Valeisha Manning, said she was appalled by the assignment given at Sutherland Elementary School in the South Side of Chicago. When she checked her 5-year-old daughter Raeghan’s backpack, she found a letter home to parents explaining the assignment.
“We are celebrating African American History Month in various ways at Sutherland this month,” the letter read. “Since our students have a genuine interest in animals and love to learn about them, we are going to take a closer look at African animals.”
The letter home included a picture of an animal that teachers said the students chose on their own to color. However, some parents were skeptical — especially Black parents whose kids came home with a picture of a monkey.
The backlash was instant. Dozens of parents took to social media to express their outrage. Many agreed that animals have nothing to do with Black history and the assignment diminished the importance of the month.
“You’re supposed to be learning about someone’s history and how they provided some type of ongoing fight for equality,” said Manning, who is Black. “Monkeys didn’t help us do that. Giraffes? Elephants? Zebras?”
“It’s ignorant and racially insensitive,” she continued. “I do not believe that whomever put this together sat back and said, ‘OK, let’s subliminally call these people monkeys or animals.’ I just think they were very careless.”
Principal Margaret Burns, who is white, brought up the concerns with parents at a regularly scheduled Local School Council meeting on Tuesday. She apologized for the “insensitive and inappropriate” project that “did not reflect the depth and honor” of the school’s regular curriculum. Burns, who said she hadn’t reviewed the assignment before it was sent home, assured parents that the project was canceled and a new one was sent home Tuesday.
Sutherland is the top-rated neighborhood public school on the South Side, according to the Times. The school’s current student body is 56% Black and 32% white. Only two decades ago, those numbers were about flipped. The Beverly neighborhood in the Southside has changed a lot over the past 50 years, however, considering it used to be 99% white. Now it’s about split between white residents and Black residents.
“This is a Beverly issue,” Manning said. “Unfortunately, this is something that every black person in Beverly who has been here within the last decade has felt.”
Beverly has had its share of racist incidents, including white nationalist flyers being plastered across the neighborhood last Spring and a parent named Tawana Scott saying her daughter was called a racial slur when she was in seventh grade. “Stuff happens to these African American children, and it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, it happened,’” said Scott, who has three kids at Sutherland. “It’s not treated with urgency.”
Manning said her son was also called a racial slur back in December and the student spit in his face. She had to file a police report and the school administration organized a safety plan for him. Despite this, Manning still believes CPS officials aren’t taking the incident seriously. The same classmate also called a Black girl a racial slur and chopped off her braids, according to parents.
It doesn’t help that 50% of the school district’s teachers are white, while the rest are split between Black and Latinx teachers, while 4% are Asian. Meanwhile, the 355,156 students in the district are 36% Black, 47% Latino, 4% Asian and 11% white.
“Someone black would’ve seen this assignment and said, ‘No, we do not use animals,’” Manning said. “With our history of being called every animal under the sun in a derogatory manner, we will never use this as a representation of learning Black history.”