Champaign educator Jaime Roundtree: “My hope is that others are inspired to take action and join us in this movement, to help as we continue to empower the students and families at our campus to achieve the change which they seek and deserve.”
Editor’s note: Jaime Roundtree, the principal at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy and a longtime educator in Champaign Unit 4 Schools, first shared this essay on his Facebook page on May 31. We are reprinting it here, with permission.
The italicized phrases in this essay are from Baldwin, as are (most of) the educational actions that Mr. Roundtree affirms.
by Jaime Roundtree
I share this to express my honest feelings of pain, anger, guilt, fear, pride, and hope.
Dear Mr. James Baldwin,
I recently (re)read your article, “A Talk to Teachers” (1963) and felt inspired and compelled to use it as a “guide” to help me respond to the recent events taking place in our society. I find it eerily and sadly relevant some fifty-seven years later, as I struggle to find the words to express my feelings about what some might consider the attempted genocide of black folks in America.
I have experienced that paradox of education you spoke of, where I reached that point where I developed a conscience and I found myself at war with the very institution for which I am supposed to represent. It HAS been my goal and responsibility to attempt to help change society since I consider myself an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence (of recent events) – the moral and political evidence – I am honestly struggling with how I should respond, either in words or actions.
As an educator who is fortunate to have been appointed leader of a school filled with beautiful and powerful black children who are in my care several hours of every day and who then return to their homes and to the streets…yes, the very children you spoke of, who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I truly DO try to give them some sense of empowerment.
As you stated in your article, so do I state today:
Everyday I DO try to teach them – I DO try to make them know – that these streets, these houses, these dangers, these agonies by which they are surrounded, are (so often portrayed as) criminal. At the same time, I DO try to make each child know that these things are the results of a racist and systemic conspiracy designed to destroy them. I DO try to teach them that if they intend to grow to be men and women, they must at once decide that theirs IS stronger than this conspiracy and they MUST never make their peace with it. I DO try to remind them that one of their weapons for refusing to make their peace with it and for destroying it depends on what they themselves decide they are worth. I DO try to teach them that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a person’s respect. I DO try to empower them to be the ones to challenge these standards for the sake of the life and the health of their community and their future. I DO often suggest to them that the popular culture – as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies – is based on fantasies created by very ill people, and they must be aware that these are fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. I DO try to teach them the news they see is not as free and righteous as it says it is – and that they can do something about that, too.
I DO try to make them know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger – and that it belongs to them and they have every right to it. I DO try to teach them that they don’t have to be bound by the expectations of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that they have the right and the necessity to examine everything. I DO try to suggest to them that theirs is living, at the moment, in an enormous province. I DO want them to realize America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way – and these children must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which these children represent. I DO understand that if this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy.
However, after doing all this that you have said, today I also struggle with asking that our students and our children take on the responsibility for carrying this burden and solving this problem for which we ourselves have not found the answers, but I am hopeful that amongst them is the solution.
Mr. Baldwin, we have a lot of work still yet to do, but I also want you to know that I am not alone in this work. I am fortunate to work with many other amazing educators at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, dedicated to challenging the status quo of this racist educational institution and bringing about the needed change. My hope is that others are inspired to take action and join us in this movement, to help as we continue to empower the students and families at our campus to achieve the change which they seek and deserve.
As you stated in the opening to your letter, we are again living through a very dangerous time. Most of us, in one way or another, are aware of that. We are again in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word still may be in this country. The society in which we live is still desperately menaced, not just by our current administration, but systemically and structurally. There are many of us in this country who DO ﬁgure themselves as responsible – and particularly those of us who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – we DO recognize we must be prepared to “go for broke.” We appreciate you reminding us that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, we will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. As you stated, there is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.
We are ready and looking forward to the opportunity to do our part. Thank you for your guidance and foresight.
RIP James Baldwin (1924-1987)
“A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin (Delivered October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child – His Self-Image”; originally published in The Saturday Review, December 21, 1963, reprinted in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985, Saint Martins 1985.)