Thoughts on “A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin

By Ron Hustvedt, Jr.

(This is a stream-of-consciousness piece of writing I wrote on February 8, 2021 as a reflection on this text in conjunction with the #NNSTOYEquity21 Equity Challenge put on by the Equity Taskforce of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.)

I just finished reading “A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin, and with a few minor contextual adjustments, one might have believed he wrote it this year about the events of the past year. Give it a read at this link and see what you think of that easy synopsis. For my thoughts, in the moment, read on.

No, this talk by Mr. Baldwin was not delivered in the past year, but 58 years ago on October 16, 1963. It is older than I am but many of the problems he condemns are just as real today as they were back then. The problem is when you realize something like that, separated by nearly six decades, you realize that the problems today must be even larger than they were back then. Even though people would like to believe that things are better today with regards to racism and segregation than in 1963, the fact that the same points ring true speaks to the lack of measurable progress and improvements. It speaks loudly to the hardwork that’s been done by white supremacists and status-quo fans to “not push too hard” and “just be patient.”

Baldwin said, “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.” This resonated with me so strongly, and he says so concisely what I believe is at the core of my teaching philosophy.

It reminds me of the very things I hear so many adults tell children when they push to make the world better for themselves. Adults say wait. Give it some time. Knowing full well that childhood is fleeting at best. Those middle school policies that students want changed only need to be stood up against for a year or two because it’s usually the 7th and 8th graders who see it and those with the power know it only takes a few inconveniences to while away the hours until those children move on and the fresh group are assured things will be better. In High School when students are more aggressive, bitter to the lies, aware of the deceits, they must strike fast or time will pass them by as well. Students who realize at age 13 that the voting age should lower will need to fight for several years. The adults with the power just have to wait them out, and hope that once the vote finds them at age 18, they decide not to look back, and look out for, the ones they left behind. One you gain the power you seek, it takes an act of altruism to give that to those you left behind.

When you wait to make change, you create a space for people to fall into and find where they are comfortable. Those most on the edge fall first and become the cushion for that next wave who were ready. Instead of backing up the people most on the edge, they rest on the fallen bodies and enjoy not being on the bottom. The problem with trying to lead the change, and take on the problem headfirst, is that you fail to see where the true danger lies. Well, you notice it when you feel the sharp pain in your back. Only when a critical mass is willing to go to the edge, and hold up those who would fall, do we see change. But too often those who benefit least from the change, and fear the edge, let go of those with the most to lose, those most on the edge, and sacrifice their aspirations for comfort. I struggle so much with that as I want to get closer to that edge, as I want to support those leaning over, but feel the fear of losing the comfortable foothold. What’s a worse fate? To have those behind you stab you in the back? Or simply just let you fall? How often in history is that exactly what’s happened? Declaration. Constitution .Reconstruction. Legislation. Adjudication. Again and again.

James Baldwin wrote this piece in the tumultuous year of 1963. What a year that must have been. It was the year of the Birmingham Campaign. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in that most segregated of cities and penned his powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” That document too, with some contextual adjustments, might have been written in our modern times as well. A passage that speaks to my earlier comments about time is written by Dr. King, “Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

The year 1963 was also when schoolchildren of Birmingham decided, in May, to take action and stand up, on behalf of the adults, and march and protest. Those children were arrested, attacked by dogs and water hoses, assaulted by the police and fire department and put into jail. They kept at it and gained a national spotlight. Four months later, four children were killed in the very church those protests originated from, by white supremacist terrorists. It was also in 1963, a month before that bombing, in August, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was more than Dr. King who spoke that day, but the collective amnesia of those who today feel the problems of 1963 were solved don’t remember it that way. Heck, those who feel the problems are almost all solved only cling to a handful of Dr. King’s lines. “Something about children being judged by their character, not the color of their skin, right?”

It’s easy enough to say and want to believe, but it’s a reality that can only be achieved with an acknowledgement of the problem. A person can wish away racism, but it is a problem created by centuries of policy, justified by more policy, defended by tradition. It is so entrenched in everything that it’s invisible to those who benefit most. When we say we need to acknowledge the problem, to achieve that dream, people believe you can simply dream and it comes true. Yet they yell to their own children that the only way to achieve a dream is to work for it. If we are to change reality we must acknowledge, work, and repair. Baldwin said, “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. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all.” Now that statement is about as current as it can get, given the current debate in Minnesota, and across the nation, about Social Studies instruction and civic education. The 1619 Project and many other teacher resources aim to do that, but they become public enemy number one in the eyes those who with to live the myth. You can’t build dreams on lies.

Baldwin ends with a hint of hope and a heaping dread, that also resonates and echoes in our modern time. “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.” We survived 1963 and the decade that followed, but just barely, and not all emerged from that decade fully acknowledged. The liars and blindfolded won the waiting game. Those who worked hard to make improvements and change were matched by those who worked hard to rebuild obstructions, impede change, derail improvements and allow hate to flourish. The energy of 1963 continued bubbling and boiling, hotter and more vicious, until those who said, “Don’t move so fast” and “Just give it time” won the day. The cauldron was capped but the heat continued to build.

It has been released once again and we hear echoes again of 1963 bubbling from the depths and popping at the surface as if they were just spoken. Those words from 58 years ago were rooted even deeper in the stew, and if we don’t recognize and don’t get it right this time, the damn pot is in danger of boiling over. It those who would wait, win the day once again, all they succeed in doing is passing a worse fate on to their children. You know, those who are supposed to walk hand in hand with each other as brothers and sisters?

James Baldwin addressed that as well in this statement, “I began by saying that 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. And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.”

Backward facing is a good place to start if we can honestly acknowledge what is behind us. Only then can we better understand the work that must be done. Right now. Enough stalling.

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