Why James Baldwin's 'A Talk To Teachers' Remains Relevant 54 Years Later

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American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. (Townsend/Getty Images)
American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. (Townsend/Getty Images)

Fifty-four years ago, American writer and social critic James Baldwin delivered a speech to educators about how to speak with their students during difficult times. Many of the issues from that speech are still relevant today.

Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with writer and teacher Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) about drawing inspiration from Baldwin's words.

Interview Highlights

On the historical context of Baldwin's speech

"This was a moment — John F. Kennedy had just been killed. Medgar Evers, who was a prominent NAACP organizer in Mississippi, had just been assassinated. The Birmingham bombing of the four little girls in the church at 16th Street Baptist Church had just taken place, and so this was an incredibly contentious time in the United States with regard to issues of race and inequality and social stratification. And in many ways, you know, revisiting this essay, feels as if it could have been written the other day. That's the power of Baldwin and why he's experienced such a sort of renaissance because his work is in many ways prophetic, and his work is speaking to his lifetime. But many of the issues that he was wrestling with are things that we're struggling with today."

On Smith's experience teaching

"I think I came into the classroom, and I initially was deeply committed to pushing back against the sort of normative structures of standardized testing and the idea that singular metrics for students' success should be tied to their math or their reading score, and I wanted to engage in a sort of broader project of helping students develop a critical consciousness and deeper sense of empathy in the world. But, as is often the case, you find yourself becoming tied to the metrics of success in that environment. And there was a moment where I was teaching about sentence structure and syntax. And Trayvon Martin had just been killed, and a myriad of students that they knew from other schools had just been killed. And I think I fell victim to the fear of wanting to create an apolitical space in the classroom and revisiting 'A Talk to Teachers' served as a really important reminder that the very decision to not discuss certain things in your classroom, is in and of itself, a political decision. Because my students' lives are impacted by political decisions every single day, and I think it's important for teachers to think about ways to try to facilitate and create a space where they can engage in those conversations in a meaningful way."

"We so often operate under the false pretense that our classrooms are these somehow sanctuaries that are not affected by the rest of the world, but our students leave our classrooms and go out into a world in which they are deeply affected by the sociopolitical phenomena that they experience every day."

Clint Smith

On how to create that sort of space in a divisive climate

"I think oftentimes what happens is we conflate the idea that certain things should be discussed in a classroom with the notion that a teacher is going to indoctrinate students with their own beliefs. And I think that that is not actually what critical pedagogy is. Critical pedagogy is this idea that you are going to create a space in your classroom in which students are able to develop their own sense of critical consciousness and engagement with the world. And what does it mean for me as a critically and culturally responsive educator to provide the space for you to understand the social and historical and political context that led us to this moment, where people's arguments on either side are stemming from? And what does it mean for you to have conversations with your classmates about these issues that might push you to think differently about something? So, I think we really have to make sure that we're not ignoring these issues in our classrooms but instead tackling them head on."

On not ignoring our history

"I think it demands a certain level of courage from the administrators, a certain level of courage from the teachers, and, as you brought up, you know, the New Deal is something that we're always taught is the most progressive series of legislative acts that have ever been signed. They are what created the contemporary middle class. They are responsible for decades and decades of intergenerational wealth and upward mobility, which they are, but only for white people, right? Because black people were not given access to Social Security, minimum wage protection, health care, housing mortgages, the GI Bill and all of the different things that created the social bedrock of intergenerational wealth in the early 20th century. And so, if a student doesn't understand that certain things at the beginning of the 20th century that are responsible for the accumulation of wealth were given to one demographic of people, and then not given to a different demographic of people, any social scientists will tell you it's inevitable that they will experience disparate outcomes. And again, but this is something that, you know, many of our students don't know, but also many of our teachers aren't being taught, and so it also demands that we think differently about how we're engaging in professional development.

"When I was a teacher I never had professional development conversations around the history of the neighborhood where I taught or what it meant to put my students' academic experiences in conversation with mass incarceration, and housing segregation, and immigration, and food insecurity. Because we so often operate under the false pretense that our classrooms are these somehow sanctuaries that are not affected by the rest of the world, but our students leave our classrooms and go out into a world in which they are deeply affected by the sociopolitical phenomena that they experience every day."

On discussing things like white privilege and intersectionality in the classroom

"I think that that demands a nuanced understanding of how it is, that allow us to navigate the world as both people who are oppressed and people who are complicit in oppression. On one end, as a black person, I am a member of a community that has been historically oppressed, and as a man and as a straight person, I am part of a community that benefits from the existence of patriarchy, notions of how gender operates. It's like when you're in the water park and you're on the lazy river: You can say, 'Well, I'm not doing anything to swim along,' but you are allowing yourself to be part of the current. And it's hard to say, 'I'm going to get off of this proverbial raft and like walk against the current, when it would be much easier for me to sit on the raft.'

"You know, some people will come up to me and they'll say, 'Why do you have a conversation about race with young children?' And the important thing is that we've done this for a long time with regard to the environment, right? And so you don't go to a second-grader and say, 'Well, centuries of climate change means Indonesia and Miami will be engulfed in water and not exist within the next 20 years, so say goodbye to those people.' That would be irresponsible. Similarly, we wouldn't go to a second-grader and say, 'White supremacy is a fundamentally ingrained facet of American history and has been since 1619 and there's nothing you can do about it.' What you can say and what we do in the context of the environment is we talk about recycling or to turn the lights off, right? You scaffold the conversation to be appropriate for the person of that age, and similarly, I think you can have conversations pushing back against the idea of colorblindness, for example, making sure that young people grow up understanding that race has very different and real implications, and we shouldn't pretend as if it doesn't exist, but we should appreciate each person for who they are and the different facets of their identity."

This article was originally published on October 03, 2017.

This segment aired on October 3, 2017.



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