"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." James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers
This passage reminds me how the school curriculum has never been meant to liberate or encourage questions. It has always been intended to encourage the norms and structures of society, which means that half-truths and conjecture are often written in textbooks, and repeated in lesson plans. Just recently, a teacher at Lincoln High School in Philadelphia gave his students an assignment asking them to pretend that they were slaves, write a letter to the slavemaster asking for their family to not be sold. This is an African-American studies class. This is a Philly public school. This happened in October 2020. In 1988 in Chicago, at Mother McAuley High School, an American Studies teacher made some of us owners and slaves and proclaimed herself the head slave catcher. The quote from Baldwin was written in 1963.
When classroom teachers decide that they want to teach the truth, they first must re-educate themselves and decolonize their own thinking. That can only happen if they realize that they have been miseducated in the first place. That teacher at Lincoln High School was not young or new, he had probably carried that assignment with him unchecked for years. Think of the students he miseducated and traumatized. This is why I am a firm believer that not everyone should be a teacher, and that anyone who does should be a life-long learner in pursuit of the truth. But first, one must acknowledge their implicit bias, racism, and upbringing. And that white supremacy and systemic racism are real. Then and only then can an individual question their own education and challenge their understanding of the world.
This is why improving teacher prep programs is not enough. Providing anti-racist workshops and conversation is not enough. Developing a robust and diverse curriculum is not enough. Creating more teaching certificates is not enough. If a person is not committed to ongoing edification and engaging in critical conversations, then they will continue to cause harm to students regardless of any intervention. The final paragraph of A Talk to Teachers, asks educators to do exactly this. Question everything. Challenge and analyze theories. And more importantly, continue to challenge the very pillars of public education by striving to seek and teach the truth by shining a bright light on the lies. But this requires you to shine a light on yourself and recognize how the very lies you need to fight have formed and imbued your very upbringing and status.
So educators question everything, challenge everything, and teach social and racial justice for liberation in grades K-12. It is the only way to dismantle and shake up the establishment and create another generation of troublemakers with the courage to question. Because in the words of Baldwin,
"America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way—and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy."