A Talk to Teachers (1963), by James Baldwin
“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.” That opening line could have been published this morning. James Baldwin was an incisive observer and critic of the world around him. So facile with language, he sharply connected the dots between the ill treatment of Black people and the societal ills around him and the dangers these pose to US society (or any society).
Baldwin’s essay was delivered and then published in the fall of 1963 during an intense year for civil rights advocacy and protest. The country witnessed the public unrest on the nightly news. Baldwin understood where this anger and protest came from and could weave lived experiences, observations, and beliefs into his writing. Baldwin argued if all Americans didn’t work toward the just and respectful treatment of Black people, the US might self-destruct and cease to exist.
Baldwin lays out how Black children at a very young age witness the disparity between their own world and a world beyond racist segregation. They are analyzing and critiquing the world around them, which is in part what the education system is meant to support in all children. “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.”
Baldwin argues that some Black youth take on illicit and illegal activities as their way to manage in a system that excludes them. He connects his own rejection of US society’s concept of who he is, and by doing so rejects the society and its foundational values as based on a myth.
Baldwin ends the essay with, “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.”
Baldwin’s speech is a call to action, not just to the teachers he addresses in this specific piece, but also to white people in general, each of whom have the capacity to dismantle the system of white supremacy culture by first acknowledging what it is.
More Baldwin: https://thirdeyebag.com/search?q=james+baldwin