What James Baldwin’s Activism Can Teach Schools About Social Justice

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Every August 2, I spend nearly the entire day observing the birthday of the late James Baldwin, one of the 20th century’s most esteemed and prolific writers, cultural commentators and social critics. Not just an American virtuoso, his international acclaim and worldwide renown transcends borders and nationalities, cultures and faiths, and really, all human divisiveness. And while bibliophiles around the globe admire the lasting impact of his legacy on the course of history, I study him because his work quite literally saved my life.

Though I’d heard of Baldwin as early as high school, I still hid my queer identity from most people back then, and so I didn’t dare risk “outing” myself by carrying around his books. Not until college did I have the freedom to get acquainted with his body of work.

On a whim, right before cracking open “Giovanni’s Room,” I did something I usually didn’t do before picking up a book: I searched for footage of this seemingly obscure author, so that I could imagine his voice as the narrator’s. That’s when I stumbled across an interview, during which a British television host asks Baldwin, “When you were starting out as a writer, you were Black, impoverished, homosexual. You must’ve said to yourself, “Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?”

Without skipping a beat, Baldwin chuckles and quips, “Oh no, I thought I’d hit the jackpot!” The entire crowd erupts in laughter. Baldwin goes on, “It was so outrageous, you could not go any further, you know? And so, you had to find a way to use it.” Right then, I knew that through the spirit of Baldwin’s work, I’d always lean on him as an ancestor and mentor.

BALDWIN’S INFECTIONS VERVE AND SENSIBILITY DURING THAT SHORT INTERVIEW CLIP GAVE ME MORE HOPE THAN ANY CRISIS LINE EVER DID.

Around that time, on the brink of dropping out of Tufts, I had been asking for a sign that life was worth living, despite my perpetual struggle to reconcile my queerness and Blackness. In the midst of an unabating bout of depression and self-harm, Baldwin’s infections verve and sensibility during that short interview clip gave me more hope than any crisis line ever did. It mattered that I saw my reflection in him.

For the first time in a long time, I felt purposeful. But then I got angry. Why had I never heard of James Baldwin?

As an English major, I appreciated the empowerment, healing and self-expression that literature cultivates in readers, particularly in terms of facilitating consciousness-raising and identity development. Did my consciousness and identity not matter to my former teachers? Why did curriculum developers and policymakers consider it necessary for students like me to always be able to relate to the majority, but not vice versa? Why were writers like James Baldwin and I on the margins of the margins, nearly erased into oblivion without a trace?

HIS TEACHERS KNEW HE WAS YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK

From a young age, Baldwin showed unmistakable precociousness. Commenting on his motivation as a student, he once said, “I knew I was Black, of course; but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” At his elementary school in Harlem, Baldwin’s giftedness stood out. He wrote the school song, which the school used until its closing, and he also authored and directed school plays. After noticing his superb playwriting skills, a teacher began taking him to plays out in the city.

Throughout Baldwin’s schooling, teachers readily recognized his talent and pushed him forward. Even during a time when it was more common for White educators to belittle gifted Black students, rather than encourage them, White teachers supported him. At Frederick Douglass Junior High, a math teacher would encourage Baldwin to serve as the editor of the school newspaper, which prepared him to take on a literary editor position on DeWitt Clinton High School’s school magazine staff. In his 30s, Baldwin would pen essays for reputable publications such as Mademoiselle, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

By high school, Baldwin took a strong interest in the Harlem Renaissance, and had crossed paths with Beauford Delaney, a gay Black artist living in Greenwich Village. Delaney took Baldwin under his wing, showing Baldwin that being a Black artist was possible.

A14, Baldwin had become a popular junior minister, taking refuge in religion and spirituality to cope with abuse from his stepfather, who was also a minister. At 17, his sermons drew larger crowds than his stepfather’s, but he had began questioning institutionalized religion. Although he left the church soon after, he had developed impressive oratory skills. His formative experience as a young preacher would serve him well when he would tour internationally, giving lectures that garnered the attention of mainstream print and television news.

During the 1960s, Baldwin had only reached his 40s, but every activist, writer, and most politicians, knew of him. In 1963, Time Magazine featured him on its cover, writing in a profile, “There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in the North and South.” This might explain why Baldwin’s FBI file contains 1,884 pages documents that span from the 1960 until the 1970s.

EDUCATORS HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO MOLD STUDENTS

Throughout his life, James Baldwin often reflected on social inequity through the lens of educational justice. In “A Talk to Teachers,” he mused, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which one is being educated.”

This year on Baldwin’s birthday, Jesse Hagopian, founder of Black Lives Matter at School, paid tribute, commemorating and reflecting, “James Baldwin understood a key contradiction in education that is the reason why schools have been one the most explosive sites of struggles for social justice.” His words prompted me to contemplate the implications of Baldwin’s thought leadership for today’s educators.

Personally, I believe that educators have an obligation to mold students into active citizens who conceive of justice as liberation from all cultural, social, and political institutions that oppress anyone, anywhere. This vision of mine starts with us being honest with students about the reality that schools and schooling are political. Disproportionate dropout rates for LGBTQ+ students, for example, as well as the overrepresentation of Black and Brown students in special education and the school-to-prison pipeline — these are only a few examples of injustices in the context of education that mirror injustices found in broader society.

Like Baldwin, the first solution that comes to mind is preventing yet another generation from graduating without understanding how schools are a microcosm of the world around them

Given the fact that most students spend more time at school than anywhere else, including home, the study of schools and school systems is an excellent starting point for today’s students to begin practicing critical reflection about culture and society. Schools are what they know best, and also where they can have the most influence.

I express this same sentiment in “How We Can Transform Schools Into Sites of Racial Healing,” in which I write, “…most children’s first encounter with health or unhealthy power dynamics between institutions and people will occur in schools. For better or worse, students internalize a culture of either accountability and engagement, or abuse and neglect. Our pedagogy has the power to encourage them to fight for the former and stand up against the latter.”

I still take the position that educators have a responsibility to spark students’ curiosity in how to make a world a better place, and that schools offer that starting point. However, after reflecting on Baldwin’s words recently, I’d expound upon that point — adding that students must know that they can become engaged advocates and citizens not just by assimilating into society’s current cultural, social, and political institutions, but also by dreaming up new ones. It’s up to us to empower them with this message.

Araya Baker is an educator, therapist & writer who promotes disability, education & health equity, across borders, faiths, generations, identities & movements.

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