A Talk with Teachers: Revisiting James Baldwin’s Vision for Education
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time…We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within.
In 1963 the Saturday Review published “A Talk to Teachers” by African American author/activist James Baldwin. Over fifty years later, as the Trump administration installs controversial nominee Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education and Arizona Republicans try to ban social justice courses in public schools, Baldwin’s words seem prescient and more relevant than ever.
Baldwin has inspired generations of writers and educators; I keep his photograph above my desk and regularly quote him when writing about race and power. Baldwin’s prophetic voice has recently been revived with the release of Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. As Black History Month begins here in the United States and ignorance prompts the resurrection of Frederick Douglass, I shared Baldwin’s essay with three educators in the US, UK, and Canada and asked them to reflect on our role as teachers and developers of culturally specific curriculum for youth.
Zetta: Consider your own journey from student to teacher alongside this quote from Baldwin’s essay: “one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.”
Natasha: I began to develop a social and racial conscience when I was about thirteen years old, in grade 8. I began to wonder about how far back the history of Blacks in Canada went, who some of these people were, and what their lives were like. These questions were raised in my mind during class. We didn’t learn much about Blacks in Canada, mainly about African American history. Like Baldwin, I wholeheartedly believe that educators have a responsibility to effect and influence social change. That can mean working to change the social relations and conditions in your classroom, in your school, as well as within your local and global communities.
Ruben: As a white cis-male, I went through school with my two most visible identities more or less “invisible.” That is to say, I did not reflect much on my whiteness and my maleness because they were the dominant identities reflected in my schooling. That said I was raised in a Jewish and feminist household, which planted the seeds of a “war with society.”
Now as a teacher I certainly share Baldwin’s belief that educators and educated people are obligated to change society. I endeavor to teach my 4th graders to name the world around them for what it is — racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic — and to use this knowledge to envision and enact change.
Hakim: There are several stages of that growing conscience or consciousness which if we are honest never leaves us from the point of its first dawning. Our experience teaches us what is going on in the world/society, while the powers that be, media, and often educational institutions too, attempt to deny our experience or interpret it in such a way as to negate it. My own first experience of education was that I experienced both enlightenment and racism at the same time, that is at the age of five. Some of my earliest memories are of racism, not just my earliest memories of school but of my life as a child. I knew as a five-year old that something was not right in the world, although it took many more years for me to make sense of it. My own experience and consciousness that something was wrong forced me to investigate how to right that wrong both as an educator and a human being. If you recognize that there is something wrong with the world you are compelled not only to change it but also to find the most effective and scientific way of changing it.
Zetta: Baldwin argues that, “any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible — and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people — must be prepared to ‘go for broke’…you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.”
You all teach in countries that recognize Black History Month. How do you make the case for Black Studies or a social justice curriculum in the current political climate?
Natasha: There is resistance in the structural sense in that to date, there are no specific learning expectations in the Ontario Social Studies, History, and Geography curriculum on the history and experiences of Blacks in Canada. There are only related optional topics. In regards to educators, there is some resistance to changing the status quo, but there is also the issue of discomfort because many educators do not have the background knowledge to incorporate Black Canadian content into their teaching. I tell teachers who attend my workshops that we cannot push a social justice and equity agenda without being inclusive of the Black Canadian experience. The struggles of Blacks for justice, equality, and full citizenship have helped to shape the society we live in today. What’s more, their continued struggles against anti-Black racism today speak to the work that still needs to be done. I inform educators of the importance in making historical links to the present political climate with the aim of motivating our students to become agents of change.
Ruben: The three most common arguments I have heard (usually from principals, co-workers, or strangers on the internet) are 1) We have to focus on the curriculum, 2) It’s not age-appropriate for elementary school, and 3) It’s not appropriate to “push an agenda.” I’ve been accused of brainwashing and child abuse.
I find that these arguments are generally rooted either in someone’s desire to deflect from their own discomfort with teaching social justice or a fear of getting in trouble with families or becoming a story on Fox News.
When I look at the world around us, and when I look at the educational outcomes of Black and brown kids, I feel compelled to “go for broke.” There are countless ways to incorporate social justice ideas into the curriculum. Social justice teaching can start as early as pre-school (or earlier!). And as Paulo Freire writes, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” Therefore, choosing to omit social justice ideas from teaching is just another form of brainwashing, one that I find morally unacceptable.
