Saltus says it didn’t ask pupils to write about benefits of slavery
A private school insisted yesterday that pupils were not asked to write about the benefits of slavery.
But Saltus admitted that “the intention of the particular assignment could have been misunderstood”.
A statement from the school said: “The assignment asked students to draft a speech designed to convince enslaved people to join the Underground Railroad.”
The instructions included: “Mention:
• The worst aspects of plantation life
• Why the better parts of plantation life are still no substitute for freedom
• How the ‘Railroad’ works“
The statement added: “We are painfully aware of Saltus’ legacy of white privilege and institutionalised racism and the feeling that the school hasn’t shed its past.
“An issue such as this only serves to reinforce those beliefs about Saltus.”
But the school added: “Our board and our faculty and staff are steadfast in their commitment to establish an environment at Saltus that is genuinely welcoming, inclusive and fair.
“This is our responsibility as educators and we take it seriously — for the wellbeing of our students and the Bermuda community.
“We also know perceptions don’t change overnight and that the memories some members of the community have about Saltus are hurtful and enduring.
“We can only reinforce our commitment to do better. We urge our communities to hold us to this promise.”
The school said that Year 8 pupils studied slavery, racism and civil rights last term.
It added that an assignment was designed “to have students examine why those who were slaves might have been reluctant to participate” in the US Underground Railroad that transported enslaved people to freedom in the early to mid-19th century.
The statement explained: “While there was reference in source material to the provision of food and clothing and other aspects of daily plantation life, this was in the context of the extreme privation and horrific, ongoing physical abuse visited upon enslaved people.”
The school spoke out after a WhatsApp message circulated earlier on the island claimed that a pupil was taught that “slavery was a long time ago, not all slave owners were bad — some threw birthday parties for the slaves, and being a slave was better because you got free housing and food”.
Saltus refused yesterday to reveal the nature of the exercise.
But the school highlighted that teachers were asked to review “the unit and coursework in question” and rework it to “improve the content and focus”.
The Saltus statement today said: “First, we want to apologise.
“The comment we provided in response to a query from The Royal Gazette didn’t address the issue that had been raised — an allegation that Saltus had asked students to write about the benefits of slavery.
“The short answer is we didn’t ask students to do this, but we can see how the intention of the particular assignment could have been misunderstood.”
It added: “There is clearly no context in which there are acceptable degrees of enslavement.
“But the language used in this assignment led to the belief in some homes that we were implying there were benefits to living on a plantation.”
It added that staff met with people who had concerns about the task and "revisited the assignment“ with the pupils ”to make sure there was no mistaking the objective of the exercise“.
The education committee of pressure group Social Justice Bermuda highlighted the importance of language in lessons about enslavement.
It said: “Educators help shape how students see and understand the world and history.
“We are all responsible for our intention as well as our impact, and as all educators should be aware of, language matters.
“Word choices and assignments have a way of perpetuating harmful beliefs, and subtly erasing lived experiences, when not chosen with consideration.
“The enslavement of Africans in the Americas and Caribbean left two legacies behind – the social and economic barriers that the Black community continues to face and the racism, lack of accountability, and feeling of superiority that infects the White community.
“Often it can be difficult to perceive the structures of oppression in the present, and it is through understanding the structures of oppression in the past that it is possible to shed a light on present structures of oppression.”
The statement said that SJB supported global efforts to decolonise certain language, such as the replacement of “slave holder, owner or master” with “enslaver”.
It added that “slave” should be replaced with “enslaved person”.
The committee said: “When teaching about the history of enslaved people in Bermuda and other parts of the world, we must tell the truth.
“The horrors of slavery and segregation must not be whitewashed.”
Mwalimu Melodye Micere Van Putten, the creator of the Ashay cultural character education programme, explained that there was a problem with teaching a history that started with enslavement “instead of starting at the beginning where African people were the first people to live on the Earth”.
She said: “The change will come when we are willing to, number one, not teach it as if it’s Black history when it’s White people’s history and it’s all people’s history.”
Mwalimu Van Putten added: “The second thing is, people have to be willing to be uncomfortable.
“This is not a comfortable truth. The only way that we learn from it and change the trajectory of stereotypes and miseducation and misinformation is if we confront, honestly, the truth of the history.”
She said: “Additionally, all people originate in Africa. Africa is our common birthplace as humanity.
“That’s another critically important point that is not emphasised enough.”
* To read the full statements from Social Justice Bermuda’s education committee and Saltus Grammar School, click on the PDFs under “Related Media”.
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