An Open Letter to White Teachers of Black Children

… If America is going to become a nation, she must find a way—and this [Black] 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.

  • James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers

In the spirit of James Baldwin, I begin this letter saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by terrorist from abroad or any foreign power, but from within.

Our society is menaced by its own social order: white supremacy. The impact of racial capitalism over time on Black lives and the lives of the poor are magnified by the Coronavirus pandemic and illuminated by police brutality. Multiple constituencies of the human family, nationally and worldwide, converge on the streets in protest to name and fight this menace.

However in our country, these heroes are met with identified and unidentified police who employ tear gas and batons as well as those who seek to sabotage their calls for justice.

Although the names of racist politicians and confederate soldiers are removed from schools and the phrase Black Lives Matter are painted on the streets of cities nationwide, Black people continue to be disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus; exacerbated by environmental, economic and political injustice that translate into poor air quality, economic inequality and voter disenfranchisement. 

Whether by choice or by circumstance, you’ve chosen to teach Black children. This fall, you’ll stand before a (virtual) classroom of Black children that Baldwin called a tremendous potential and tremendous energy, at a time in history that requires you do more than simply teach reading, writing and/or arithmetic.  

This moment in history requires that you begin to reconstruct a broken society from within the classroom. This moment requires that you link core competencies to passion and purpose. Quite simply, your praxis must be prophetic and political.

Teaching Black children [superbly] is a revolutionary act. -James Baldwin

Teaching is a revolutionary act. It is revolutionary because teaching is a political act – whether affirming or negating any activity, behavior, belief or circumstance with your instruction – and a prophetic function – speaking the truth to provide revelation, inspiration, and empowerment to students as per your teaching. A person’s teaching inevitably and consistently reveals their mindsets about the students they lead.

In his A Talk to Teachers, Baldwin argues that if you think of yourself as an educated person, it is your responsibility to change society, according to the moral and political evidence that displays our society is in need of changing. Baldwin’s prophetic voice provides some tools needed to teach students in a prophetic and political way. For the sake of space, I’ve syncretized them into 5 key points:

  1. Teach Black children that communities subject to criminal activity, substandard housing and without meaningful career opportunities for residents isn’t accidental due to a culture of poverty. Teach them that the circumstances of these communities were crafted as a result of racist policies and those policies are criminal and deliberate. Teach them that they are not only better than the narratives developed as a result of these policies, but also that they are never to make peace with any of this. Rather they are to resist it.  
  2. Teach Black children that there are currently laws and policies in this country which are unworthy of the respect of Black people or any person of color; policies that suppress Black, Latinx and Indigenous votes or policies that are responsible for the disproportionate impact the Coronavirus and other medical conditions have on Black people. Teach them that these policies are designed to maintain white supremacy as a social order and that their activism can change these policies for the sake of their own lives and the health of the country.
  3. Teach Black children that Blackness represented as popular culture on the internet, social media and etc., when pilfered and appropriated by white led institutions i.e. corporations, exploit the Black experience and Black humanity for profit. These cultural colonizers craft campaigns that fail to properly represent Black people, our experiences and are without their best interest at heart. Teach Black children that the press is not as free as it claims; they also habitually craft narratives perpetuate racist ideas to further denigrate Black humanity. Teach them to be aware of these are narratives and that they can’t erase their humanity.
  4. Teach Black children that American history (and world history), in the words of James Baldwin, is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it or taught them previously. Don’t teach American enslavement as our history, but rather as a violent interruption of Black history. Too many teachers don’t know about the maroon communities that existed and the vast number of revolts that happened and thus fail to teach it. Make the connections between the Stono Rebellion, Crispus Attucks, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Simon Bolivar, Toussaint L’Overture, and countless other acts of resistance. Use history to show them that the world is theirs to fight for as it was for their ancestors who came before.   
  5. Teach Black children that they don’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given government, any given policy, any given morality; that they have the right and the necessity to examine and investigate everything. Teach them to question everything; to research, to investigate and to never take anything on face value. Teach them to investigate why our country says that their enemy ought to be my enemy. Teach them to request adequate evidence why their countrymen and women are undeserving of a living wage while the wealthy receive tax breaks. Teach them that one has learned nothing when one says, “because so and so said it, it must be true.”

What that looks like amid the fluidity of the coming school year will be different depending on your circumstances. You may teach students in-person, remotely or both. You may ask, how can I leverage my instruction in a way that is uncompromisingly political and prophetic no matter the circumstances of my teaching format using Baldwin as a framework? Here is what it looks like with the example of Baldwin’s first point – as a unit or mini unit – to teach third grade students (adapt this brief rubric to adhere to your school or district’s scope and sequencing plans):

At the end of each day, you must ask yourself who have you assisted with seeing themselves as fully human. Who have you empowered to fight for a world to see their humanity as well?  And, in what ways have you as a person and an educator proven complicit in undermining their humanity – in the classroom and otherwise?

Failure to empower Black children see their humanity fails them and our nation; inflicting self-harm for failing to cultivate that tremendous energy for good use. May this school year be one where you see the tremendous energy of Black children as a power source necessary to build the America that is what it says it is on paper.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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