Back in the mid 1990s when I was a sixth grader growing up in Massachusetts, my class took a five-day trip to something called Nature's Classroom. It was essentially a week's worth of being one with the outdoors as guided by half-employed twenty-something hippie camp counselors. The experience was rather unmemorable, and I had not thought about it at all in years, including a bizarre activity we participated in that has finally gotten the camp into some hot water with an African-American family.
James and Sandra Baker of Hartford, Conn. are outraged after their daughter attended Nature's Classroom and participated in a slavery reenactment. James shared his daughter's account with the Hartford School Board.
"'The instructor told me if I were to run, they would whip me until I bled on the floor and then either cut my Achilles so I couldn't run again, or hang me," he relayed.
As part of the activity, he said his daughter and other students also pretended to be on a slave ship, pick cotton, and were called "nigger" by instructors posing as their masters.
The Bakers have since pulled their daughter from the Hartford school system.
Thinking back on my own experience, one night during our stay there back in 1996, my class participated in this same Underground Railroad reenactment which began when all of us — probably 100 or so — were brought to a big hall. When the doors opened, camp counselors and our teachers who had accompanied us on the trip, began shouting at us, barking orders and telling us to keep moving and then sit down. Why? Because this group of 100 of the whitest kids you've ever seen had magically been transformed into 19th century black slaves.
After we took our seats and our impromptu masters stopped screaming, one of the counselors stood in front of us and asked if any of us liked how we had just been treated. One kid raised his hand (I remember his name to this day), and was told to leave, presumably to receive some sort of punishment for being a masochist.
We were then divided into groups and assigned to a camp counselor who guide us on a journey from the South to the free North. We circumnavigated a big field with various checkpoints manned by crackers unsympathetic to the cause of freedom. At each checkpoint we would have to hit the ground face-down and not make any noises (since we were in the back of an imaginary wagon), lest whitey discover a bunch of Harriet Tubmans in tow.
Thankfully our group made it without a hitch, although some groups were "caught" and had to start the journey over again.
I neither condemn nor defend the activity in question. The experience was unsettling, which of course was the point. It was designed to make us feel marginalized and even subhuman in an effort to impart a greater understanding of what it must have been like to be a slave. On the other hand, being called racist slurs might be taking the simulation a bit too far. Regardless of the (in)appropriateness of the whole thing, I'll venture to guess that the counselors were well-intended, even if the implementation was unacceptable.