TPM’s Jillian Rayfield notes that a Virginia teacher’s in trouble for including a mock slave auction in a Civil War unit. This is one of those moments when I wish I could make more people read the best of Young Adult literature, particularly Rob Thomas’s Slave Day. I’ve mentioned before how brilliant Thomas is at capturing high school on the page, mostly because he respects his characters enough to know that they’ll have significant insights and make large mistakes.
The best thing about Slave Day, which is set in a Texas high school which holds an annual slave auction, with students and teachers of all races and genders up for bidding, is that while it’s set in a frame of race, it uses the concept to explore multiple axes of oppression. Keene Davenport, the main character, is sort of a budding black nationalist—he wants to find a way to protest Slave Day, but the languages of rebellion, whether they’re cultural (he doesn’t listen to much hip-hop) or behavioral (he’s pretty bad at misbehaving) are kind of foreign to him, and ultimately, he’s not the reason Slave Day is shut down. The book follows a group of master-slave pairs from both points of view: the popular girl who buys the geek for the day, the working-class kid who buys a rigid teacher, only to find the guy giving him drama lessons, and a football star who gets a little too caught up in ownership of his cheerleader girlfriend. It’s the combination of race, class, gender, and the conflict between intellectualism and popularity that ultimately reveals the institution as untenable.
Obviously, this real-life situation is different: it’s something that a teacher set up rather than a school tradition, and the sellers and sold were divided along racial lines. Honestly, I wonder if something like this could have worked if the two groups were mixed up. An education on why it’s corrupting to sell another human and what it feels like to be sold as chattel, delivered with some sensitivity, could be a useful thing, and not only in remembrance of the Civil War.