James Baldwin and the Education of People of Color

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s quote is from the essayist, poet, novelist, playwright, and social critic, James Baldwin.

“Not a thousand years ago, it was illegal to teach a slave to read.”

— James Baldwin

The first laws prohibiting slaves from being educated were passed in South Carolina in 1740 beyond what was necessary to understand scripture. Other states followed quickly adding fines for anyone caught teaching a slave to read or write and even going so far as to prohibit freed slaves from living in some states in fear they might incite others by educating them and distributing abolitionist materials or ideas. By the 1850s public education for all black people was illegal.

Educated slaves were a threat to white slaveholders. To have slaves reading and reflecting, questioning authority, and getting ideas of rising and rebelling was not to be tolerated.

This discouragement did not end after the emancipation proclamation was signed. There were few schools or teachers available to teach black people, and they were not permitted in white school. What schools were established were poor and largely ignored by the government. It would be almost another 100 years between the signing of the end of the civil war in 1865 and the legal desegregation of schools in 1954. One hundred years of freed slaves and their descendants scraping by the best they could in a world where white people had the advantage.

And not much has changed since. A significant percentage of Black people in this country are illiterate or unable read above a basic level. They say we are all equal now. Legally we all have a right to an education and the same opportunities regardless of race, but anyone with eyes can see it isn’t true.

School in predominately black or poor neighborhoods doesn’t receive the funding needed to educate its student body enough to compete with the richer and often whiter schools.  It is their schools that have less money, fewer teachers, bigger class sizes, and lower graduation rates. Even in the school district, I work for, one of the best in the state and arguably in the country, there is a clear difference between the education and resources received between our predominantly white schools and the ones with a more diverse enrollment.

The same discouragement to educate exists now, black schools are still poor and largely ignored by the government and for much the same reason, to keep the power where the ruling class wants it.

Education carries ideas, ideas about who we are and what life is and should be. Education exposes you to ideas about what happiness is and what suffering is and how we end up with either. Education brings wisdom from the past to the present and cultivates the capacity to imagine a better future for oneself. It puts you into perspectives you might never see from. It makes us want.

Writing means utilizing logic and creativity for more than basic comprehension ideas. It means pulling those perspectives and ideas you encountered apart and recombining them into something new. The power of writing is in its ability to teach you how to think and reveal what you think. Writing makes it possible to share these new ideas and possibilities with others.

Writing gives you an independence that threatens the establishment. Writing lights your soul up, and gives you the power to light another’s, and another’s, and another’s. It gives you a freedom you don’t have to beg for, a freedom you take for yourself. Once writing has happened control is lost. You cannot keep the masses from reading it, and you cannot stop them from spreading it. The end of oppression becomes inevitable.

It can be slowed. A ruling class loathes to give up power, so they find new ways to restrict education. We’ve banned books and burned whole libraries, but the human appetite for knowledge is insatiable and compulsive. It comes naturally to us and is essential for success in our society.

Too many Americans never learn to read or are not taught the joy and power that words and ideas can give them. It’s a damn shame. A shame not only on those in power but on all of us who turn a blind eye.

Someone somewhere at some time thought that too, and it is because of them I can call myself a writer now.  It is because so many people who came before wanted that I have access to so much information and education, often for free and at my leisure. It is because of them that I can contemplate and reflect, forming ideas of my own and share them with you. As a woman and a person of color, I know how lucky I am to have this power. I feel like I owe it to them to wield this power, to practice it and share it. I can’t give in to self-loathing and doubt. I can’t quit or make excuses because that would be a dishonor and a disappointment to their legacy and sacrifice.

Every person who fought to get us here, no matter how small their resistance, performed great acts of courage. Those who still fight are true heroes. I want to be among those heroes.

The conclusion we all have to come to is that literacy is a human right, period! No person sound denied access to a fundamental feature of what it means to be a human being. No other species on this planet has discovered math, reading, or writing; it is our discovery, it belongs to all of us, equally.

We all have access to school, but we don’t have access to the same education. What we have is a deliberate attempt to keep certain groups ignorant and unable to think or think properly, or articulate their needs and imagine solutions to their ills. I say “deliberate” because the news that some schools are failing, are poor, and are overcrowded and understaffed is not news to anyone and yet is still not a problem politicians are willing to fix.

Who better to take up the fight than writers? As a writer, it hurts my heart to know that language is being used as a weapon this way. As a writer yourself, or as an artist or any creative type, you should feel the same. What would life feel like to you if you had been denied the tools to express your hopes, and fears, and dreams? What could a stunted mind imagine or believe in? How might you suffer if you had been kept from words this way?

