What Names Us?

How James Baldwin's work shapes our school

By T. Elijah Hawkes

Illustrator: June Delairre Truesdale

Photo: June Delairre Truesdale

The names we adopt equally name us. Each symbol carries its own weight, its own past, independent of any new present or future meaning we would give it.

So we must choose our symbols wisely. Names, colors, crests, insignia, mascots, flags, and banners: If we choose them wisely, these symbols will both grant us the freedom of new interpretations and they will bring us into established communities of meaning — inherited and shared with others — that empower, challenge, and inspire us.

When we chose the name James Baldwin School for our new public high school in New York City, we were born into the vast community of meaning that is Baldwin’s life, work and legacy. Above all, it is Baldwin’s work, his words that guide us. And it is an oeuvre so vast that the occasions on which we can turn to it are countless.

During the new school planning phase, how to name us was a question that we spent many days and hours discussing. We considered names of various people, like Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. And we considered names with no reference to any one person at all, titles that would instead ground us in an allegiance to concepts, such as “The Common School,” a reference to the American republic’s public school past, and “The Community School.”

It was the winter and spring of 2005 and we, the faculty of Humanities Preparatory Academy, a small public high school in New York City, were engaged in the process of designing, planning, and naming a new school that would replicate our best practices, and be opened and founded by a group of our own teachers, students, and parents the following fall.

Humanities Prep was in its eighth year and our successes had been many as a small, personalized, democratic, college preparatory program dedicated to serving students who had previously known high school as alienating or unresponsive to their needs. Young people of various academic and social backgrounds came to us: students who were behind in grade level, or were long-term truants, or were tired of a particular school’s competitive culture, or whose parents were no longer able to afford private or parochial school. We helped them appreciate learning, feel a sense of belonging, and we helped them get into college. Enrollment demand grew, but we didn’t want to compromise our community by expanding the school in size, so the new school project was born.

The Walt Whitman School was the name we considered most seriously: Whitman was a New Yorker, and a lover of the city; we were inspired by his words and deeds; he too, like many of our students, walked alternative paths toward knowledge, learning, self, and others; he loved and challenged America and Americans; he was cosmopolitan; he was a democrat. But in spite of all that inspired us, it was Whitman’s support, as Howard Zinn documents, of America’s expansionist war against Mexico that made us decide against naming our school after him. At that point, Prep’s founding visionary and co-director, Perry Weiner, threw James Baldwin into the mix. There was discussion, much more, but no objections.

A new school planning committee that included me and three other teachers met in April with the city’s Office of New Schools to defend our application. With three members of the Prep PTA, we sat before a panel to discuss our vision, our purpose, and our plan. At this meeting we felt it was important to establish Baldwin’s work, explicitly, in his own words, as a founding reference point for our endeavor. We wanted the Department of Education to be convinced of our conviction to honor Baldwin’s work in our own, and we wanted him to be present at the table. While it took time away from discussion of the nuts and bolts of school structures and operations, we felt this was essential. So I read and then discussed a rather extended excerpt from “The Fire Next Time,” a letter from Baldwin to his 15-year-old nephew. He wrote to the boy about his father, Baldwin’s brother, and of the history he sees in that man’s face and gesture:

I have known both of you all your lives, have carried your Daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed and spanked him and watched him learn to walk… Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face… Let him laugh and I see a cellar your father does not remember and a house he does not remember and I hear in his present laughter his laughter as a child. Let him curse and I remember him falling down the cellar steps, and howling, and I remember, with pain, his tears, which my hand or your grandmother’s so easily wiped away. But no one’s hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today, which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs. I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.

Baldwin’s words emanate from a place that is deeply personal and honest; he hides neither his love nor his anger, neither his questions nor his convictions. And it is armed with this — his love, rage, questions, and convictions — that he both assaults the hypocrisy of the United States and affirms its promise of freedom and democratic community. As we told the Office of New Schools last winter, we aim to emulate this stance in the school we are creating. For this is what inquiry-based learning, and sound moral and psycho-social development is all about: Posit the personal as your point of departure, learn from it, interrogate your experiences and assumptions, examine the consequences of your actions in the lives of those around you, and gradually expand your understanding of yourself — and your actions — to include broader and larger communities.

Our first year’s courses would reflect this: original curricula informed by our passions, inspired by our peers, with our students in mind, which would seek personal points of departure and conclusion. Those courses included “Crime and Punishment: Does America Need So Many Prisons?” which invited students to wrestle with the history and place of prison in our country; “Math and Social Justice,” which asked students to examine and quantify if and how they felt their world was fair; and “The Story of Us,” an English course that engaged students to reflect on who tells their stories for them in this culture, and how they can take control and tell their own.

