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...

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