“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.” So opens “A Talk to Teachers,” which James Baldwin delivered to a group of educators in October, 1963. (He published it in the Saturday Review the following December.) That year, Medgar Evers, a leading civil-rights figure and N.A.A.C.P. state field director, was murdered in his driveway by a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi. That year, four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama. That year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in his motorcade through downtown Dallas.
I make a point of revisiting this essay at the beginning of each school year, and while Baldwin’s words have always felt relevant, this year they feel particularly so. Students have returned to school after a summer of political and social tumult. In August, white supremacists and neo-Nazis brazenly marched across the campus of the University of Virginia; one shot at a counter-protester, and another mowed down a crowd with a car, killing a woman who had showed up to oppose their hate. A few weeks later, the White House announced that it would be rescinding the protections set in place by President Barack Obama’s daca program—a move that left eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants uncertain about their futures. Many teachers are wondering how to address these events in their classrooms. Should they incorporate potentially contentious issues into their lessons? Should lessons be pushed aside to tackle the urgent matters of the day?
Recently, I was chatting with a friend who teaches at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., where I live, and he shared with me how confused and disillusioned his students were by what they had seen on television. He sat them in a circle and gave them space to ask questions. “Why was somebody so angry that they wanted to drive a car through people who were asking for their rights?” one student wondered. My friend shared with me another story from a community meeting that he had just attended. A mother stood up and said, “I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old how to duck; I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old that certain nights when we get home from school we have to sit on the floor.”
“Yet we send them to school and we’re not allowing them to be a part of an opportunity to address that,” my friend said, hurt and perplexed. The next evening, he brought his students to a local candlelight vigil, where hundreds of people showed up to honor Heather Heyer—the demonstrator who had been killed in Charlottesville—and to protest the hateful actions that led to her death. Throughout the evening, people talked about what had transpired. Some of the students chimed in, too. Later, my friend recalled, the kids told him that doing so made them feel important. “People wanted to listen to me,” one student said.
Baldwin’s talk offers a way to think about this. I first read it when I was a high-school English teacher, in the winter of 2012. I was sitting at my desk one day, after the bell had rung, staring at a clouded chalkboard, leaning back in my chair, its beige foam crawling out from beneath red cloth. I had just struggled through a lesson on the different types of sentence structure—not the most riveting topic for most fifteen-year-olds, I realize—and I had seen my students stare blankly past me, disengaged. I wondered how preoccupied they might be by what was happening outside school walls. A string of senseless murders had taken the lives of some of their friends. In Florida, a boy named Trayvon Martin had just been killed, too, and his killer had yet to face charges. But that day, like most days, I stuck to the book, keeping politics on the periphery.
My decision was based, in part, on Maryland’s educational standards. The state had recently adopted Common Core and parcc (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments; there was little incentive to teach beyond the bounds of the new curriculum. This wasn’t why I had signed up to be a teacher, but job security and paychecks were directly linked to student test scores. I found myself becoming a part of a system of incentive-based learning that I opposed. That day, a friend, who had been a teacher for many years, gave me a copy of “A Talk to Teachers.” The essay might quell some of my frustration, she said.
Baldwin delivered the talk on the heels of the March on Washington, where he was famously pulled from the list of speakers because organizers—who knew the writer’s habit for speaking extemporaneously—were unsure if he would stay on message. “A Talk to Teachers” is emblematic of Baldwin’s proclivity for candor over political appeasement, and, like much of his work, focusses on history and the American consciousness. “It is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history,” he writes. Young people are constantly absorbing—through media, textbooks, and policy—the myths of American exceptionalism; for black children, this means that what they are taught in class does not match the world that they navigate daily. “On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the Stars and Stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war,” Baldwin continues. “But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization—that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”
A more honest reckoning with history is necessary, Baldwin insists. Of slavery, he says, “it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”
It’s this focus on history that rearranged my thinking. In Baldwin’s view, it is the only thing that can help disabuse black children of the stereotypes that have been projected onto their community—and it is necessary for white children, too, who oftentimes serve as the purveyors of these myths, and who do not know the truth about their history, either.
Baldwin understands that learning this history can leave students in a state of cognitive dissonance and frustration. Imagining his own hypothetical students, he writes, “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.” Here, Baldwin, with literary sleight of hand, adopts the terminology used to pathologize black people and applies it to the system in which they operate. What follows is a medley of lessons that is disquieting in its contemporary applicability. “I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him,” he writes, adding, “I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality, that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.”
After reading “A Talk to Teachers,” I altered my approach, placing less emphasis on the standardized tests and using literature to help my students examine their world. I realized that rigorous lessons were not mutually exclusive from culturally and politically relevant ones. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” did not have to be sacrificed in order to make room for a discussion on community violence. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” did not have to be abandoned in order to tackle immigration. “A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.
The most quoted line from “A Talk to Teachers” may be this one: “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.” A teacher, Baldwin believed, should push students to understand that the world was molded by people who came before, and that it can be remolded into something new.