In a bold comparative analysis of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Jada Williams, a 13-year old eighth grader at School #3 in Rochester, New York, asserted that in her experience, today’s education system is a modern-day version of slavery. According to the Fredrick Douglass Foundation of New York, the schools’ teachers and administrators were so offended by Williams’ essay that they began a campaign of harassment—kicking her out of class and trying to suspend her—that ultimately forced her parents to withdraw her from the school.
In her essay, which was written for a contest, Williams reflected on what Douglass heard his slave master, Mr. Auld, telling his wife after catching her teaching Douglass how to read. “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him,” Auld says. “It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.”
Williams wrote that overcrowded, poorly managed classrooms prevent real learning from happening and thus produces the same results as Mr. Auld’s outright ban. She wrote that her white teachers—the vast majority of Rochester students are black and Hispanic, but very few teachers are people of color—are in a “position of power to dictate what I can, cannot, and will learn, only desiring that I may get bored because of the inconsistency and the mismanagement of the classroom.”
Instead of truly teaching, most teachers simply “pass out pamphlets and packets” and then expect students to complete them independently, Williams wrote. But this approach fails, she concluded, because “most of my peers cannot read and or comprehend the material that has been provided.” As a result, she continued, not much has changed since the time of Douglass, “just different people, different era” and “the same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.” Williams called for her fellow students to “start making these white teachers accountable for instructing you” and challenged teachers to do their jobs. “What merit is there,” she asked, if teachers have knowledge and are “not willing to share because of the color of my skin?”