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Love and Growth: On One Aspect of James Baldwin’s Significance for Education

by Jeff Frank — 2015

Background/Context: Although James Baldwin’s work is beginning to receive attention by political and social theorists, his work does not currently influence educational conversations. I believe this is unfortunate, and the goal of this article is to make the case that Baldwin’s work has a great deal to teach educators, especially teacher educators.

Research Design: Reading through all of Baldwin’s nonfiction, I draw out interconnected themes that run across his work, and which I found most interesting as I thought about my work as a teacher educator. These themes are: innocence, fear, and love. For each theme, I draw on different aspects of Baldwin’s published nonfiction, attempting to create a conversation between aspects of Baldwin’s work and issues of importance to teacher educators.

Conclusions/Recommendations: I conclude by making the case that Baldwin’s work deserves a wider hearing, especially his thinking on love. I develop the concept of “tenacious understanding” to highlight the types of teaching that teacher educators will need to engage in if they are to realize Baldwin’s prophetic call that I resound in this article.


The aim of this article is to make the case that James Baldwin has a great deal to offer the field of education, particularly teacher education. While a growing number of political theorists (Balfour, 2001; Glaude, 2007; Shulman, 2008; Turner, 2013) are demonstrating Baldwin’s significance for politics and social thought broadly understood, his work has not—with few exceptions (Frank, 2013a, 2014)—made its way into educational conversations. I think this is unfortunate, because Baldwin’s work is deeply insightful when it comes to issues like—amongst other things—white racial identity development (Tatum, 1992, 1994) and antiracist pedagogies, issues that are central to teacher education. More, I believe that Baldwin’s voice is unique in that it foregrounds the centrality of love in personal and social change. This article will—through a reading of Baldwin’s nonfiction—describe what Baldwin means by love while demonstrating why his call to love is something that teacher educators may find useful as they think about their own work.

I believe that this work is important now more than ever. As was recently reported in The New York Times, James Baldwin would be ninety this year, but his work is beginning to slowly fade from memory (Lee, 2014).1 Baldwin’s neglect in educational literature is a shame, because Baldwin’s has a prophetic voice (Shulman, 2008; West, 1982) that still has the power to speak to us, calling us to realize our better self and our better life together. As I hope to demonstrate over the course of the paper, Baldwin’s work has a great deal to teach us about what it means to be educated and what it means to be an educator.


Reading through all of Baldwin’s nonfiction I draw out interconnected themes that run across his work, and which I found most interesting as I thought about my work as a teacher educator. These themes are: innocence, fear, and love. For each theme, I draw on different aspects of Baldwin’s published nonfiction, attempting to create a conversation between aspects of Baldwin’s work and issues of importance to teacher educators.

It is important to note—before developing my reading of James Baldwin—my own positionality. I worry a great deal about inadvertently distorting Baldwin’s message by filtering it through my whiteness. I ask myself: Am I capable of hearing his call even when it unsettles much of what I take for granted and have been taught to love? Will I unknowingly employ Baldwin to serve my purposes—white purposes—and not do justice to his thought? More generally, can a white interpreter every really get it? White Americans are so good at enforcing their vision of reality; can they ever really become receptive to the truth, especially when the truth is delivered by someone who is not white like they are?2 When wondering about how I can respond to the reality of white privilege and the problems of racism, I am of the mind that these are things that cannot be solved or resolved.3 Rather, one must always realize how much one has to learn and one must make the effort to learn it. Baldwin’s message, often directly addressed to white readers making the effort to learn about race and white privilege, offers some hope that my inquiry is not doomed to distortion and misrepresentation from the start. There will likely be much that is missed or not fully appreciated in my account, but—I hope—a reader will leave this article with a newfound—or rekindled—interest in Baldwin and a feeling that his thinking has much to offer teaching and teacher education. Even though I may not be an ideal messenger, because Baldwin’s voice is not as present in educational conversations as it should be, I feel it is important to do this work, even in the face of its limitations.


At the end of Baldwin’s first collection of essays sits what I take to be one of his most remarkable essays, “Stranger in the Village.” Baldwin finds himself high in the white Alps, in a village that has never seen a black person before. As he walks through the town the children shout Neger! Neger! after him, and these same children—and their parents—desire to touch Baldwin’s hair and wonder if—somehow—Baldwin’s blackness could be washed away from his skin. While the initial shock of being called Neger! does not wear off, Baldwin also understands that the children—and their parents—really do not know any better. And this leads him to think about the reverse of his current situation.

I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence. The astonishment with which I might have greeted them, should they have stumbled into my African village a few hundred years ago, might have rejoiced their hearts. But the astonishment with which they great me today can only poison mine. (pp. 120–121)4

The white children—and their parents—do not know any better because they do not have to. Convinced of their superiority (even if unconsciously), they are always at home in the world. The world of Europe is a reflection of them and a reflection of their collective excellence;5 the world of Africa is a space to save and to conquer. The curiosity of others is a marker of tribute, not—as in Baldwin’s case—fraught. I take Baldwin’s thought experiment to be a poignant reminder of the pervasiveness of white supremacist ideology. Because it goes without saying that European (and by extension white American) culture is superior (that this culture has everything to give and gain and nothing to learn), this ideology remains unquestioned by those who benefit from its privilege.

