An award-winning educational program at Conner Prairie interactive history park under fire for controversial slavery re-enactment.
The 18-year-old program, which in 2003 won the national award for Excellence in Programming from the American Alliance of Museums and in 2012 – the national Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History, offers the young visitors of the interactive park in Fishers to find out about slavery and the underground the system of concealed pathways and safe houses that slaves used in the 1800s to escape the South.
The trip includes slavery re-enactment where some students of the age over 12 represent slaves in the hands of a cruel slave master.
The employees of the park are completely sure that the experience that children have during the trip helps them to develop empathy and stimulate them to discuss different secret issues from their own lives.
Unfortunately many students, their parents, academics and the American Civil Liberties Union strongly disagree with them.
“I think it can almost be a mockery of and diminish the actual severity of things,” said Lauren Kolkmeier, a student who participated a similar program at the age of 13. “I think that can be really frustrating and make somebody really angry to not get slavery.”
“What’s problematic to me is this is voluntary; slavery was not,” noted Dr. Lori Patton Davis, who is an at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis associate professor researching the issues of critical race theory. “There were gruesome things that happened to people, black people, and there’s no amount of re-enactment that can help you understand the tragedy that slavery was.”
Davis also questioned the impact of the program on Black and White children, as for the first it can be a trauma, and for the second – a game, giving the sanitized version of history.
“When you’re benefitting from a race that is privileged above all others, it’s easy for you to not see, whereas those who are racially minoritized, you live it every day,” Davis concluded.
Though Cathryn Ferree, vice president and chief operating officer of Conner Prairie, is still sure that the experience offered by the park is harmless, several other programs across the country using the same method had their instructors resign due to moral reasons and closed.
It is hard to make any universal conclusions on the topic, but this program seems to be useful only for some White children in bringing them up with the feeling of supremacy and knowledge that slavery was nothing but a game. As for Blacks… Would re-enact Holocaust with Jewish children?
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