Our application was approved, and the James Baldwin School opened in the fall of 2005. But before our students joined us in September, we met as a full faculty: five teachers, a social worker, a principal co-director, a teacher co-director, and a secretary. We came from different parts of the country, had different degrees of experience, and four of us were white, two of us African American, two of us Latino, one of South Asian descent. The second small school in a large school building, we were provided four classrooms and some office space. In these rooms, in the final weeks of August, we came together for the first time as a whole staff. And the first project — ever unfinished, of course — was to get to know each other, to share our experiences, our beliefs, and to establish shared expectations and values. As part of this work we read several of the essential texts we’d inherited as an institution, including the mission of the school we were proudly replicating, statements of principles from our partner organizations, and an essay by James Baldwin. We each read Baldwin’s “Talk to Teachers,” and selected a passage that spoke a value or belief. Among the excerpts that came to decorate our wall were these:

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.


It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.

Reading this text together and culling the parts that most resonated with each of us was part of our effort to establish commonality and diversity, to ground us in the work of the man whose name we’d adopted in our own. And we return to this text regularly, in our work with each other and in our work with our students and parents. The essay has truly become a common school text. It’s a handout at open houses, for instance, along with our own brochure and description of our courses, and I used it in a class I taught last fall.

The passages the staff pulled from Baldwin’s essay are the same that often make impressions on students when they read “A Talk to Teachers.” In the course that I taught, “My Dungeon Shook: James Baldwin, America, and You,” I asked the students to read it on their way to writing their own pieces about the purpose of education, the duties of teachers and our responsibilities to our students. We read Baldwin’s essay together, and, after writing and sharing personal responses over several days, students wrote their own essays or speeches with teachers as their audience. Here are a few excerpts from the students’ reflections on Baldwin’s text and from their own talks to teachers:

An educated person is when they can ask questions for themselves, ask questions about the universe, then answer for you, and enjoy doing it.

I understand what he talks about because I live on Park Avenue, only because my father works as a super in one of the buildings. We get rent and everything for free. But I don’t feel like we belong there because we aren’t rich. So it feels like none of this is for me, it’s for the rich. That’s what James Baldwin meant.

Being a teacher is to help a student to do better, to help them get through the first step of life, to make them feel they are a part of the world. Now it’s OK if students don’t come to you and ask, but it is never OK if you don’t. It is your job…. In the end you want to know that every student that was in your class has a good life, if they don’t and you don’t care about it, that only means that you are not a good teacher, you didn’t finish your job…. So would you want that? I don’t think so.

It’s compelling when students address educators directly on the topic of teaching and learning. I wish that I had had the students read these, or memorize and deliver them, in person, to their teachers. If I teach this class again, I will. It is also compelling when Baldwin addresses us directly, which is one reason this piece resurfaces in our school so often. We have found it useful, for instance, in our interview process, as we seek to find new staff to work with us and with our children. As the first prompt in the interview, we ask that candidates read the first page of Baldwin’s “Talk to Teachers” and simply share their reactions. Last spring, a teacher, whom we hired, shared in the interview how he agreed with Baldwin’s assessment that our charge is to “correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty,” and he went on to discuss how many teens have no reason to trust us, and do not see the educational system as something that can help them, even if they’ve been successful in it. Our work, he asserted, is to change this, to give hope.

Thus we use Baldwin’s work as a magnet, a sounding board, a mirror, a filter and extractor of our thoughts and feelings, toward the end of building a community of collective understanding and common mission — in a world of so many different identities.

We keep Baldwin on the table because he helps us reflect on our world more honestly. He helps us see our common humanity. Good writers do this. Our social worker recently remarked, “I think that Baldwin asks the world, our nation, to be conscious beings, aware and sensitive to the plight of human suffering.” She sees this illustrated in our work when we choose questions of justice and injustice as the content and guiding questions for our courses.

Last spring, our English teacher, in accepting an award for her teaching before an audience of the New York City schools chancellor and hundreds of private and corporate supporters, read from Baldwin. Though she’d had her remarks edited and cut and had been asked to keep her comments brief, she paused, and she read the passage again: “[T]he obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as educated is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk.”

Keeping Baldwin on the table helps us ask questions of ourselves: Of Baldwin, a colleague once said to me in passing, with reverence and wonder in her voice, “He makes you reevaluate your place in the world.” And she is white, like me, and she grew up far, far from New York City, as did I. Her words speak to an important dimension of what it means for me to read Baldwin: that parallel to the positive idealism, the right and solid anger, the creative expression and critique that he inspires. There is also that which unsettles, asks difficult, frightening questions, surfaces my faults, my ignorance and doubts.

I work in a school that bears Baldwin’s name, but his experience is so different from my own, and his voice is not my voice. But he understands people, and he understands America, and he exposes me and, like my colleague, he calls me into question. And in stark contrast to this, one of our students wrote, in words pinned to a bulletin board down the hall, “He is honest. He speaks upon real life things that I can relate to.”

If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not…

— James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”

T. Elijah Hawkes (tehawkes@yahoo.com) is principal and co-director of the James Baldwin School in New York City. For six years he was an English teacher at Humanities Prep.