Yeah, But Why Do They Have To Wear the Sheets?

Apparently, a high school history teacher in Georgia allowed her students to film themselves in Klan robes as part of their study of the organization as well as the history of race.  At one point students paraded through the school cafeteria and confronted an African American student and asked if they could reenact a lynching:

”I don’t apologize for the project, a tearful Aremmia told CBS Atlanta.  I do apologize that someone felt threatened.  I teach about United States history.  I teach about the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I would tell the students, why don’t you film that off campus on your own time. Would I tell them not to? No, because that’s part of history and to not acknowledge it is saying, that it’s OK. I’m sorry, it isn’t. It’s unacceptable.”

Student Cody Rider told reporters the incident left him ‘outraged’.  He said he wanted to fight the students when they asked his cousin, also a student at the school, if they could ‘re-enact the lynching of him for their class project’.  “My little cousin comes up and taps me on the shoulder, and there was fear in his eyes,” he said.  “He was like, he just started pointing, like he couldn’t even talk, that’s how bad it was. There was fear in his eyes, and I looked up and they are walking through the hallway in white sheets.”

The problem is that Catherine Aremmia should apologize if the story is true.  As I see it there are two problems here.  First, asking students to dress up as Klansmen has nothing to do with “teach[ing] about United States history; all I can see is students being asked to don Klan robes.  A significant gap is likely to exist between their historical understanding of the roles they are assuming and where their imaginations take them.

The much bigger problem is the rub between Ms. Aremmia’s refusal to apologize for the project and her disappointment that a black student felt threatened.  What is sad is that this teacher didn’t realize that even a cursory study of the history of race should have been sufficient to anticipate just this sort of problem.  Is she really surprised that a black student would feel threatened at the sight of fellow students dressed as Klansmen?  Shouldn’t that be a part of any lesson about the history of race in America?  What did those students imagine when they asked this individual if he would like to take part in a lynching?

17 comments… add one

  • Lane Kiffin May 25, 2010

    Shameful but today this lesson would have been OK if the teacher was Black and not white or if they had black Children playing the role of Nat Turner or the Black Panthers. IMO it is shameful that parties on both sides over reacted and used poor judgement. The Teacher should have sent a note home esplaining the lesson and what she was trying to teach. Then had the parent sign off on it. The Parents should use this to teach tolerance that gets preached about so much. Not everything you see hear or do in the study of History is comfortable. I cryed the first time I read Ann Frank.
    My wife does a slave ship simulation in her US History Class but she has the parents sign off and offers another assignment for those who don’t want to do it. In 10 years she has had no issues.

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2010

      Perhaps you can explain how the situation would have been different had the teacher been black or if they had been reenacting a slave rebellion. Who in their right mind would want children to reenact a slave rebellion? Unbelievable! You also need to explain who overreacted? Did the child who was approached by the students in costume overreact? Did his cousin overreact? I fail to see what any of this has to do with teaching tolerance. Of course not everything we teach in a history class is “comfortable” but that just means that we need to think carefully how we go about introducing it. Granted that this article doesn’t include much information, but I have to wonder whether the teacher had any clear sense of purpose here.

      • Lane Kiffin May 25, 2010

        If the Teacher was Black then the issue of racism is removed. if it was brought up then Rev. Jackson and Rev AL Sharpton would be down in GA defending the teacher to the bitter end. I didn’t make my self clear, I was referring to over reaction by the Adults. The kids involved handled it quite well , last time I read my kids conduct book being mad or thinking bout fighting is not wrong. The Tolerance and understanding goes the black childrens parents needing to explain the differnace between running into a Klansman out in the woods and inteacting with ones fellow students at school. It was a drama / roll play no one should have gotten mad or scared..

        As for Nat Turner here is a play about him
        The confessions of Nat Turner.(American History Play)

        Junior Scholastic | December 13, 2004 | Brown, Bryan | COPYRIGHT 2009 Scholastic, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. (Hide copyright information) Copyright

        http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-126316150.html

        I agree with you the Teacher blew it on this one and needs to make amends to all involved.

        • Kevin Levin May 25, 2010

          You said: “If the Teacher was Black then the issue of racism is removed.” I have no idea why you would say this and referring to Jackson and Sharpton fails to add anything to your claim.

          You said: “…last time I read my kids conduct book being mad or thinking bout fighting is not wrong. The Tolerance and understanding goes the black childrens parents needing to explain the differnace between running into a Klansman out in the woods and inteacting with ones fellow students at school. It was a drama / roll play no one should have gotten mad or scared..”