And yet, Baldwin finds reason for hope when he thinks about America. America is not the Alpine village where black men have never been. Unlike Europe, America doesn’t have space between itself and its colonial subjects. Black and white have lived together in the same space from our founding. This leads Baldwin to think,

American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the word as it is possible to be. (p. 128)

This is a theme that Baldwin works out over Notes of a Native Son, particularly in essays where he thinks about what it means to be an American living in Europe.6 Being American is a unique identity, and it binds white and black Americans together. Our fates—as Baldwin sees it—are intertwined. Though the white American can trace his lineage back to Europe and the black American to Africa, a white American and a black American have far more in common with each other than they do with their African or European contemporary. The lives and fates of black and white Americans are inextricably linked. It is impossible to enumerate the countless ways in which America is a black nation, and yet—somehow—it remains possible for white Americans to cling to the illusion that recovering European innocence is possible and desirable, the state where black men and women do not exist and have not contributed to America.

This is the first sense of innocence that Baldwin wants to disabuse his white reader of. America is a mixed nation, and an individual will not achieve her identity as an American willfully oblivious of this fact. It is a hard reality to face, though, because the ideology of white supremacy operates under a delusion that anything excellent achieved in this country was achieved through the intelligence and effort of white men. To think otherwise (following this delusion), would be to dilute and lessen what is valuable about America. In order to break through this myth, Baldwin documents related forms that white innocence takes.

It is important to note that the alternative to innocence is not guilt. Baldwin is not—as I read him—asking his white readers to feel guilty as the antidote to their innocence. Instead, the only way to leave this false sense of innocence is by achieving maturity through growth. Innocence leads to epistemic and moral delusions that distort reality. Someone in this position must have the maturity to see these delusions for what they are and make the difficult attempt to grow through them. Baldwin writes,

For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. (p. 294)

What should Americans know better? To start, those with privilege and power have not taken an honest look at slavery at its manifold effects on the present. Two recent works offer striking examples of this. Craig Steven Wilder (2013) demonstrates how the founding of many American colleges and universities—and in some cases their curriculums—are tied to slavery and the slave trade. Wealthy slave traders, slaveholders, and individuals profiting from the slave trade founded universities or gave large gifts to ensure that these universities would persist. While innocence would like to leave this in the past so that the privileged can believe that this part of history doesn’t matter and that it doesn’t continue into the present day, it does. In an equally compelling argument, Michelle Alexander (2012) demonstrates the connections between slavery and the mass incarceration of black men. While innocence would demonize black men and make the case that incarceration is caused by deficient individual morality and deficient communities, the reality is that our history of slavery—particularly the role that white Americans played in, and continue to profit from—has a larger influence on the present than those with privilege would like to acknowledge. Further examples could be given. Baldwin’s point is that white Americans should know better—some, as he notes do—but to know better is to realize that one must take action. Rather than taking that action—and in the process risking one’s identity—it is easier (or so it seems) to cling to (the delusion of) innocence, even if this puts one at odds with reality.

Clinging to one’s innocence rather than taking it for granted does allow a certain amount of doubt to creep in, though. Facing the murder of civil rights activists, the murder of innocent black children, the mobs of white Americans spitting on black children on their way to attend previously all white schools, it becomes increasingly difficult for Baldwin’s contemporary readers to believe that whiteness is wholly innocent. It may be easy for a Northerner to lay the blame at the door of a handful of angry Southerners, but this excuse can’t explain the residential and other forms of segregation and discrimination happening across the country (especially in some of the most liberal Northern neighborhoods) (Hannah-Jones, 2012). At risk of realizing that one is in fact not innocent, an individual with privilege clings more desperately; creating—or revivifying—the belief that though things may seem bad, injustice is not a result of anything that she has done, can control, is implicated in, or is profiting from. But, an honest assessment of the situation should lead those in this position to believe otherwise. She is implicated, she does profit—in countless ways—from whiteness (Lipsitz, 2006). Worse still, in addition to turning her back on the reality of her lack of innocence, she also maintains a belief that America—here especially white America—is a moral beacon for the rest of the world. How can she believe this when her compatriots turned fire hoses and vicious police dogs on peaceful protestors? How can we, noncontemporary readers of Baldwin, maintain this moral high ground still in the face of ongoing injustices built upon white delusions of innocence (here we can think about, to give just a few examples, the resegregation of our schools, the white response to Hurricane Katrina, the school to prison pipeline, and the killing on unarmed black men by police and those who believe black Americans need to be policed (Anderson, 2010; Fink, 2013; Frankenberg  & Orfield, 2012; Russell-Brown, 2009)? Baldwin believes that white Americans protect their

moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster. (p. 129)

Here is a point where a reader may feel that Baldwin is exaggerating; that his prophetic voice is leading him astray. Before drawing this conclusion, readers need to ask: How else should Baldwin feel? How can a moral nation allow young people to suffer injustice simply because they are black? How can that same moral nation turn and judge those black children as deficient, even as that moral nation does everything that it can to preserve its own privilege? How can white Americans continue to ignore the reality of life in this nation and maintain their belief that they are not only above reproach, they are far more moral than any other nation that has every existed?

