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James Baldwin’s Article: Finding Spaces in Society

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“The truth about the past is not that it is too brief, or too superficial, but only that we, having turned our faces so resolutely away from it, have never demanded from it what it has to give,” wrote James Baldwin in his essay “A Question of Identity,” published in The Price of the Ticket. James Baldwin (1924-1987), the internationally acclaimed writer who wrote brilliantly and sometimes bitterly about what it meant to be human in the 20th century in books that topped bestsellers lists and who won a Eugene Saxton Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the French Legion of Honor, was a supremely distinguished writer, something many of us know and something some of the essays in James Baldwin Now state and in certain cases explain why and how; other essays in the book try to claim him for narrow social categories and current, transient political viewpoints — they take from him less than he has to give.

James Baldwin’s values were courage, fairness, honesty, compassion, the importance of knowing humanity, reality, and tenderness; and he looked for ambiguity, complexity, and recognition of human pain in conversation, art, and politics, in the belief that these were not only intrinsically interesting but led to the possibility of wisdom, healing, and community.Baldwin — no separatist — had close lasting friendships with women, personal friends like Orilla Miller and Mary Painter and with literary colleagues such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, despite his ongoing pursuit of an ideal “romantic” relation with a man (never found), a pursuit that seems rooted in the absence of his biological father and his stepfather’s brutal rejection of him. Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison (Beloved), one of the most significant writers this country has ever produced, has said of Baldwin, “You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention,” echoing what millions have felt. A TALK TO TEACHERS

What struck me most about the Baldwin article was his discussion about finding spaces in society to operate when society does not offer those spaces otherwise. He namely speaks of the entry of many minorities into crime as a way to work around the system that does not teach them to critically question and work within the system. I agree with Baldwin that this has a lot to blame with the education system which often reaffirms the statement, “What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.” I see the attitude of some of the students at Ballou as a reflection of this lack of emphasis on critical thinking in our educational system. It comes across as complacency in the students. It seems that they have not been taught to critically think about problems and because of that either think that problems cannot be solved or are simply waiting for the answer on how to solve problems. Its seems our job as coaches has not only been to encourage them to civically engage, but also how to tackle the problems that arise once one is civically engaged through critical thinking. Entry into crime should not be their only alternative…instead of breaking the rules of society that they have been taught to follow in school, but do not serve their interests, they should feel empowered as well as have the ability to critically think as to how to CHANGE THE RULES.

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