Discuss Here! James Baldwin “A Talk to Teachers”

Greetings educators,

We’ll use this thread for our discussion on James Baldwin’s essay “A Talk to Teachers.”

The questions are “How can I positively impact the education of AA students?” and “How do we sustain positive cultures, and how can we motivate and inspire students to learn?”

These questions provide a frame for our discussion; however, our discussion is not limited to these questions. Feel free to pose your own questions.


38 thoughts on “Discuss Here! James Baldwin “A Talk to Teachers”

  1. We can positively impact the education of African American students by first, creating a relationship with them from the first day that they step into your classroom. Finding a common place that both the teacher and the student can relate to is vital to the success of AA students. Allow for conversation amongst students outside of academics and in turn students will respect you far more than they would anyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the essay when Baldwin speaks of his view of New York, as he knew it, versus the other New York that was out there, I find this relevant for teachers because as we may have been exposed to certain things growing up and even into our adult lives, imagine the African American child’s limited exposure to much outside of his own neighborhood or area of town.
      As a teacher, one practice that could be implemented (if budget and time allow) is scheduling field trips to parts of the city or state that our students may never have thought of, parents may have never been, and so on.
      I recall when I was in an African American History class at LSU, at 18 years of age, reading and hearing of concepts, places, people, things that blew my mind, and I wondered, “Why am I just learning or hearing of this/these things?!”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “What does the Negro want?”

    The Negro wants effective and culturally relevant materials to humanize its teachers and students.


    • I believe that the Negro youth who has had some exposure via a teacher or mentor may want these materials, but is seeking a way to express this to those in power for assistance in mobilizing the efforts.

      On the other hand, for the majority of our youth who don’t realize that the materials are irrelevant or disengaging, their deafening silence eagerly awaits an ear, a hand, a heart. Ignorant or informed, all deserve to learn of their culture, history, and potential.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The article mirrors the same issues that AA youth face today…the problem remains the same and many people are unaware of how our culture is misrepresented and perceive today and how we still fall at the bottom of the labor hierarchy.
    As a male I can offer AA students possible role models they see less often inside a classroom and quite possibly at home. Discussion of current events and issues facing AA students and AAs as a whole can empower young students and keep them out of the shadows in which society has placed some of their parents and themselves. School is where we find ourselves, but as Mr. Baldwin stated it seems to be where assimilation is further taught…we have to foster creativity and “identity.”
    Students have to feel what they are learning is important to their lives, not just the future. Engaging them can be difficult without lessons, activities and discussions that interest them as a group enough for full engagement. Our testimonies and rapport will nudge them to engage but the have to feel as if the lesson is important to their development in some way or form…not just college and careers

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For me, Baldwin’s essay is not so much about creating a positive culture. It is about creating a culture of dissent. To begin, White educators need to examine our own historical and contemporary complicity in systems that perpetuate racism. There can be no real environment that will support African American students, or any marginalized populations, without intentional, ongoing work to examine personal privilege. This is true for all privileges – which means that heterosexual people must examine their privilege in tearing down heterosexism; religiously Christian in perpetuating environments hostile to Islam, Judaism, or other religions, etc.

    What is most striking to me about Baldwin’s essay as I re-read it today is his very political messages. “The political level in this country now, on the part of people who should know better, is abysmal.” Indeed. Baldwin might as well have written this today given our current Presidential political race; “I don’t think anyone can doubt that in this country today we are menaced – intolerably menaced, by a lack of vision.” Indeed again.

    What Baldwin is saying is that we need to be honest to students about the odds they face given our political environment. We must actively work to educate them about the real issues they will face in a capitalist, patriarchal, heterosexist, xenophobic, war-mongering political environment bent on destroying not only their lives, but the entire planet. And that in the face of all that – why a truthful, intransigent, and progressive education is the only hope we might have of surviving.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Recap of questions:

    Q1: How is Baldwin’s 1963 essay relevant to today’s instructional practices?
    Q2: What specific texts would Baldwin suggests be in today’s curricula?
    Q3: Are teachers, should teachers be, at war with society?

    We’re on Twitter too @The_YSSReads


    • It is still relevant to our society in every aspect today…just few word revisions. It is harder to teach some of these practices and ideas in many classes due to political correctness, parents, administration, and societal norms which supersede student societal development

      Texts written by black authors, about our “known” history, history before slavery, and “debatable” history

      Teachers should be in the trenches as we speak on this MB. Revolution is now


    • Q3: No, teachers should not be at war with society. A teacher’s work is to nurture the minds of students. The first obligation, then, is to help those students survive and thrive. That means teachers have to resist elements of socialization and teach students to be critical thinkers – those are skills necessary to keep alive on the inside (and sometimes on the outside, too). However, those students should make up their own minds how they will relate to society. Students have enough people telling them what to think.


  6. “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.”

    Students must be informed about current events. Intentionally, bringing in international news sources and literary texts may serve as a beginning. I have realized that my own scope needs to become global because our battles continue to be the same all over.

    Teacher travel grants and correspondence via video chat with educators and students are hallmarks in exposing our children to growth and stretching our own limitations.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “…The whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society.”

    What era are we in?
    Consequently, what are we training, educating, or attempting to influence this generation to become?


    • Show them that we are in fact the opposite of the world…we are backwards as Baldwin stated and today we remain, in every facet of the word.
      Integrate other country’s norms into the classroom and lessons. Ask the students what they know about other nations and inflate upon the foundation they supply you with.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. “We are in a REVOLUTIONARY situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.”

    Is the word itself so unpopular, in the 21st century, or what it connotes?

    As I think of the word’s meaning, it only points to an upheaval of the current state of things. I don’t necessarily see that as negative. Societies do and must change, but at what cost? At what rate? To whose detriment or profit?