No one should be denied to opportunity to fall in love with writing. Call you representatives, contribute to local school fundraising efforts, even if your children do not attend. Familiarize yourself with the basic literacy statistics and the reality of black students in public education. Read authors of color, especially women and queer authors of color. Raise awareness. Confront your own racist ideas, even the ones you deny you have.

And finally, make access to the very best education for everyone a moral issue. Make reading, writing and math, a human rights issue. Make it your goal to bring up other artists and writers the way you were brought up, or the way you wish you had been. Make sure they can read the classics, learn the rules, and know that expressing the human condition through fiction, poetry, essays, memoir, and more are noble and fulfilling endeavors. Let them know we need them, their ideas, and their words.

We need more minds lit up and souls burning in all of us.

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James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father because of his drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor. His mother reportedly never told him the name of his biological father.

The oldest of nine children Baldwin spent much of his time caring for his younger brothers and sisters. At the age of 10, he was teased and abused by two New York police officers, an instance of racist harassment by the NYPD that he would experience again as a teenager and document in his essays. His adoptive father, whom Baldwin in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated him—by comparison with his siblings—with great harshness.

Baldwin developed a passion for reading at an early age and demonstrated a gift for writing during his school years. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school’s magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon. He published numerous poems, short stories, and plays in the magazine. At age 14, Baldwin became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. In the early 1940s, he transferred his faith from religion to literature. Critics, however, note the impassioned cadences of Black churches are still evident in his writing.

Baldwin’s first and probably best-known novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a partially autobiographical account of his youth, was published in 1953.  He continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known. He garnered acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality, and humanity. His essay collections Notes of a Native SonNobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time were influential in informing a largely white audience. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and Just Above My Head.

James Baldwin offered a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism in the 1950s and ’60s. Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalized fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956 well before gay rights were widely espoused in America. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in a lot of savage criticism from the Black community.

On November 30, 1987, Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.

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If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Also: James Baldwin on What Artists Know

Biographical information via Wikipedia, Biography, and Goodreads

Featured image by John H. White, 1945-, Photographer (NARA record: 4002141) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You Have a Right to Be Here

Hello, and happy Monday friends! Yeah, I know, I know, Mondays aren’t exactly happy. Mondays are for being tired, and grouchy, and remembering all the things you don’t like about your life. Mondays are for wanting to crawl back into bed. I know.

But, let’s try something different. Let’s think of Mondays as a chance at a fresh start, a reset of sorts, every single week. Let’s take this opportunity to do it differently. Let’s make the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world, okay?

“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.”

― James Baldwin, Collected Essays

I’m working on being honest about all the bad things I think about myself and how damaging those thoughts are. It’s taken a lot of work, but I’ve gone from the bad thoughts occurring to me and me just accepting them as truth, to being able to see them for what they are. They are thoughts that come from somewhere that is not me, somewhere in my mind where I have less control and so, and am less responsible.

Understanding that has made a huge difference. What I hear in my head is an echo of my past that has become a habit, a habit so ingrained that it takes real effort and strength to fight. The more I remember this, the more I fight, the easier it gets, but old habits are hard to break and sometimes, I still believe that I have less right to life than anyone else on this Earth.

When I was young, I was told I was stupid a lot.

Now, as an adult, I believe that my mind works in some defective way and that the ways it is defective are somehow my fault. If only I would be better, think better, learn to grasp something obvious and easy then I could finally stop being such a burden and a hindrance to everyone around me. I believe that I am the reason that the people around me are frustrated, angry, sad or stressed. I believe that my stupidity it the cause of all the problems around me, even the ones that aren’t mine.

I believe that this, and my many other flaws and deficiencies mean I don’t deserve to be here. I don’t deserve to be loved or to love myself. I don’t deserve to be successful or to feel pride in my accomplishments. I have no right to look another human in the eye or to demand respect, to be heard, to be counted among the beautiful, the intelligent, the “normals”.

These thoughts live in the back of my mind and subtly influence the way I walk through the world, the way I carry myself and speak to people. These thoughts make me small and quiet and cautious. They make me feel sad and serious, and constantly anxious. I worry about overstepping my place or lowering myself further by saying or doing more stupid things every day.

It’s hard to live this way, and it’s wrong.

There is part of me that knows none of this is true. There is a part of my that genuinely knows that I am smart and good and worthy of all the good this world has to offer and so much more. I am strong and talented and capable. I am loved and deserving of that love. I am something special, and I am just as normal as everyone else.

