In so many ways, it seems that America can’t escape the ugliness of its past. The disadvantaged and the displaced have to reckon with the consequences of that past every day.
So it is important that that past not be forgotten.
History has to be taught; and we have to face the horrible things our country did. But we do not have to relive them to understand them.
However, one professor at Howard University thinks — or thought — that graphically re-enacting a darker part of American history was the perfect way to understand it.
Caged Bird Magazine reports that an unnamed white professor at Howard held a mock slave auction in class, feeling that it would be a good way to demonstrate the horrors of slavery.
The professor chose a young man, asking him to come before the class as he was “like the type of slave buyers would look for.” Flustered, the student did as he was asked, cringing along with his class as his professor proceeded to examine him as slavers did, looking at the young man’s teeth, height, and having him show off his strength.
Noticing that every student in the room was disgusted, the professor reportedly said, “It’s okay, I’m uncomfortable too; I’m white.”
The examination ended only when the professor said to the student, “Turn around so we can see your buttocks.” The class revolted, and the student quietly took his seat.
To better understand the incident and how it has impacted the Howard’s students, we spoke with the editor-in-chief of Caged Bird Magazine, Alexa Lisitza.
Lisitza says that the response to the article was surprising. Although she notes “students at Howard have protested over less,” there was little rancor from the student body at first; in fact, “many called into question whether or not the story was true.”
The alumni community was apparently quick to discount Lisitza’s reporting as well, saying that “they would have heard about it if it were true, considering how many groups they were apart of,” and that the article “couldn't have been true because our student newspaper hadn't published anything about it yet.”
Even worse, “a few alumni contacted me to let me know I should be ashamed of painting Howard in a negative light when Howard already has negative things being said about it, and others said they would be telling Howard to seek legal action against me, or they would seek legal action themselves.”
However, Lisitza was vindicated after “many in the class came forward and named themselves after the piece was published.” This, she says, “shifted the conversation away from skepticism and toward one of outrage.”
Those not affiliated with Howard, Lisitza told us, had a lot of thoughts. Some, she says, felt the professor’s actions were justified, while others were upset at her editorial decision not to disclose the professor’s identity. Interestingly, others “blamed Howard” for the incident and criticized the manner in which it handled the situation.
Lisitza, for her part, feels that the university has done a good job in addressing its students’ concerns about the lesson. According to the editor, the male student the professor placed on the auction block filed a complaint with school officials directly after the class occurred; in response, Lisitza says, “Howard immediately went into action.” Administrators “opened an investigation and insured the young man would not have to return to class.”
Any blame placed on Howard is blame misplaced, Lisitza says, stating that Howard takes “care of their students, always,” and that, “the best a university can do is promptly handle situations as they occur and make moves to keep it from happening again in the future, which Howard is doing.”