          But a student was visibly upset by the experience. What you believe is a proper reaction is irrelevant to this situation. Actually, your comment seems naive at best.

          Finally, unless you can prove that you are Lane Kiffin this will be the final comment approved. I hope you understand.

  • Leonard Lanier May 25, 2010

    Here is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s article on the incident:

    http://www.ajc.com/news/teacher-stands-by-lesson-534319.html

    At this point, Catherine Aremmia seems guilty of a serious lack of judgment.

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2010

      Thanks for the additional link.

    • Larry H Cebula May 25, 2010

      Exactly-terrible judgment combined with a case of the “genetically incapable of apologizing” syndrome.

      I wonder how much of this goes on that we do not hear about? At a Teaching American History grant workshop last year a teacher explained how he “made slavery real” for students in his classroom. The lesson began with him separating out the black kids and explaining that they would be slaves in the historical play acting that followed. The project staff made it clear to the guy that this was NOT OK, and after a while I think he really did get it. But he had been doing it for years with no idea that it was in any way offensive!

  • Matt May 25, 2010

    I haven’t commented in a while, but this post spurred me to add my two cents. I think we need to draw a distinction between WHAT is being taught here and HOW it is being taught. I, for one, applaud the teacher for her attempt (embarassingly poor though it may be) to confront some ugly truths about American history. I think that too often, teachers sweep these historical unpleasantries under the rug because they create discomfort in the classroom. In doing this, we do our students a great disservice. As an American history teacher myself, I think these are precisely the subjects to which we should devote MORE time, because they provide us with an opportunity to confront true history. After all, history is, by and large, the story of conflict. So, if we take Ms. Aremmia at her word regarding her intentions, I have no problem with what she THOUGHT she was accomplishing.

    The real problem here, as Kevin rightly points out, is that there’s no serious attempt to understand the past on it own terms. I suppose you could make the argument that the white students *might* learn the dangers of mob mentality, but what then does the black student learn? There is a disturbing power dynamic at work here. More to the point, I would argue that re-enactments rarely tell us anything of value. Would a student re-enactment of a slave rebellion teach them anything of why the slaves rebelled or what effect the rebellion had in the long run?

    It seems to me that this is an attempt to teach history as “feeling.” In other words, can we replicate a situation so that our students can empathize with Klansmen? With rebellious slaves? With slaves making the Middle Passage? Of course we can’t, because we don’t KNOW what that felt like–and there’s a certain arrogance in believing that you do. A colleague of mine decided to give her students a “sense” of war this year, so she took them to play laser tag–as if that would teach them what the battlefield “felt” like. I understand the desire to do this, but the bottom line is that we can’t teach history as feeling. If we think we can, we’re kidding ourselves… and desperately shortchanging our students.

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2010

      Excellent points, Matt.

    • Margaret D. Blough May 25, 2010

      There are so many things wrong with the teacher’s choices that I could go on for pages. One of the first things is that lynch mobs, for the most part, were NOT mobs in the sense of spontaneous, out of control mass acts of insanity (I recommend David Grimsted’s “American Mobbing: 1828-1861: Toward Civil War”). In antebellum America and not just in the postwar South but in several other states (Oklahoma, for instance), lynching and other forms of mobbing were often very deliberate and organized and had considerable state and/or local government approval. The Klan in its 20th century heydey, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, not only had implicit state sanction but many local government officials, particularly in law enforcement, BELONGED to the Klan (look at the 1964 Goodman-Chaney-Schwerner executions. Not only were the local sheriff and deputy sheriff involved, the three had been tracked and information given to the killers by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission), Those murders and many others in that period occurred in an attempt to terrorize Southern blacks into continuing to not insist on exercising the right to vote guaranteed them in the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution. Putting a bunch of white kids in white sheets and letting them upset their Black classmates is not going to give them a clue as to what it is like to know that you can murder not only with no adverse consequences but with the approbation of your peers just because your skin is the approved color and your victim’s isn’t.

      • Kevin Levin May 25, 2010

        Margaret,

        Excellent point, but I wonder whether we can take it a step further. After all, what percentage of African Americans had the misfortune of meeting Klansmen in person? If you wanted to simulate an encounter that may have a chance of getting at the immorality of discrimination as experienced by most blacks why not focus on access to public institutions or the reality of Jim Crow.

