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Arkansas-Pine Bluff v San Diego State

Hepner Hall and Hardy Tower on the campus of San Diego State University on November 21, 2012, in San Diego, California. | Source: Kent Horner / Getty

A San Diego State University professor has come under fire over a slavery-based assignment that made some of her students uncomfortable. Now, this wasn’t another instance of schools run by white people who think having children post “Slavery for life” tweets or running mock slave auctions is a good idea. This wasn’t white “educators” making Black students pick cotton or draw pictures of slaves picking cotton for Black History Month or college presidents serving “Black meals” with cotton centerpieces. (There sure does seem to be a lot of slavery fan fic going on in education these days. If only there were a college-level critical race theory curriculum that could be used as a tool to unpack that.)

The appropriateness of this assignment, which, again, was given to college students, can easily be left up to the interpretation of the individual.

From the Daily Aztec:

On Oct. 11, Amari Jackson, a student enrolled in Professor LaShae Collins’ African Studies 101 course, posted a description of an assignment requiring students to create a fake slave persona on his Instagram page.The assignment, worth 8% of students’ final grade, was dissaproved by some students in the course. 

 “Should never have to act like and ‘create a slave persona’ for one of my africana studies classes. But hey, at least my professor canceled the in-class presentations where she wanted us to act and dress in our personas,”Amari Jackson wrote in the caption of his post.

Robbie Jackson, a second-year psychology major and minor in africana studies, said on the first day of classes at SDSU they were told by Collins that it was optional to dress as a slave for the assignment.

According to Robbie, this statement was met with silence in her class. 

“Nothing happened, like no one said anything,” Robbie said. “There was no reaction as far as I could tell, and she just continued talking about her expectations for the class, but nobody said anything or did anything.”

A student enrolled in the course, who asked to be unnamed in fear of retaliation from their professor, said Collins told them that students in the past have come to class dressed in “historically accurate” clothing. They said it was implied (by Collins) that it would improve the student’s grade for the assignment.

So, the anonymous student claimed they were being encouraged to use “broken English” and wear tattered clothing to illustrate the slave experience.

“She told us that we needed to make it historically accurate, and stated that slaves were not taught proper English and that they spoke in fragmented sentences,” the student said. “So (Collins said) not to worry about punctuation or grammar.”

Now, if it is true that students were told to go full “yessa’ massa’ sa'” in order to get the best grade possible, then, yeah, this assignment was trash.

But the university’s Africana Studies Department Chair, Adisa Alkebulan, told The Daily Aztec via email that “there was never a requirement (for students) to dress as slaves or speak in ‘broken English’ as has been falsely reported in some news outlets.” It’s also worth mentioning that the Afrikan Student Union appears to be standing behind Collins, who is Black.

The student union said Collins “would never do anything to harm students and is committed to ensuring that every student is heard and respected inside and outside the classroom,” and characterized the backlash over the assignment as part of an “unfortunate misunderstanding“ and “unfinished narrative.”

Still, the unidentified student provided what they believe to be receipts that prove otherwise.

More From the Daily Aztec:

The unnamed student sent The Daily Aztec a PDF file, which contained 440 pages of slave narratives. They claim it was used as a resource and example for the assignment.

The PDF showed usage of broken English, “Yes’m, they was slaves, mos’ all the fine work ‘round Wilmin’ton was done by slaves. They called ‘em artisans. Non of ‘em could read, but give ‘em any plan an’ they could foller it to the las’ line,” cited in the first story of the document titled “Memories of Uncle Jackson”.

The unnamed student in the course described the PDF as an “irrefutable” pattern of encouragement by Collins to promote the usage of broken English. The source went on to express their frustration with SDSU’s solidarity with Collins.

So, in this instance, the controversy doesn’t appear to surround whether or not the assignment itself was inherently racist and insensitive. The question is: Were students being encouraged to present an interpretation of how enslaved people spoke or dressed? Because it’s not hard to imagine how that can get messy and problematic really quick.

“What if someone recorded that presentation, how would that affect someone’s career?” the unnamed student asked. “If that got leaked in your professional or social life, that’s a life ruiner.”

Robbie pointed out that this was an instance where impact matters more than intent.

“I think that people could have misinterpreted it (the assignment) a different way, but I also think that people are valid in their feelings of discomfort with the assignment,” Robbie said. “And so even if that’s not exactly how the professor meant for the assignment to sound, it still made students uncomfortable to do it, and I think that should be addressed.”

So, what do y’all think?


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