Extended Summary

In this essay, which was originally delivered as an address to teachers in New York City in 1963, James Baldwin describes the "current times" as "very dangerous." He identifies a menace that threatens the American social order as a phenomenon that comes from within. Sadly, he notes that if teachers—those entrusted with molding the "hearts and minds" of the young—seek to rectify the ills that plague the nation, they can expect to meet the most "determined resistance."

Baldwin begins his argument by asserting that the purpose of education, which is designed to "perpetuate the aims of society," is to teach people to look at the world around them and enable them to make decisions about it on their own. The paradox that results from this commission, however, is that if the institution indeed succeeds in creating individuals capable of independent thought, those individuals will quickly recognize the wrongs in their society and will endeavor to change them. As Baldwin observes, "no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around."

The paradox takes on an added dimension of complexity in the case of African Americans. From the time he is born, "the Negro" is taught that he lives in a country that guarantees "liberty and justice for all," but in practice, his treatment at the hands of his countrymen affirms that he is of no value or worth beyond his devotion and usefulness to the white man.

Before he can even begin to analyze what he sees, the African American child perceives the squalidness and danger of the ghetto neighborhood in which he is forced to live, in contrast to the finer, friendlier environment beyond its borders. He senses that he is living in a society that, figuratively and literally, assigns him to the "back of the bus." When he becomes capable of better understanding the inequities he faces, he questions why the better things in life are not for him. As awareness develops, anger grows within him, inevitably turning to rage and hate because it cannot be expressed. Having been rejected by the social structure of his country, he learns to live outside of it, surviving by his wits and awaiting the...

(The entire section is 882 words.)