We’re coming to the end of February and Black History Month in particular. An incident in Toms River, South Jersey gave me reason to pause. So did racially-motivated assaults and shootings in prior weeks across the nation and in my part of the country.
Two weeks ago, a Toms River Middle School teacher was called to task by the district for a history lesson on slavery. A student’s complaint on Instagram noted that the youth felt uncomfortable when the history teacher instructed some in his class to get down on their knees and pretend to be picking cotton while he made the sound of a whip cracking in the air above their heads. The lesson, noted the teacher, was to place students in the shoes of those enslaved so very long ago. The lesson was about injustice, toiling in the fields and having no rights as human beings at a time when the nation was literally divided over the issue of slavery.
As a journalist, writer and teacher, I learned long ago that one can report facts and figures on any one issue until they are blue in the face and still not get their intended point across.
Making a point, one that stays in a readers’ or students’ mind, means putting a face to a situation and conveying the joy, pain or anxiety of that which you are exploring. For some, it is easy to take offense and in a day where, more times than not, political correctness takes the forefront, I applaud this teacher for taking a page out of a history book and making it come to life.
It is this very same history lesson that brought me awareness and sparked empathy when I was easily susceptible to bigotry as a youth.
As a freshman at Hackensack High School in 1971, it was a tumultuous time. The Newark riots were not that far behind us. A sense of tension existed in every neighborhood and in Hackensack during this period, one was defined by which side of the tracks one called home.
One of my college preparatory classes was Contemporary Studies, taught by a lithe, lovely and inspiring young black woman by the name of Angela Bray. She was right out of college, her first year teaching and her smile and sense of audacity was infectious. Just perfect for a young rebel such as myself trying to find my cause.
I was so taken with her class that I sat in the front row, knowing that I would be in the forefront of any discussion on any topic of the day. Thinking about it now, another reason for sitting up front was that to my immediate left sat a lovely girl with an equally lovely smile. Her name was Lauren, if I’m not mistaken.
One day in class, we were all discussing our heritage. When my turn came, I proudly proclaimed that I was Sicilian – not Italian – Sicilian.
Lauren turned to me with that endearing smile and asked: “You’re Sicilian? Are your parents in the Mafia?” With that question, I felt my blood run cold.
“No, Lauren, my parents are not in the Mafia,” I replied. In her eyes I saw a vacant sense of disbelief.
“Can I ask you a question?” I asked. She nodded.
“You’re Jewish, is that right?”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“Does your family have reserved seating at the Wailing Wall?” I remember Lauren’s eyes going blank.
“No,” she replied. “No …. I don’t think we do …. ”
I realized that the point I was trying to make regarding stereotypes was lost on her. At least for that moment. Perhaps years later, it might have been food for thought. I shall never know.
But this was my most important lesson learned in Angela Bray’s class: A week or two later, long before there was ever a Black History Month, we were discussing the practice of slavery and the impact it had on each of our lives in contemporary times.
The lesson was simple: Our classroom would become a cotton and tobacco plantation in the deep South just prior to the Civil War. Each one of us would play a part in that long ago life of strife. Ms. Bray was the plantation’s owner and overseer, assigning our chores and responsibilities.
I was cast in the role of a strapping young slave responsible for the plantation’s horses and stable. We discussed the hardships of those working tedious, grueling and long days in the summer sun, weighed in on social class distinctions and the hope that under an audacious new president by the name of Lincoln, hope and freedom could be in the wind.
Ms. Bray turned to me at one point during our discussion.
“Albert, by the way, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve sold your common law wife Bessie and your three children to my old plantation owner friend about 100 miles from here. Make sure they’re packed and ready to leave first thing in the morning.”
“You heard me.”
“Wait a minute, you can’t do that, sell off my wife and fam….” Before I could finish my objection, she pointed her hand at me with an extended index finger and said: “Bang, you’re dead.” I was stunned. “What just happened here?” I asked.
“You’re dead. I just shot you dead. You are my property and I can do anything I like with you. Or your family. The last thing I need on this plantation is an ‘uppity nigger’ questioning my authority, stirring dissent and making any kind of trouble. So, bang, your dead.” There was a flurry of raised voices and discussion, but Ms. Bray had made her point, made it close to home and it was a poignant lesson of history and empathy that I would carry with me always. It helped shape who I am today.
Last week, I learned that the Toms River Middle School history teacher was not removed from class or suspended after the district had a chance to study his lesson plan and properly weigh the facts and intent. Perhaps under media pressure, they, too, were able to put a face to part of our history that needs further exploring.
Years ago as a reporter for The New York Times, I spoke with a black World War II veteran who saw his own share of persecution while in the service. How did he deal with it? He shrugged it off and did his duty, he would say, adding: “When all was said and done in battle, we all bled the same color.”
While I said it to you then when the school year ended, I’ll say it again, Ms. Bray: “A heartfelt thank you for your lesson in empathy, equality and humanity. I hope it’s a lesson that I, too, have managed to pass on over the years.