Yesterday, December 1 marked the 29th anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. Today we lift up James Arthur Baldwin, the grandson of enslaved Africans for his brilliant contributions to the American canon of literature, as a fierce advocate for racial justice and as creativity personified. Creativity or Kuumba is the sixth principle of the Nguzo Saba and it urges us to do all we can in our own way, to leave the world more beautiful and beneficial for our community.
Baldwin is a New Yorker, son of Harlem and educated in the city’s public schools, having attended Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. As a young black gay man coming of age in the earlier half of the twentieth century he was determined to use his gifted mind and imagination to write, create and ultimately reveal the deeper truths that needed to be revealed. With over twenty works of literature to his credit including novels, essays, plays and short stories.
It was during the Civil Rights era that Baldwin became a leading voice on race relations in America, most notably with his works, Notes on a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963). He believed that his responsibility as an artist was to reveal the truth of America and its racial history, however ugly and shameful. The life and career of Baldwin is powerfully documented in the film, James Baldwin:The Price of the Ticket.
As a community of educators we can benefit from reading and re-reading his works for ourselves and with our students. I know that Baldwin was never required reading for me throughout my many years of education and then I read and taught If Beale Street Could Talk with a class of seniors and realized how I had been cheated. But as teachers we can still benefit from his prophetic insight as it relates to culturally responsive education. In December of 1963, Baldwin wrote an essay entitled, “Talk to Teachers”:
“It is not really a “Negro revolution” that is upsetting the country. What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity. If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.”
There is no overstating the power and truth of his words about race and education. So even as I lament a formal education without Baldwin, I understand why. His truth was too much of a threat. He was unflinching in his telling America about itself and he did it for the love of his people and of this country. Baldwin wrote those words over fifty years ago and they are truer now than they have ever been. So even as we honor him for his profound contributions to the written word we must recognize that he has left a legacy far greater than that. The creative spirit and drive of James Baldwin is found in his flawless ability to reveal America and its racism to itself.
Now more than ever our students need to know and hear from a visionary voice such as Baldwin. Let us not allow another generation go miseducated and denied the truth that they see playing out before them. As we always urge you to heed the CREAD Commandments and expand your repertoire of teaching resources and if you can plan a trip to take your students to see the film, I Am Not Your Negro.
To continue living the truth and the values of the Nguzo Saba means that we learn from the example of our ancestors like James Baldwin and in doing so we may find our own way to make our communities more beautiful and more beneficial for those who will come after us.
Peace good people…
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