James Baldwin’s ‘Talk to Teachers’ Is Just as Relevant Today

Aug 7, 2020 12:00:00 AM


As I sit here, processing my thoughts on the severity of events that are currently grappling with our nation, I reflect on the historical circumstances that contributed to today's conflicts. As an educator, one has to contemplate the responsibility and duty of education. 

In 1963, James Baldwin delivered a speech, “A Talk to Teachers”, where he proclaimed the responsibility educators have to address racism in America and empower Black students to continue their fight for justice. True education involves preparing our students to become active citizens and leaders in their democracy, striving for change where they see inequities and injustices. Baldwin alludes to the irony of education:

The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

Our obligation as educators is to entrust in our students the ability to create conscious citizens who are vocal about reexamining their society.

This examination will lead them to fathom the many issues that plague our nation, from its original sin of slavery to today's systemic racism. From 1619 to the founding of this nation, institutionalized racism was embedded in every facet of our society, those that were prevalent in 1963 and our experiences in 2020.

We sit here amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 160,000 deaths in our country and counting, exposing the flaws in our nation's healthcare system.

This pandemic has exposed one of the true viruses in the United States, racism.

Racial inequities and access to adequate healthcare are impacting Black and Brown bodies at alarmingly disproportionate rates. The CDC reported Black people are five times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, compared to white people. Latinx people are four times more likely, and Indigenous people are five times more likely than white people. This disproportion in rates is connected to the living conditions where we see more dense Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) populations. These living conditions can be traced to segregationist practices such as redlining and exclusionary community covenants detailed in the book “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein.

These racial inequities have led to a common theme in America’s history with police brutality on Black bodies with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain in recent months.

  • We saw the story of a Latinx Army soldier in Fort Hood, Texas, Vanessa Guillen, who was killed and was missing from her military base. After public outcry, officials launched an investigation a month after reporting Vanessa Guillen's disappearance.

Racial inequities create structures that disenfranchise Black and brown bodies, with sole blame placed on those who have no control over the racial policies that ensnare them. Baldwin emphasizes this disenfranchisement:

There is something else the Negro child can do, to. Every street boy—and I was a street boy, so I know—looking at the society which has produced him, looking at the standards of that society which are not honored by anybody, looking at your churches and the government and the politicians, understand that this structure is operated for someone else’s benefit—not for his. And there’s no reason in it for him.

Our Children Are Watching History Unfold Before Their Eyes

As James Baldwin began his speech, “Let's begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time,” and our children are watching history unfold right in front of them. I begin to think about my responsibility as an educator in America. As a cisgender person of color, Latino, who is of Dominican descent, I see the struggles and fight for freedom that lie ahead.

My curiosity brings me to wonder— are white educators prepared for this fight toward liberation and freedom?

I am aware that 82% of teachers in America are white — teachers who play a critical role in developing the critical consciousness of our Black and brown youth. This responsibility falls on white teachers to not only educate our children but also to educate themselves about privilege and cultural competence.

The story of Black and brown bodies is not just one of oppression and struggle, but rather one of liberation and freedom fighting. And educators have a responsibility to begin empowering the consciousness of students through these stories. Now more than ever, educators must join this movement of freedom and create educational experiences around social democratic values.

The educational experience is not just about standardized testing and performance, it is a place for students to become holistic individuals who are cared for and protected.

Students who build this sense of community and empathy will lead the change in our society in the face of injustice.

  • Scholar and Activist Paul Ortiz, author of “An African American and Latinx History of the United States,” details a historical perspective that allows our youth to understand how our ancestors were—and continue to be—freedom fighters for a true democracy. Black and brown authors have contributed to a fundamental need in education that all school teachers must begin to unravel.
  • Dr. Bettina L. Love’s “We Want to Do More Than Survive” argues that educators should lean into teaching about racism, in search of educational justice and expand civic democratic engagement.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, “Between the World and Me,” is a letter to his son about the systemic racism that continues to be embedded in every aspect of our American culture.

James Baldwin argues about the narrative that continues the white supremacy culture:

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. That’s all. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts. Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower. That’s how the country was settled.

To support young Black and brown people in our struggle for social change, our educational institutions and educators must include antiracist work and restorative justice practices that focus on healing and repairing harm. The work of justice is to repair harms, repair social and emotional traumas caused by racism in our communities, and share stories of our ancestors who fought against all forms of oppression.

Educators have to begin thinking about multiple perspectives to inspire our children with the many leaders of color who contributed to our American society. It is a narrative around the values of freedom and democracy for which Black and brown children yearn. Baldwin’s speech mentions:

It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence—the moral and political evidence—one is compelled to say that this is a backward society. Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him ... That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country.

Educators must be leaders and advocates in this nation and support our students as they examine their society.

Schools should be a home for this examination and a place for students and educators to become more culturally competent and actively anti-racist. Thus, educators must also be proactive in dismantling white supremacy and anti-blackness in our educational institutions. If education is just and seeks to inspire equity and the values of true democracy, educators and the students they teach will transform our country to truly hold liberty and justice for all.

In 1963, James Baldwin closed his speech by telling teachers,

America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way—and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy.

In 2020, let's revisit the past to create an equitable future.

Jorge Santos

Jorge Santos is a New York City educator, restorative justice coordinator, and special education teacher at MS 839 in Brooklyn, New York. He is part of the school’s instructional leadership team as well as the culture and equity team which focuses on creating an antiracist and equitable learning environment.

Jorge is a devoted basketball and volleyball coach who believes these extracurricular activities in education are a place where students feel valuable to the community and feel empowered.

In March 2019, Jorge was a presenter at the Learning Partner Equity Improvement Learning Network (RIDES Series) Conference in Brooklyn for the District 15 principals and administration. Jorge, along with colleagues, spoke about restorative justice practices and the equity and antiracist work being done at MS 839. Jorge holds master's degrees in criminology and in education from St. John’s University.

All views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views or opinions of any entities with which he is or has been affiliated.

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