Steve Matthews, Superintendent of the Novi Community School District, told Detroit's WWJ that the question was intended to make students compare and contrast the lives of free blacks with those still enslaved. But Tina James, whose 13-year-old daughter attends Novi Middle School, is more concerned about how it seems to diminish the horror of slavery.
"The first thing I thought was how can you even compare the two," she told WWJ. "You have on one end a slave that is not free, who has no free will. And on the other end, you have a factory worker. And although it was in the Industrial Revolution, they still had a free choice, and they had a choice to walk away if they wanted to."
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James told CBS Detroit that her daughter came home upset and nearly in tears, due in part to the response of her classmates. According to ABC 10 News the majority of the class, including some African-American students, said that they would rather be a slave.
"The rationale by those students to choose slaves was that they had free housing, they had free food and free protection," said James. "But the argument that she and I put forth was that those things were not free."
Matthews has since removed the question from the lesson, and is considering an overhaul of how the school teaches slavery. He plans to include James in that discussion.
"What it suggests to me as a district, we need to do a better job of helping our students understand the devastating impacts of slavery back in the 1800s," he told ABC 10 News. While the assignment's offensive approach to slavery has been well addressed, no mention has yet been made of how it simultaneously manages to belittle the lives of factory workers.
Matthews added that the teacher who assigned the essay won't be punished, so there's still plenty of time for students to answer questions about whether they'd rather be an astronaut or a drug mule.
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