        • Marianne Davis May 26, 2010

          Matt, Kevin and Margaret,

          I think it’s possible that this is another case of a well-intentioned teacher trying to teach a lesson that she has not yet learned herself. Teaching the “lesson” of the KKK as a part of America’s past creates a pretense that the forces of hatred and division are no longer with us. That black child was terrified, and his cousin outraged, because they know better than that foolish teacher that there are still people among us who target The Other for violence and lesser abuses. Just as these horrors are not specific to the 19th and 20th centuries, they are not limited to divisions of race.

          As you suggested, Kevin, it would have been more useful from a historical viewpoint to examine Jim Crow laws. Beyond that, perhaps she might have asked her children if there are still any legal and social barriers to any American’s advancement.

          • Margaret D. Blough May 26, 2010

            Marianne-You make some excellent points, but I would take them further. She also clearly does not begin to comprehend WHAT the Klan was about at its strongest. The term terrorist is bandied about so freely these days as to be almost meaningless, but the Klan was (and may well still be even though it is going through one of its weaker periods) a terrorist organization in the strictest sense of the word. Its objective was to terrorize blacks into not even attempting the civil rights to which they were entitled under the Constitution as it was amended by the 13th through 15th Amendments and by federal law. Also, especially in the Deep South, it was, to use a 21st century term, a state-sponsored terrorist organization. It was routine, especially during the Massive Resistance period of the 1950s through 1960s, for southern law enforcement officers to belong to the Klan and even reach leadership positions. The Neshoba county sheriff and a deputy were part of the Klan conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner for what their murderes saw as the capital offense of registering black Misssippians to vote and the conspirators were fed information by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission who spied on and had an agent among the people training for and working in Freedom Summer.

            The formal term for Jim Crow laws is de jure segregation-segregation that has the force of law and the power of the state to enforce it. We are dealing with situations like Prince Edward County, Virginia, which closed its school system for many years rather than desegregate.

            I feel as strongly as I do because I was born a few years after the US military was desegregated and a few years before Brown. I was in grade school during EmmittTills’ murder, Little Rock and the Montgomery bus boycott. I was in junior high and high school during Freedom Summer, Birmingham/”Bombingham”, Bull Connor and his firehoses and attack dogs, the church bombing, Selma. I entered college the year that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. I only saw this on TV and read about it in newspapers, magazines, and books. The students in this school have grandparents, great-grandparents, and other relatives who lived through this first hand rather than watching it on television so I cannot be forgiving of the kind of dangerous naivete and ignorance of this teacher.

            I don’t believe the teacher intended to offend and frighten, but, as a teacher, she should have researched and understood her subject before teaching it to impressionable children. The lesson that could have and should have been taught is what can happen when the forces of hatred and bigotry control government and have absolute power over the freedom and even the lives of those they despise.

  • OLE Roy May 26, 2010

    Shameful that a former GA Teacher of the Year has no common sense.

  • Laura McCarty May 26, 2010

    The second teacher in Georgia in trouble for having students dress up in Klan robes…

    http://www.ajc.com/news/gwinnett/gwinnett-schools-investigate-after-535560.html

    • Kevin Levin May 26, 2010

      Laura,

      Thanks for passing on the link. I noticed it as well. I guess I can only handle one Klan dress-up at a time. :D

      • Laura McCarty May 27, 2010

        This might be a topic of discussion from the history teaching side of your blog, rather than the Civil War memory part.

        I am the National History Day coordinator for Georgia, and the first thing I thought is “thank God” these dress-ups were not for NHD entries…

        We once had a performance, from an extremely rural and poor school, where a group of African Americans were doing Harriet Tubman. So one of them put on “white face” paint to play the role of the master. We suggested to the student that there were other dramatic techniques that might work as well…

        But back to teaching: Teachers are learning about creative methods for engaging students in learning history and that’s probably what those two teachers in GA were trying to do. This kind of thing, I guess, came out of them trying something out.

        In my way of thinking, it probably would have worked better if they were grounded in the scholarship about the Klan and reconstruction, and then engaged the primary sources that are available on the topic rather than going the dramatic, but shallow, reenactment route.

        What do you think? Obviously if the students in Dahlonega talked about reenacting a lynching, that was crossing the line. The story on the Gwinnett middle school teacher, who is African American, is less clear cut. I’m not sure what she was thinking…

        Laura

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