White innocence is a morally dishonest attempt to deflect attention away from reality. White innocence claims its virtue, in part, by vilifying those it subjects to injustice as deficient. Instead of exploring the structural injustice and racism that creates and sustains inequalities, innocence is assured of its virtue because it has the power to live lives of material prosperity. Instead of working to change the systems that preserve the types of power that lead to prosperity it is easy to feel that one is really—ultimately—not implicated in the systems of power that guarantee privilege. This system clearly harms those being oppressed, but it also harms the oppressor. Not only can the oppressor not see reality, he believes that he is virtuous and that his culture and his values are to be emulated. Instead of realizing he is where he is because of injustice, he tells himself that he is good; that he wants to do other people the favor of allowing them to take on his values.7 But—and this is key—though the oppressor may not see reality, the oppressed do. Blessed with a second sight (Du Bois, 1903), they understand the myth of “middle-class” values and though they may be forced to contend with these values in order to make a way in an unjust world, they can see them for what they are: myths that sustain and justify white oppression.


White innocence is maintained because a myth is difficult to challenge if the people telling—and perpetuating—the myth have the power to enforce its vision of reality. Power allows for the presumption of virtue and innocence. Baldwin’s analysis of the interrelations between power, innocence and virtue is what I take to be one of his most important contributions to demonstrating a central delusion of whiteness. Here is Baldwin’s analysis from The Fire Next Time.

In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who had profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection. (p. 300)

Equating virtue with well-being allows those who enjoy material prosperity to therefore also believe they are virtuous. The hypocrisy of this attitude is clearly apparent: the slave-holder and the slave-trader may be materially prosperous; it doesn’t make sense to automatically assume that they are, then, also good. The factory owner who uses child labor (or who doesn’t pay fair wages, or who pollutes the environment) may be rich, but—again—it is foolish to assume that this same person is also automatically good. I think the hypocrisy point is straightforward. But, Baldwin isn’t interested in exposing the hypocrisy of this view (it is clear enough to anyone who thinks about it); rather, Baldwin wants his reader to think about what it means to live in a world where—despite the hypocrisy—this vision of reality is enforced as true. Because the judges, the juries, the shotguns, and the law are white, white people can continue to believe that black Americans are where they are—that is, less materially prosperous, on average, than white people—because they lack virtue or are deficient in some way. This deficit minded way of thinking about nonwhite Americans is still with us today (Brown, 2011; Valencia, 1997). But Baldwin doesn’t just want to demonstrate the harms of deficit thinking. He wants his white reader to think about what it means to allow one’s personal virtue or vice to be cast in the terms of the “Puritan-Yankee equation.” If it might be true that black Americans are less materially prosperous because of injustice and not because of lack of virtue, can prosperous white Americans be so sure that they are virtuous?

These questions begin to get at the heart of the matter for Baldwin. Though each person knows—even if she may not be able to fully acknowledge the point—that she must do the difficult work of assessing the value of her life and how closely it approximates virtue, when one can simply presume one’s virtue, what would realistically motivate anyone to undergo this difficult work? As Baldwin writes,

This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks (intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so), and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared. Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it. (p. 302)

Why trade superiority and power for the chance to realize that one might not be as good or as innocent as one believed oneself to be? The final sentence of this quotation describes the reality of what it means to be born black in a world where power deems that blackness is inferior to whiteness. This idea has been given full expression in Toni Morrison’s (1970) The Bluest Eye,8 but I also want to consider the implied counterpoint. Before a white child perceives what it means to be born entitled, before he can understand it, he is controlled by it.9 A striking reminder of this is Toni Morrison’s (2004) moving photography compilation of the journey to school integration. Looking at the faces of white children resisting integration (before they can even really understand what they are doing) and seeing the young white child dressed in miniature Ku Klux Klan regalia (p. 30), a reader has to wonder: What does this do to the white psyche? More, as parents continue to warn their children about certain towns, or families, or individuals as “unsafe” or “less than,” how can a white American ever disentangle fully from her privilege and so begin the difficult work of finding out who she really is, and what her life is really worth?

