A Talk to Teachers

by James Baldwin

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882

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 day when the entire establishment will be torn down.

The origins of this conundrum go back to the beginning of slavery. The black man was brought to America against his will as a source of cheap labor. In order to justify that a black man was treated as an animal, the "white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that...[he] deserved to be treated [as such]." To perpetuate this false belief, a "deliberate policy" was created to "keep the Negro in his place." 

Many white people wonder in good faith why, since slavery as an institution has ended, African Americans are still dissatisfied, but the truth that they cannot see is that the emancipation of the black man had little to do with restoring his freedom. Instead of being a slave of the land, he was relegated during Reconstruction to the bottom of the labor market. One hundred years later, he is still there, prevented from advancing by attitudes and laws that affirm and continually reinforce that he is something less than human.

Baldwin asserts that it is a crisis of American identity and not a "Negro revolution" that is upsetting the country. He argues that the white man is taught from childhood that his ancestors were heroic individuals who came to America in search of freedom, when in fact they were simply the poor, the hungry, the ordinary people who had reached the limits of endurance in their homelands and so had to "go someplace else to make it." Baldwin says that the teaching of this myth results in a certain arrogance that is manifested not only in the treatment of the black man in America but also in Europe, where American tourists are resented because of their presumptuous and unintentionally insulting behavior. Because Americans have been taught to believe that they are better than everyone else, they have, in effect, "lost their grip on reality" and are largely insensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

Baldwin argues that every citizen has an obligation to stand up and be counted. In his view, it is pointless to blame everything on the government because "the government is the creation of the people." He exhorts teachers to impart to children, and specifically to the African American children entrusted to their care, the realization that the "agonies" by which they are surrounded are "criminal" and that they should refuse to make peace with them. The ability of any one of these children to right these wrongs is directly related to "what he decides he is worth." Baldwin says that there are "currently very few standards in this nation which are worth a man's respect" and that it is up to each individual to strive to change them "for the sake of the life and health of the country." History and popular culture alike need to be examined, and if America is to prosper, the country must find a way to use "the tremendous potential and tremendous energy" that every African American child represents. To fail in this endeavor is to face being destroyed by that energy. 

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