Hakim: There is always resistance to change; that is why Frederick Douglass concluded that without struggle there is no progress. There is the view that there is nothing wrong, that Africans have no history, that black people did not arrive in Britain until 1948, etc. However, education is about enlightenment and producing citizens who can make sense of the world and in that regard, the study of history is vital. Because it is so vital, the powers that be keep a tight control on how it is taught, and what is taught, and try to prevent people learning the main lessons from history: everything changes, no political or economic system is immutable, and that people are the agents of change. In short, history is the study of change. A collective struggle of all those who recognize the need for change has to be waged in many different forms, both within and outside the formal education system. We must demand change and challenge the existing Eurocentric views that history is just about white men of property. Progress has been made in Britain although there is still a long way to go, and children as well as others are still being mis-educated.
Zetta: Consider this quote from Baldwin: “What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity. If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history.”
What connection do you see between the curriculum taught in schools and a nation’s identity?
Natasha: There is a direct correlation between school curriculum and national identity. If narratives about your racial identity are not included in the official curriculum then you are not viewed as belonging to the broader national narrative, because it appears as though Blacks have not made any contributions or were even present on the national landscape. So the persistent exclusion or marginalization of Black Canadian experiences in schools results in some Black students expressing that while they are born in Canada, they are not Canadian. Too many feel that they don’t belong or are not welcomed both within the content presented in the classroom and within the Canadian narrative. Part of my motivation for the work that I do is to share rich, diverse stories of Blacks in Canada with educators and students in an effort to situate Blacks firmly in Canadian history.
Ruben: So much of today’s American identity is founded on a combination of ahistorical and mythological teaching. Most of the history of oppression and resistance in this country is erased. Most of the contributions of people of color to American history are erased. And at the same time, we prop up the myths of the greatness and moral purity of the Founding Fathers, and generally teach an unchallenged concept of American exceptionalism.
So now where do we find ourselves? Michelle Obama caused an outrage because she stated the historical fact that the White House was built by slave labor. We have a huge racist, anti-immigrant movement led by the son and husband of immigrants.
The oppressive policies being put forward by Donald Trump are made possible because of the lies and mythologies masqueraded as facts and history in American schools.
Hakim: What are often presented — not just in formal education but also outside it — are the values and history of white men of property, the minority, who attempt to persuade everyone to see the world as they see it. The experience and interests of the majority are in contradiction with those of the minority. There is a need for history, for an education that enlightens us about the world, so that we can understand it and take control of our destinies. This is true whatever our heritage. Disinformation, ‘alternative facts,’ and Eurocentrism deprive us of that understanding; this creates confusion and gives credence to the views of the misogynists, Eurocentrists, white supremacists, etc. It’s in the interests of everyone to fight for a history that includes Africans, Asians, women, working people, the majority in the world, and to understand history in its entirety so as to draw the appropriate conclusions. We should demand that the values that are promoted and taught are the most enlightened and therefore also reflect the experience and interests of the majority in society. In the modern world we would not expect to learn the history/values of the slave owners or imperialists.
Zetta: At the end of the essay Baldwin writes: “I don’t think anyone can doubt that in this country today we are menaced — intolerably menaced — by a lack of vision.” What is YOUR vision for the education of youth in your country?
Natasha: In Canada, we need a radical shift in education that moves towards decolonizing learning in order to improve the success rates and social outcomes of Indigenous and Black students, which would benefit the majority of learners and not just a marginal number.
Ruben: My vision for education in the United States is one where we teach young people to understand the world as it is, to imagine limitless possibilities for what the world CAN be, and develop the tools they can use to build a better world.
Hakim: My vision is to find ways to empower ourselves so that we become the decision-makers and can establish an education system that is people-centered, not centered around the interests of white men of property.
Hakim Adi is Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester in the UK. He has appeared in many documentary films, on TV and on radio and has written widely on the history of Pan-Africanism and the African Diaspora, including three history books for children. www.hakimadi.org
Ruben Brosbe teaches 4th graders at PS 194 The Countee Cullen School in Harlem, New York. His favorite part of teaching is young people’s innate commitment to justice. He has been teaching since 2007, and has a masters in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can read his writing at rubenbrosbe.com and follow him on Twitter @blogsbe
Natasha Henry is an educator, historian, and curriculum consultant, specializing in the development of learning materials that focus on the African Diasporic experience. Natasha has written several books and has also contributed several entries to the Canadian Encyclopedia on African Canadian history. She has developed the educational resources for several exhibits and web-based projects on the Black experience in Canada, including the CBC/ BET miniseries The Book of Negroes.
Natasha Henry B.A. (Honours), B. Ed., M.Ed., OCT