White Americans are implicated in injustice and benefit from this injustice on a daily basis. As Baldwin writes,

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. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. (p. 292)

Presuming virtue—instead of making the effort to achieve it—can only lead to moral and epistemic distortions and delusions that can—to echo Baldwin—turn an individual and a culture monstrous. Innocence needs to be disavowed in exchange for the possibility of growth. This exchange is not without great cost. In the next section I turn to the challenges of taking steps in the direction of disavowing innocence as a means to achieving one’s better self and our better society.


Doubt settles in. What if innocence and virtue cannot be presumed; what if presumed superiority is a myth; what if what is taken to be valuable and good is fundamentally wrong? Living this realization can exact a great cost. Values and identity are unsettled. Unsettled, it is difficult to find a path forward. Where can firm ground be found when what served as a touchstone in the past has been discovered to be a source of error? Baldwin writes,

Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is our of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. (p. 294)

A white reader attempting to think with Baldwin in this passage must ask the seemingly simple question: What do I know about what it means to live as a black American? Here it is important to distinguish between knowingness and understanding (Lear, 1998; Sedgwick, 1993). Knowingness is a stance that allows an individual to maintain epistemic confidence even when she hasn’t done the work to earn that confidence. Knowingness is a strategy used to make it appear as if we are addressing topics that we aren’t truly examining, and that we have no intention of making the subject of serious public discussion or private reflection. When we claim to “already know” something, there is no reason to look again, subjecting our thinking to serious critique. Baldwin’s quote reminds us that though there was a lot of talk about the “Negro problem” when he was writing, and though sociologists and others were publishing reports on this “problem” and its potential solutions, the work was stymied by knowingness. This is not a new problem. When W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) was working on The Souls of Black Folk, the language of sociology was dominated by the voice of the “car-window sociologist.” While these sociologists “gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.” Black Americans are the fixed star that allows white Americans to maintain ignorance even while they presume to know everything worth knowing about the black experience in America.

Knowingness is not a new problem, but it is not one that is behind us either. A dramatic example of knowingness can be seen in responses to Hurricane Katrina. Black and white Americans were—according to published survey results—deeply divided in their interpretations of how the government responded to the victims of Katrina. For example, 66% of surveyed black Americans believed that the government would have moved faster to help the victims if they were white; only 17% of white Americans felt the same way. Similarly, 71% of black respondents agreed that racial inequality is still a major problem, while only 32% of white Americans agreed (Pew Research, 2005).10 Unfortunately, these divided interpretations often only reinforce the belief that white Americans have nothing to learn; that they already know everything worth knowing. This is a dangerous mindset. Each of us needs to allow the testimony and the lives of others to unsettle our beliefs. But, if privileged white Americans do not trust the testimony and the experiences of Americans who are not white like they are, then they will not learn (Frank, 2013b; Fricker, 2007). Regarding Katrina, white Americans did not fully appreciate Judith Shklar’s (1990) insight that, “the line of separation between injustice and misfortune is a political choice, not a simple rule that can be taken as a given” (p. 5). It is too easy to see Katrina as a tragedy and not an injustice. While white Americans certainly “feel bad” for those effected by the storm and its aftermath, most will stop short from seeing the many active, passive, and structural injustices that made the storm as devastating as it was. Similarly, Americans getting information about Katrina from the mainstream media were bombarded with stories of black men looting the city, shooting at aid workers and helicopters, raping women, and—generally—doing everything they could to detract from efforts aimed at bringing stability to the area. As we learned later, these reports were “grossly exaggerated or completely unsubstantiated” (Harris & Carbado, 2006, p. 98; see also Russell-Brown, 2006). Still, the damage was done. Instead of holding individuals and organizations responsible for their injustices—past and present—too many Americans chose knowingness. Black Americans most affected by the storm were seen as: “undeserving, and inherently criminal” (Harris & Carbado, 2006, p. 97). Why were so many so willing to jump to this conclusion (and why do so many of us still see the aftermath through the lens of unsubstantiated accounts of black criminality)? While the media failed in its reporting, “the important part of this story is not that the media failed to observe the basic rules of journalism; it is that the story they told was one people were all too ready to accept. It was a narrative that made sense within the commonly accepted racial frames of law and order and black criminality” (Harris & Carbado, 2006, p. 102).

Baldwin hopes to unsettle this narrative; he wants these “same old stories” that continue to be told about black Americans to stop making sense (see also Brown, 2011). Black Americans are not a fixed star that can be used to reinforce a preferred vision of reality. Instead, white Americans need to be open to the possibility of learning, even—or especially—when what they have to learn is unsettling and difficult (Diamond, 2008; Frank, 2014). As Patricia Williams (1997) puts it, “Our rescue, our deliverance perhaps, lies in the possibility of listening across that great divide [of race and racism], of being surprised by the Unknown, by the unknowable” (p. 74). I open this section wondering how we might find a path forward. To find the path knowingness must be traded for an acceptance of all that isn’t known: the reality that when it comes to understanding across the great divide of race, much remains unknown. A white American does not know what it means to be born black in America. As Baldwin writes,

