by Dr. Trina Lynn Yearwood
Fifty-five years ago, James Baldwin delivered a powerful and moving speech to NYC teachers. Fifty-five years later, his words are still relevant. As I look at what is happening across this nation and right here in this city, I am reminded of Baldwin’s instructions for teachers during those difficult and dangerous times. Baldwin implored “…any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those…who deal with the minds and hearts of young people…” to be prepared to “go for broke.” Given the current climate of this country, I wonder how many teachers understand their obligation to go for broke.
Teaching is so much more than planning and delivering an excellent lesson. Teaching is about liberation. Teaching is about preparing students to analyze the world around them and challenge the status quo. Teaching is about our children’s survival. Baldwin talks about children who are aware of the oppression and injustices that people of African descent face. Our children, all children, are witnessing the injustices of America and they need teachers who are ready to go for broke.
The second amendment of the United States Constitution gives its people the right to keep and bear arms, yet there are racial disparities in who really has the right to have guns. On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop where he notified the officer that he had a firearm. On November 11, 2018, armed security guard Jemel Roberson subdued a suspect who was involved in a shooting at the bar Roberson was working at. When the cops arrived, Jamel was fatally shot. Just eleven days later on November 22nd, Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford, Jr. was also killed by police because of mistaken identity. All of these Black men lost their lives exercising their right to bear arms while others are still alive because they stood their ground. As the daughter of a Black man, as the sister of a Black man, as the relative of Black men, as the friend of Black men, as the mentor of Black men, as the teacher of Black men, I am tired of witnessing Black men be defenseless targets in this country.
In A Talk to Teachers, Baldwin states it is inconceivable that the American people continue to say they can’t do anything about these injustices. How long will we, the people, allow these injustices to happen? There should be a public uproar across America, from sea to shining sea, about the injustices against people of African descent. But there is not. And our children see this. All children see this. The failure to ensure liberty and justice for all is criminal and sends a clear message to all children about whose lives matter and whose do not.
How will you go for broke in your classroom? Will you facilitate conversations about these injustices? Children are quite aware of what is happening in the world around them. The issues of the community permeate the classroom and, sadly, engaging in these types of real-world conversations is not the norm in schools. Children need instruction that is grounded in their lives and experiences. Will you empower your children to speak up and out? According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have a right to express their views and be heard. Providing a safe space in our classrooms for children to share their views also allows them to share solutions for what is happening in their communities. As clichéd as it sounds, our children are our future and need to be given the tools to be agents of change. Are you willing to commit to lifelong learning to challenge whitewashed history and teach your children the truth? These days, we hear a lot about fake news. The truth is, this country has been telling fake news since its inception. Learn the true history of this country and provide opportunities for all your children to learn it, too. In the words of Baldwin, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change…[so] it is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” Are you ready to go for broke?
Dr. Trina Lynn Yearwood is the Founder of Teachers Ready to Educate, Advocate and Transform (TREAT), an organization committed to helping teachers integrate the diverse culture of students into the classroom and curriculum by providing a platform for them to discover and share innovative ways to utilize children’s culture to enhance teaching and learning. To learn more about the organization, follow @wearetreat on Instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org.