James Baldwin On Public Education

James Baldwin on public education and the state of black urban life

This is James Baldwin up close. One of the most widely read African-American authors from the 20th century. His books like Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Fire Next Time and Another Country are well-known literary treasures. I recently discovered a speech written by Baldwin to teachers. It is rich and relevant, especially in light of this weeks quintessentially American drama: The George Zimmerman trial. This post has been updated to include excerpts from the speech, “A Talk to Teachers” delivered by Baldwin in 1963. I reference this text during this weeks Education Policy Cafe radio show.

James Baldwin on the complicated condition of the “black” child in the American education system:

..any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  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.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  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.  He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people.  If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes.

All this enters the child’s consciousness much sooner than we as adults would like to think it does.  As adults, we are easily fooled because we are so anxious to be fooled.  But children are very different.  Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.  They don’t have the vocabulary to express what they see, and we, their elders, know how to intimidate them very easily and very soon.  But a black child, looking at the world around him, though he cannot know quite what to make of it, is aware that there is a reason why his mother works so hard, why his father is always on edge.  He is aware that there is some reason why, if he sits down in the front of the bus, his father or mother slaps him and drags him to the back of the bus.  He is aware that there is some terrible weight on his parents’ shoulders which menaces him.  And it isn’t long – in fact it begins when he is in school – before he discovers the shape of his oppression.

Baldwin captures the problematic nature of the American education system in the post Brown versus Board of Education era. With increased access to education, other challenges arise like hegemonic curriculum that transmits subservience and damages the self-image of the child. This was written over forty years ago however I know of students, parents and educators who could give credence to Baldwin’s assessment and observations.


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