I know the conditions under which you were born, for I was there. Your countrymen were not there, and haven’t made it yet. Your grandmother was also there…I suggest the innocents check with her. She isn’t hard to find. Your countrymen don’t know that she exists, either, though she has been working for them all their lives. (p. 292)

The journey away from innocence must begin with the acknowledgement that there is more to learn than can be imagined. If Baldwin’s white readers could listen, they would find just how much they have to learn by checking with someone like Baldwin’s grandmother. Those with privilege have to learn how to listen to the lived experience of those who they are unlike, and they have to learn how to respond to—and live a life in accordance with—the implications of what is heard. This is tremendously frightening. Thinking back to how deeply divided responses are to public events like Katrina, what would it mean for a white American to move away from a belief that race didn’t play a role in how the government responded to the storm and to a belief that racism might play a major role in almost every aspect of our lives together as Americans? Re-sounding Baldwin, white Americans haven’t made it yet. So much of our shared life as Americans does not register, does not even exist, for those who have the privilege to ignore and deny the significance of any experience that doesn’t conform to what privilege would like to be the case, even when privilege should know that its vision of reality is exclusionary and often delusional (see also Pohlhaus, 2012).

Change—even desired change—is difficult. How much more so is what Baldwin is asking. He asks his readers to divest themselves of their privilege in order to learn difficult truths that will unsettle their identities and their values. Why would anyone do this? Love of truth comes to mind, but it is easy to choose a preferred vision of reality over what is actually the case. Baldwin develops this line of thinking in an important direction,

Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors. He is inescapable aware, nevertheless, that he is in a better position in the world than black men are, nor can he quite put to death a suspicion that he is hated by black man therefore. He does not wish to be hated, neither does he wish to change places, and at this point in his uneasiness he can scarcely avoid having recourse to those legends which white men have created about black men, the most usual effect of which is that the white man finds himself enmeshed, so to speak, in his own language which describes hell, as well as the attributes which lead one to hell, as being black as night. (p. 122)

As good as we are at avoiding change, the truth manages to finds its way. Listen again to Baldwin’s language: He is inescapably aware; he cannot put to death a suspicion; he cannot resist the uneasiness; he is enmeshed in his own language. Even as familiar ways of thinking are sought as solace, there is a sense that something is not right with those ways of thinking; as much as myths block out, the truth is unavoidable. This comes out most clearly, according to Baldwin, in moments when white Americans are inescapably aware that they may be hated—and with reason—by black Americans, and they also realize—in that moment—that though they don’t want to be hated, they don’t want to divest themselves of the privilege and power that causes them to be worthy of hatred. Instead of facing squarely the need for change, myths are invented—myths about how power invests whiteness with virtue; myths about how those without power and privilege deserve their station because of individual and cultural deficiencies—these myths cannot really silence the nagging fears that to achieve virtue white Americans must face the inescapable truth of the necessity of change. As white Americans vacillate between this realization and its avoidance, they spin further and further into confusion. Like the opening of Dante’s Inferno, they find themselves lost in darkness—darkness, a white vision of hell—unable to find the path forward. So turned around, there is no way back to false beliefs, or forward on the path that might lead to something like redemption.


Though white Americans have the power to enforce their vision of reality, voices of individuals who can see through these delusions reach their ears. Counternarratives and complicating stories continue to find wider audiences, and those who benefit from silencing these stories are increasingly unable to control multiplying means of communication. As Baldwin notes in The Fire Next Time, the Nation of Islam provided a voice that made sense to many black Americans and that white America did not have the power to silence or ignore. Countless other examples come to mind: the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party, the expansion of departments of African American/Black Studies, the publication of works exhibiting such beauty and power by writers like Toni Morrison (1987a), or June Jordan (2003), or Gayl Jones (1975/1987), or Sarah E. Wright (1969/2002), or Edward P. Jones (2003); here are individuals and groups demanding a hearing, who refuse to be silenced. And though the full import of their messages have not been heard on a wide enough scale (let alone accepted and enacted), the voices cannot be silenced. A large proportion of the world’s population that was hitherto silenced is now a force. Baldwin writes,


in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjected, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long. (p. 312)

This is a powerful message. What happens when the belief that America and the West are a moral force that is meant to be the salvation of the world is reexamined? One half of Baldwin’s message is critical. Americans who hold this belief will be forced to discard many of the assumptions that they have used to justify their lives and their crimes. Instead of taking for granted that American interventions in world affairs are always magnanimous peacekeeping efforts, it is possible to begin seeing that America—and Americans—engage in war for a myriad of other reasons, many of which may have little to do with magnanimity or morality at all. In the process, things that have been taken as sacred—for example, the idea of the “greatest generation” (Rose, 2007)—may need to be discarded, and the justificatory practices that are used to make sense of moral and political decisions may need to be questioned. In the passage referenced above Baldwin is specifically writing about American intervention (and failure of intervention) in world affairs—particularly in countries seeking liberation from colonial power—but his message rings equally true when thinking about how white Americans are slowly awakening to the realization that the little they know about black Americans is riddled with falsehood and deliberate manipulation of the truth. What has been taken as sacred needs to be discarded as the untruth that it is. So discarded, there is very little left to justify white America’s crimes. Without the security of the myth of white—or American, or European—superiority, a white American is left bereft; compelled to do the difficult work of constructing her identity and discovering what she finds to be valuable.