I have the right to live and breathe and make my life into something I can go to my grave satisfied with, same as anyone else. No one else has the right to hinder that, but we often forget the ways we can hinder a life and a pursuit of happiness. We put our shit on other people and forget how our own wounds never closed and how a few words can break a person.

I have been a victim of other people putting their shit on me when I was vulnerable, like many of you.

So many of us carry around false ideas of who we are and what we are and are not worthy of. So many of us were told by someone who’s opinion we held dear that some part of ourselves was “bad”. So many of us have internalized this filth, and we are having the damnedest time letting it go.

We think we are ugly and stupid. We think that we never have and never will get it right. We think that we are broken and beyond repair. We think that we were set apart and built wrong from the beginning. We spend our lives hiding, making ourselves small, putting ourselves lower than anyone else because we think it is our place.

We all have it so wrong. I’ve never met a person who wasn’t fighting a battle, who hadn’t been hurt, who was suffering and struggling same as me. Every person I have ever met, even if we had nothing in common, even if I didn’t like them, even if I thought they were mean, or hateful, or toxic, I have never met a person who I thought didn’t deserve to be on this Earth.

This week, I want you to know that you that you deserve to be here, and I want you to practice saying that to yourself.

Try talking to yourself like someone you love and respect, someone you think the world of, or simply someone who has done you no harm and whom you have no desire to do harm to in return. Remind yourself that no one is perfect, that no one has all the answers that not one of us is inherently better than any other. Each and every one of us is lucky to be here and that lucky accident should never be wasted on believing such filth about ourselves.

This week, I’m asking you to tell yourself that all the bad things you think about yourself are not your own thoughts, they are the result of other people being people and forgetting that their words can hurt too. I’m asking you to remember that every person matters, and that means you too.

It isn’t easy but I’m asking you to believe, a little more every day, that you have the right to every breath, every step, and every bit of happiness and peace you can get your hands on because it is the truth.

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If you like this post heck out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Featured image via Unsplash

James Baldwin on What Artists Know

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the American novelist, poet, and social critic James Baldwin.

10427James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father because of his drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor. His mother reportedly never told him the name of his biological father.

Baldwin spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At the age of 10, he was teased and abused by two New York police officers, an instance of racist harassment by the NYPD that he would experience again as a teenager and document in his essays. His adoptive father, whom Baldwin in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated him — by comparison with his siblings — with great harshness.

Baldwin developed a passion for reading at an early age, and demonstrated a gift for writing during his school years. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school’s magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon. He published numerous poems, short stories and plays in the magazine.

In 1953, Baldwin’s first and probably best-known novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published. His first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. He continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known. He garnered acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality, and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room,Another Country and Just Above My Head.

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956 well before gay rights were widely espoused in America.

Having lived in France, he died on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul de Vence.

The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.

// James Baldwin

I got this quote from a beautiful talk Baldwin gave at New York City’s Community Church on creativity and what it costs to be a true artist. I found it on the Brain Pickings blog from a post titled James Baldwin on the Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human, whew! I urge you to listen to it, I have three times now and each time I feel more inspired and motivated.

In part of the talk, Baldwin tells us that most people live in darkness and it is the artists job to bring the to the light. The light is all the that makes us, us. It is the feeling of being encased in flesh and unbound in mind. It is all we easily forget we are and could be. You have to tell the truth of what it means to be a human being. It is an artist’s responsibility to do this and whether or not you asked for it, you must accept.

In a way, it made me think of Spiderman. You know, when Uncle ben told Peter that “with great power came great responsibility”. Peter didn’t ask for his powers, he didn’t ask to be a hero, but he was given the job all the same. All of a sudden his life he would be spent saving people and trying to make the word a better place. It wasn’t at all what he wanted to do. He wouldn’t be thanked, he would more than likely be hated, and he would never be normal again, but none of that mattered. He had to do it.

Artists, writer, poets, musician, we all see the world differently and we have the ability to share our insight. That is a superpower too, and whether we like it or not, whether we asked for it or not whether we even want to or not, we have to do it. We have to do it authentically and we have to do it with money and fame being only secondary goals. We have to do it because we love it. That is the only way to do it right.

We have to because without artists showing people the light we might all be lost to the darkness.

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Please be sure to check out the post on Brainpickings and listen to the talk below.

Featured image via Christian Gonzalez

Biographical information via Wikipedia, Biography, and Goodreads