A Talk to Teachers

by James Baldwin

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Student Question

How does Baldwin's perspective on history relate to the current events he highlights?

Quick answer:

In this essay, James Baldwin makes the case that teachers have the tremendous responsibility of being agents of change. This can only be achieved when teachers are aware of history and its impact on what is into what can and should be.

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The original question had to be edited down.  I would suggest that Baldwin's approach on history is one in which he emphasizes that individuals do have power to change social and historical realities.  Baldwin is quick to point out that the role of the teacher is one that can bring out the most independent of thinker, the most intellectual free of minds.  It is here in which individuals will be able to make the conditions of change that can enable society to be better.  In speaking to teachers, Baldwin makes it clear that he believes in the idea that history will repeat itself if individuals to take a conscious and deliberate stand to remake society as to what it should be.  Baldwin's audience of the teacher is poignant in this, as he understands clearly that education can be a force of change.  If teachers are the vanguard of a movement that seeks to instruct children to withstand the resistance to social change and pursue it in the name of making right that which is wrong, Baldwin believes that history can be changed.  For Baldwin, this becomes where his approach to history is one in which social movements can be merged with the actions of the individual.  At the time of writing, the current condition of the child of color is a situation that demands this fusion in which teachers are able to teach that vast historical and social conditions seek to stop change and it is their obligation- teacher and student- to go out and create the conditions that will bring about social justice.  In this, Baldwin makes it clear that individuals do have the power to alter history.  Yet, surrendering that power will enable the inertia and resistance to change to remain.

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In this essay, how would you describe Baldwin's perspective on history?

I think that Baldwin speaks to teachers in his essay with an understanding that history is a form of prologue that can provide the transformational pivot to change what is into what can or should be.  Baldwin never loses sight that the primary value of history is to impact that which is in the future.  He uses historical insight in relating to not only the present, but the cause that makes the present able to change into the future.  The use of slavery as well as modern post- emancipation conditions of people of color is something that Baldwin uses to make the case that education, teaching, can be transformative.  When Baldwin suggests that teachers who seek to construct what can be out of what is will face "determined resistance," it is through the illumination of this inertia through history that enables Baldwin to make his case and his pivot.  The use of history is where "the tremendous potential and tremendous energy" enables teachers to realize how important they are in the assurance that the present and future does not mirror the sins of the past.  It is here where Baldwin understands the true value of history, a discipline whose study of the past can provide a type of looking-glass that can make what should be out of what is.

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