James Baldwin

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What does James Baldwin mean when he says, “What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors”?

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James Baldwin’s essayA Talk to Teachers” was published in 1963, a year that also brought the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four children. Peaceful demonstrators for voting rights and against segregation were routinely subjected to attacks by dogs, and buses carrying “freedom riders” had also been bombed. In this context, Baldwin reminds his readers that they were living in “very dangerous times.”

As dangerous as violence, Baldwin points out, are the myths that perpetuate ideas about superiority and privilege in the origins of the United States. That perpetuation not only continues to exclude the participation of many groups who contributed to the positive features of American society but also glorifies behaviors that had many negative aspects and negative consequences. The “heroic ancestors” of that myth—one that is told in every school—are invariably the white settlers who arrived from Europe. This exclusivity implies that the ancestors of contemporary Americans are neither people who were already on the continent at that time and not those who came, usually involuntarily, from other world areas: Native Americans and African Americans.

Even regarding the European whites themselves, Baldwin emphasizes, many of those who traveled to America did not do so of their own free will. While they are usually praised for their desire “to be free,” many were unfree: they were convicted criminals with limited choices, primarily incarceration in or deportation from their native land.

Baldwin also presents the contrast that many other, usually untold elements of United States history are positive and “more beautiful” than the ones children usually hear about, while still others are “more terrible.” In directing his essay toward teachers, he is particularly concerned that those in all-black schools—as he writes while segregation was both still legal and the norm in American public school districts—increase their efforts to teach their students about all aspects of the diversity of a country that should never exclude them from its history.

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The quote comes from "A Talk to Teachers", an article published by he Saturday Review in December 1963 and which you can read following the first link below. The text is a transcrip of the lecture "The Negro Child - His Self Image".

In the text, Baldwin continues the quote by arguing that it is "astounding" to him to hear that so many people believe in the myth that America was founded by "a band of heroes who wanted to be free". This may be one perspective on American history, created by the American white man. Yet, to Baldwin, the founders of America were "convicts" or people who weren't making it in England. American whites should learn that their experience and values are not universal and that they are not the sole foundation of American identity. Such identity therefore is not something natural and given once and for all, but socially constructed and can be contested by other groups. Baldwin addressed his text particularly to teachers of "Negro schools" where heroic talks about American being founded on freedom would sound particularly false. The role of the teacher is to make students aware that America history is "longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible" than everything they have ever been told about. Baldwin thus appeals for teachers to find ways to give African American students meaningful intellectual and practical tools to analyse the political, social and cultural reality around them.

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