Walking out of the shelter of myths that can no longer give security, this individual finds herself in a space where she can listen even more fully to what I take to be one of the central tenets of Baldwin’s nonfiction. Identity is an achievement, not something that can be taken for granted: the birthright of being white. Baldwin writes,

The world has prepared no place for you, and if the world had its way, no place would ever exist. Now, this is true for everyone, but, in the case of the Negro, this truth is absolutely naked: if he deludes himself about it, he will die. This is not the way this truth presents itself to white men, who believe the world is theirs and who, albeit unconsciously, expect the world to help them in the advancement of their identity. But the world does not do this—for anyone; the world is not interested in anyone’s identity. And, therefore, the anguish which can overtake a white man comes in the middle of his life, when he must make the almost inconceivable effort to divest himself of everything he has ever expected or believed, when he must take himself apart and put himself together again, walking out of the world, into limbo, or into what certainly looks like limbo. (p. 279)

There are at least two important points here. The first is roughly existential.11 We all come into a world that is not malleable to our will—if not inhospitable in countless ways—and we are forced to make our way in the full acknowledgement of this reality. But—and this is Baldwin’s second point—if one is privileged, this existential point can be eluded. That is, if one is born into privileged circumstances, then one can assume that many things are—as it were—woven into the fabric of the world. These things include (but are certainly not limited to) quality of life, health care, a good education, social standing, a house, a good job, a happy family, a successful career, and so on. But, if one is born without privilege, then these types of assumptions do not hold. Getting an education cannot be taken for granted; it is often a struggle, the outcome of which is not foretold at the outset. Access to employment, or healthcare, or adequate housing are not givens. Many white Americans did not understand this when Baldwin was writing (US Riot Commission, 1968) and judging from continued resistance to the very idea of policies designed to acknowledge this fact, white Americans continue to misunderstand.12 This misunderstanding of reality leads to policies and attitudes that often have dire implications for black Americans, and this is a large part of Baldwin’s point. But, an equally important point is that no one can hide forever from the existential point. A white American may assume that a happy family is her or his lot, but s/he can come to find—in the middle of life—that her or his family is miserable, and s/he is culpable for this misery. As secure as a white American may feel in her prosperity, a financial crisis may strike, taking away house, job, standing, sense of identity and life’s purpose. Or, the truth may wait. Like Tolstoy’s (1886/1991) Ivan Ilych the truth of our condition may only come to us at the end of our lives, when it is too late to change. Baldwin does not want this to happen to his readers and so he calls us to seek transformation now. His readers—especially his white readers—must divest themselves of what they expect and believe because of their privilege-induced vision of the world. He wants his readers to achieve their own identity and realize their own values freed from the false—and falsifying—myths perpetuated by white privilege at the cost of distancing each of us from the true and the good.

I dwell on the critical aspect of Baldwin’s message because it is important to feel its full weight. But, his message also has another dimension: release. Returning to the passage quoted earlier in this section, white Americans “will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long.” While being released from what white Americans have held to be sacred can be terribly painful, it can also be emancipatory. Taking on the mantle of moral superiority brings privilege, but it also wears thin, especially when one knows—even if one cannot fully acknowledge—that this superiority is ultimately treacherous. Why pretend to take on full responsibility for the world when many with white privilege cannot even make sense of who she is or what is worthy of her love? Why continue to justify a false sense of anguish—taking on, once again, the presumption of the “white man’s burden”—when there is release? If white Americans can reexamine their identity and their values, then they are released into what seems like a limbo. Limbo, though, does work both ways. If white Americans feel as if they are in heaven given their privileged-induced vision of the world, then they are likely to feel on the edge of hell. But, if they can see that they were previously living in untruth and delusion, then limbo becomes a place of possibility: a freeing from hell into the hope for something like salvation.   