    A revolutionary can incite positive changes, however our definitive sources could have you to believe that a revolutionary is militant, insurgent, subversive, insurrectionary, rebellious, an extremist, and the list goes on….

    As mentioned on Twitter feeds, teachers should not feel at war with society for wanting to bring about change for themselves and their students! Baldwin states that it is our obligation to try and change it, no matter the risk. He also says we should go for broke!

    Like Baldwin, I am not a teacher (in a traditional sense), however I make it my duty to share the truth with our youth, parents, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, peers and whoever I come across. Do people see me as militant or rebellious? YES. Does that stop me? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! When I become comfortable with what society controls and “lets us know” then I have become a part of the problem rather than the solution.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Although that was our last question, the conversation does not and should not end. Thanks for the great discussion; you’re truly dedicated to a successful future of the students you teach. Feel free to add more comments; as it is, educators do not get to be normal.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. If our African American youth are assumed to be “happy darkies” in their current state, whose value is proven by their devotion to white people, at what rate must we dive in to not only educate them of this assumed happiness and value, but also to educate those who follow this belief system?

    Going back to JBates’ point on “What does the Negro want?”, I read this question as “What ELSE does the Negro want?” I say this because no matter the political affiliation, many believe that African Americans are receiving large amounts of the pie in the sky as far as education, handouts and other “band-aids” from society and should therefore be grateful to Whites.

    That just isn’t true.

    In learning that I knew barely anything about America at 18 years old, much less my global neighborhood, I do believe we must go for broke, as Baldwin says, in efforts to educate all about inequality in education, for starters.

    Educators who are going for broke (or who are already there) must not feel at war with society. The mindset alone warrants that we are acting under the table, in backrooms, or planning an insurrection. We are not. We are doing a marvelous work for our current and future generations!!!!


  11. Some passages in Baldwin’s address reminded me of Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Faces. Together, I think they express a trap.

    I’ll go ahead and admit that Fanon is unrelenting, and I’m more than a bit troubled by the problem the pairing of these two texts suggests to me. I’m not really sure what I believe, but I wrote it out and would love some insight.

    Linked text: http://abahlali.org/files/__Black_Skin__White_Masks__Pluto_Classics_.pdf

    Baldwin writes:

    “Man is a social animal. He cannot exist without a society. A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted. Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. 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. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.”

    Regarding the first point in the paradox, in the barbarism of an oppressive society (like the racism in America today), one sees how being “socialized” and “acculturated” . . . or “educated” . . . requires basic concepts be critically evaluated by young, vulnerable minds. Teachers themselves are subject to these evaluations, and it’s not particularly shocking that some students decide that the revisionist histories and predominantly white, patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist (I could go on) canon they are taught should be rejected.

    As Fanon writes:

    “When someone strives & strains to prove to me that black men are as intelligent as white men, I say that intelligence has never saved anyone; and that is true, for, if philosophy and intelligence are invoked to proclaim the equality of men, they have also been employed to justify the extermination of men.”

    Students are bound to notice disparities in the school system that mirror social inequities outside the academic environment, like when Baldwin writes:

    “Let us say that the child is seven years old and I am his father, and I decide to take him to the zoo, or to Madison Square Garden, or to the U.N. Building, or to any of the tremendous monuments we find all over New York. We get into a bus and we go from where I live on 131st Street and Seventh Avenue downtown through the park and we get in New York City, which is not Harlem. Now, where the boy lives – even if it is a housing project – is in an undesirable neighborhood. If he lives in one of those housing projects of which everyone in New York is so proud, he has at the front door, if not closer, the pimps, the whores, the junkies – in a word, the danger of life in the ghetto. And the child knows this, though he doesn’t know why.”

    Well, similar, obvious inequalities are in the school systems. In who gets tracked into honors and AP classes. In who gets punished more often and more severely. In what is often the predominantly white faces of the teachers and administrators. Even the black students who overcome these injustices are treated like their achievements are somehow qualified. Like, when Fanon writes:

    “Introducing someone as a “Negro poet with a University degree” or again, quite simply, the expression, ‘a great black poet.’ These ready-made phrases, which seem in a common-sense way to fill a need-or have a hidden subtlety, a permanent rub.”

    Or, as though they are somehow “less” black:

    “[Educated blacks] Society refuses to consider them genuine Negroes. The Negro is a savage, whereas the student is civilized. “You’re us,” and if anyone thinks you are a Negro he is mistaken, because you merely look like one.” (Fanon, again)

    So, Baldwin concludes:

    “Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, 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.’

    Baldwin’s conclusion suggests to me that teachers should not only admit that “those streets, those homes” are crimminal, so is the school system which feeds into the prison system. And that system is something those teachers are a part of.

    So, the problem to me is how one makes this horrible admission to young people and not leave a great many of them with the feeling that this is not a system worth participating in at all, that the massive unfairness that these children are tasked with fixing the scorched earth that is American society is a fundamental injustice in itself, and that they would be justified in rejecting that task.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Young people are incredibly resilient. Yes, some WILL shrink. However, if left unaddressed I feel they will die from simply living. When I think of those who reject – I think of those wholly unfulfilled.

      Look at all the members of our own families who have fallen victim to addiction. Incarceration.

      Even when WE try to give up – our very spirits work against us. Even when we as Africans try to do our own selves in – we CAN’T.

      Even when we TRY to be non productive it goes against our very natures. I’m speaking about us now.

      Do you not think I don’t feel plagued by this dark skin? Like I tell my students, you might as well get used to it. Your mama is black. Your child gonna come out – guess what BLACK?

      The reason why we don’t feel justified in “having an out” – because what’s the difference between me who didn’t try versus someone who was never born?


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