27 pages 54 minutes read

James Baldwin

A Talk to Teachers

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1963

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A Talk to Teachers”

“A Talk to Teachers” is an essay by James Baldwin. Originally titled “The Negro Child—His Self-Image,” the piece was first delivered as a speech on October 16, 1963. Baldwin subsequently retitled the piece and published it as an essay in the December 21, 1963, issue of The Saturday Review.

This guide refers to the version of “A Talk to Teachers” published on the Zinn Education Website.

Content Warning: The source text discusses racism and features slurs and racial epithets including the n-word, which are quoted and obscured in this study guide.

In the first paragraph, Baldwin acknowledges the present as a dangerous time, but claims that danger doesn’t come from foreign threats. He mentions Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, who stood as a signifier for American’s fears about Communism. Instead, the danger comes from within American society. Baldwin segues to the role of teachers in correcting a history of “bad faith and cruelty” toward Black Americans. He encourages teachers to “go for broke” as they encounter resistance to these efforts, and assures them they will encounter brutal and determined resistance.  

In the second paragraph, Baldwin explains what he sees as the role of education in a society. The paradox, according to Baldwin, is that the goal is to teach individuals to think for themselves, yet it’s designed—within social structures—to perpetuate the status quo. He reminds teachers and students that they live in a peculiar paradigm where students must examine the world in which they are being educated. Teachers must give students full access to knowledge while also performing a metacognitive study about their educational sources, expectations, outcomes, and purposes. They are to be both open-minded but diagnostic, to ultimately “ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions” (Paragraph 2). Baldwin adds that the act of formulating those questions will lead to the crystallization of an identity that is self-determined versus imposed. Baldwin also reminds scholars of a dark truth: Society tends to want a malleable citizenry, a pocket of people who do not question the status quo but uphold it with an almost mechanized obedience.

In Paragraph 3, Baldwin examines realities of the world that are painfully apparent to a Black child early on. He talks about the fact that all children—regardless of race—must pledge their allegiance to a flag every morning, but that Black children will soon become aware that those liberties are not evenly dispersed or protected. This is where Baldwin introduces the notion of Black children becoming “schizophrenic.” This refers to society’s assessment of the anger it senses from America’s Black citizens; an anger authorities and white citizens struggle to understand and deem a form of irrationality. Baldwin implies society has created a hypocritical reality that makes its Black citizens constantly teeter on the precipice of confusion from irrational behavior.

This reality is apparent to Black children, Baldwin notes. They’re aware of the inequality and oppression they live with, though they may not be able to articulate the knowledge or their experience of it. This inequality and oppression weighs heavily on their parents, and children absorb it. They notice how hard their parents work to get by, how they must sit on the back of the bus, and how different their neighborhoods are from those where white children live. Baldwin examines the duality of Park Avenue as an example. The part of Park Avenue he grew up on was “dark and dirty” (Paragraph 6). Other parts are chic and sophisticated, home to Tiffany’s and doormen and ownership. That is the Park Avenue where Black Americans feel alienated and disenfranchised. Children in the Black community recognize that none of the perks in those nicer neighborhoods are meant for them, and they wonder why. By the time they enter school, however, they begin to understand the source of this inequality and oppression.

Baldwin describes what it’s like for a Black youth working as a messenger or grocery deliverer, never being allowed to enter a building through the front door, if they’re let in at all. Having the doors of these buildings slammed in their face is but a literal representation of the core issue Black youths face: “the Negro child has had, effectively, almost all the doors of opportunity slammed in his face, and there are very few things he can do about it” (Paragraph 7). This lack of opportunity and powerlessness creates internalized rage, which becomes dangerous with no outlet for expression. While forced acceptance of these realities creates such rage, forced silence masks the danger. It’s manifested as politeness, a façade under which lies hatred for the white people who diminish their lives, dignity, and freedom. As Black children recognize society and its laws won’t help or protect them, but in fact are designed to keep them disenfranchised, they realize the only way they can survive is to eschew that law and live outside it as criminals.

Baldwin explains the economic motives for Black exploitation—the ancestors of African Americans were brought to America as a source of cheap labor—and that to justify such exploitation, “the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved to be treated like animals” (Paragraph 9). Treating Black people as less than human also served as a form of psychological oppression aimed at maintaining society’s power hierarchies. When an enslaved person sees himself as innately human and worthy, he will attack the power structure that has oppressed and exploited him. Racial inequality in America, therefore, did not come about by chance or ignorance, but was intentionally designed to profit from the commodification of Black people. Baldwin reminds readers that this truth has never been acknowledged, which is why Americans are in “intolerable trouble” (Paragraph 9).

Baldwin follows this by describing his own confrontation with being called the n-word. He concludes the problem lies with anyone who insists he is what he knows he is not; who sees him as worthless when he knows he has worth. He states that he had to “realize when I was very young that I was none of those things I was told I was. I was not, for example, happy. I never touch a watermelon for all kinds of reasons that had been invented by white people” (Paragraph 11). This false narrative white society has created to define Black people as unequal must inherently be a false vision of white people, too. Those who live in denial of the reality of racism in America have created false identities for themselves, and now must reckon with an identity crisis. Part of the solution to this identity crisis, Baldwin asserts, is teaching students the true history and contributions of Black Americans. This would liberate not only Black students but also white students who have been deluded about the national identity.

Baldwin notes that America likes to call itself a Christian nation but remarks on the moral hypocrisy: “My father and my mother and my grandfather and my grandmother knew that Christians didn’t act this way” (Paragraph 13). He adds, “there was no point in dealing with white people in terms of their own moral professions, for they were not going to honor them” (Paragraph 13). Thus he explains why Black citizens placate white citizens with false smiles and appeasement when, in reality, they’re filled with “reservoirs of bitterness” (Paragraph 14).

Baldwin also warns about the dangers of the white liberals who approach racial disparity as if they’re missionaries. The myths that have shaped white America’s false identity have caused these white liberals to see the world and their role in it with naivety, like children who haven’t grown up. Baldwin is incredulous that people cling to the belief that this nation was formed by heroes seeking freedom.  Such fantasies have atrophied white Americans’ mental growth and historical awareness, emphasizing that, “it is the American white man who has long since lost his grip on reality” (Paragraph 16).

Baldwin calls attention to those who take no accountability for the ills of their society and lay responsibility solely on the government, since “government is the creation of the people. It is responsible to the people” (Paragraph 18). He is horrified that a society would allow a government body to hose and bomb children fighting for equality in the Deep South, succinctly taking the essay back to the beginning where he wrote: “Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time” (Paragraph 1). He widens the scope of public identity to include public responsibility when he writes that there was no nationwide public uproar to the attacks on Black children in the South.

Looking at the role of the individual student within the larger realm of education, Baldwin notes an irony of the educational system: “one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person” (Paragraph 19). This brings focus back to the educator. He offers advice for educators by suggesting what things he would teach if he were in their place. This includes transparency about white society’s intentions toward Black people, and the false narratives used to hide those intentions. He insists Black students must not buy into what has long been preached in America.

Baldwin ends by comparing America’s false narrative about communism to its false narrative about Black identity. All students have the right to examine the narratives, policies, and moralities of their government, or of any other power that asserts influence over them. Every child possesses tremendous energy and potential, which can be a positive or a negative force, depending the knowledge and opportunities they’re given. He insists that if “this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy” (Paragraph 19). In other words, if Black Americans continue to be oppressed, their energy and potential stymied by racism and hypocrisy, only further tension and violence will result. Division can only weaken a nation, and this will ultimately cause its ruin.