For Baldwin, love is not an infantile sense of being happy, but a state of being, a state of grace. It is not a possession; it is something that we have to strive toward. Love unmasks illusions, allowing us the possibility to discover who we might be. It is tough, it is a quest and it calls on us to grow. I see a strong connection between the meaning of education in its broadest sense and Baldwin’s understanding of love. Although the language of care has become pervasive in the philosophy of education literature (and the educational literature more generally),13 talk of love is less prominent.14 There is likely good reason for this—it is hard to imagine a policy document, or a student teaching handbook, mandating love; unlike care it seems just too strong—even so, as we explore what Baldwin means by love, I think we will find ways to begin using the strong language of love with teachers and future teachers. Teachers, undoubtedly, have to practice care in their classrooms, but—if Baldwin’s analysis is correct—if someone is incapable of the strong love called for by Baldwin (a love for herself and for others), then her life will likely be stymied by fear and forms of delusion or falsehood, and her personal growth will remain stunted. This is not the type of teacher that our students need. While the tone of this message can feel overly judgmental, it is not meant to be so. The call to love—loving oneself and loving others—should open the door to transformative possibilities that prove motivational. That is, while culturally responsive or multicultural teacher education can make a teacher candidate feel under attack (Willingham, 2010), Baldwin’s message—while not sparing us difficult examinations of who we are and what we believe—foregrounds the possibility of personal transformation that both benefits others and can make our own life fundamentally better and more meaningful than it currently is. In a very interesting piece on James Baldwin’s work, Jason Stevens (2010) makes the important point that “Baldwin’s position is difficult because love at one and the same time must dispel illusions and also create the motive that will survive their loss” (p. 282). When we open ourselves to the possibilities of love, we do so through vulnerability.15 We realize that we must work to become worthy of love, and though the work is difficult, the promise is enough to motivate us through the process of growth and transformation. As Baldwin writes,

It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. (p. 341)

For a future teacher, there are many masks that can serve as stumbling blocks to standing in the state of grace described by Baldwin. A preservice teacher will often feel as if she must always be in the right: that her lessons have to be perfect; that she must be in complete control of her classroom; that unless she is doing everything correctly, then nothing good is happening in her classroom. Relatedly, preservice teachers often feel that the issues she will face in her classroom are problems with solutions, instead of dilemmas that she is called on to respond to in better rather than worse ways (Lampert, 1985). As well, pre-service teachers are often held captive by a distorted image of what good students and good teachers look like; an image derived from a very limited range of experience (Feimen-Nemser & Buchmann, 1985; Kennedy, 1999). Teachers cannot live within these masks, but it can feel terrifying to confront the possibility that teaching is something like an experiment in living (Anderson, 1991); that much of the job means dwelling in uncertainty (Floden & Buchmann, 1993; Jackson, 1986); and that we are always in the process of becoming better: we can never claim the mantle of the good teacher as our possession. Teaching—like love—is a quest; a quest that involves daring and growth. As Baldwin puts it, “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is growing up” (p. 220).

The rewards and pains of teaching—like those of love—are hard to imaginatively project before we are immersed in the work of education. When I ask my students why they are interested in teaching (in the introductory course I teach to first year undergraduates who plan to become teachers), students—particularly students who want to teach in the elementary classroom—will generally answer: Because I love children. I don’t think this type of response is uncommon and I don’t think it should be disparaged or discouraged; but, I also don’t think the trajectory that this love takes is difficult to foresee. Many students begin with an appreciation for children that they know personally—nieces, nephews, children they have babysat—and for the children they were given the opportunity to work with as a high school student in activities like tutoring or a Teacher Cadet Program. But, as they begin taking more responsibility for teaching an entire group of students; as they begin recognizing the full range of content they are responsible for teaching given the standards they are working with; as they begin to realize the distances that exist between themselves and some of their students (Villegas & Lucas, 2002; Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke, & Curran, 2004); as they begin to realize the pressures that exist outside of their classroom that exert a powerful influence on the types of things  they can do within their classroom (Wills & Sandholtz, 2009); they begin to realize that a general appreciation—or “love”—for children will not be enough to carry them through their career as an educator. Though they begin their teacher preparation thinking that love means an ability to connect with individual students, they begin to see that the love that makes a teacher find meaning and strength through her career is tough: “love is a battle, love is a war; love is growing up.” A teacher must resist external pressures—from administrators, policy makers, and the public—in order to allow her students to thrive. A teacher must resist cultural and other stereotypes in order to create opportunities for her students to thrive (Steele, 1997). A teacher must resist her own feelings of self-doubt and fear. A teacher must resist making her curriculum fit external audit assessments and make it worthy of her aspirations for what teaching and learning should look like (Tomlinson, 2001; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). The love that a teacher develops for her students does not look like what she imagined it would look like as a preservice educator just beginning her journey. She comes to realize that she must fight for her students in ways she never imagined; she comes to realize that she must shed illusions about what it means to be a good student and a good teacher in order to be there—through withitness (Kounin, 1970), or as a warm demander (Ware, 2006)—for her students. Through these realizations she doesn’t become disillusioned; instead, these realizations teach her that the process of trading illusions for truth frees her for greater possibilities: greater possibilities for herself and her students.


