“No sense of identity” and “menaced by a lack of vision” (James Baldwin)

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, which happens to be the same year my grandmother was born. It is strange to think of them being in the same age cohort. That is a rumination for another day!

If you haven’t seen I Am Not Your Negro, do that as soon as you can. This film was so powerful, and use historical footage so well, that I loved and learned from this even more than I thought I would.

James Baldwin (01c)
“James Baldwin (01c)” by rverc is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Creative Commons)

My first encounter with James Baldwin was in high school, reading Go Tell it on the Mountain. I just got it last week to re-read again, as I know there were things I didn’t understand the first time, or things I just didn’t “tune into” as I will now reading it as an adult.

The thing I read in the last year or so that absolutely astounded me was his essay (speech transcript?) “A Talk to Teachers”, circa 1963. It is so relevant to today’s world, especially the tension and misunderstandings around critical race theory and education. You can read it in its entirety here: https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/baldwin-talk-to-teachers

One of the most powerful parts for me in this reading of it is below, not only because it is relevant to today but also because I have found this to be true in my own experience. Both as a white person learning history and as a teacher encouraging students to learn the parts of history they have not been taught before I have seen the power of learning the truth as well as believing the lies.

“…It is not really a “Negro revolution” that is upsetting the country. 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. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.”

(I think I am going to assign this piece to my Policy students this semester, early on, and use it as a foundation for looking at policies through our country’s history. )

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