For these reasons—and I hope we can think of many others—Baldwin’s thinking on love is a very useful lens with which to view the work of teaching. Before turning more directly to teaching and teacher education (something I will do in the final section), it is important to get an even fuller understanding of what Baldwin means by love and why it is significant for how we think about personal and social change. Baldwin makes a number of important points in this long quotation from The Fire Next Time:

And therefore when the country speaks of a “new” Negro, which it has been doing every hour on the hour for decades, it is not really referring to a change in the Negro, which, in any case, it is quite incapable of assessing, but only to a new difficulty in keeping him in his place, to the fact that it encounters him (again! again!) barring yet another door to its spiritual and social ease. This is probably, hard and odd as it may sound, the most important thing that one human being can do for another—it is certainly one of the most important things; hence the torment and necessity of love—and this is the enormous contribution that the Negro has made to this otherwise shapeless and undiscovered country. Consequently, white Americans are in nothing more deluded than in supposing that Negroes could ever have imagined that white people would “give” them anything. It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving. (pp. 335– 336)

Barring the door to spiritual and social ease is one of the most important things that we can do for one another; hence the torment and necessity of love. This is the first aspect of the above quotation that I will focus on.16 Baldwin—as he often does—reminds his reader that the “Negro problem,” or the “new Negro” are concepts and thoughts that say more about white Americans and their moral psychology than it does about black Americans. Building on this point, Baldwin develops a generative tension that few white Americans can fully appreciate. While white Americans feel called to “give” to black Americans—integrating “their” schools, sharing “their” opportunities—the terrible truth is that white Americans have everything to gain by appreciating what it means that the reality of injustice bars the door to spiritual and social ease. Black Americans—their strength, their persistence and virtues in the face of cruelty and injustice—are a reminder for white Americans—according to Baldwin—that things are not right.

Noting this, I hope it is clear that Baldwin is not, in any way, justifying injustice because it serves the purposes of (white) growth. The reality of injustice should compel white Americans to resist complicity and strive—with vigilance—for their better self and our better society (Applebaum, 2013), unlearning habits of mind and heart that keep them from seeing the extent and implications of privilege (Cochran-Smith, 2003). But—and this is a point Baldwin makes in many of his essays—we live in a strange world when we need injustice in order to realize that transformative change through love is the only life worth living.

This leads to the second aspect of the above quotation I will focus on: giving. The privileged always stand in a position to give. Positioned with power, every act that isn’t wholly directed toward one’s self and one’s own feels magnanimous. The privileged “give to charity,” “give to those less fortunate,” and so on. While there is nothing particularly wrong with transferring some of one’s large sum of capital to those with less capital, Baldwin thinks it is wrong to call these activities giving. Similarly, while one may “volunteer,” the experience is not one of giving unless risk is involved. And, unless one is willing to risk one’s self, then—as pleasant as the feelings are you may receive from your act—giving is impossible. To experience the transformative power of love, one must be capable of giving. But, if one is incapable of taking risks, then one cannot give, and so—in turn—cannot experience love. Privilege leads to epistemologies of ignorance that shield those in privilege from knowing what things cost (Sullivan & Tuana, 2007). Cost has multiple meanings: as a volunteer, for example, we don’t know what the cost of our intrusion into the lives of other people is; we don’t know—we choose to be ignorant of—how structural injustices operate to keep us in the position of the so-called giver, and “them” in the position of “being in need.” The privileged feel that they are taking risks going into “bad neighborhoods” to “help,” but everything remains the same when they return home. Here it is important to note that Baldwin is not necessarily calling for radical social action. The real issue is the bad faith (Sartre, 1943/1984) that keeps those with privilege from examining their lives and its multiple effects on others. To take a simple example, imagine a teacher who spends a good deal of time volunteering at a soup kitchen. This experience makes her feel that she is giving to others, and it also makes her feel like she knows something about the lives of those who live in poverty. This same teacher—when she is in her classroom—retreats to a belief that she should treat all of her students the same way, and so cannot understand why anything like culturally responsive pedagogies are necessary. Thinking about this example, we can see how the so-called risks that this imagined teacher takes outside of the classroom do not undercut—and may even reinforce—teaching practices that do not serve all of her students.

Another way of making this point is to see that one of the biggest risks we can take is listening.17 Listening is risky, because if we really listen, we should be unsettled. Miranda Fricker (2007) forcefully makes this point when she discusses epistemic injustice.18 The testimony of those who are positioned differently in—and by—society often goes unheard simply by virtue of that person’s positionality. This constitutes an epistemic injustice because we lose access to the truth. We do not judge the epistemic merits of the individual’s testimony; we simply dismiss it given where she is positioned. Something similar happens in cases of hermeneutic injustice. Hermeneutic injustice occurs when a speaker cannot express the truth of her condition due to a lack of epistemic resources. For example, before we had the language of sexual harassment, it was difficult for those subjected to sexual harassment to speak the truth of their experience. This led to injustice: perpetrators of sexual harassment could continue their deplorable behavior given a lacuna in our collective epistemic resources. Taking epistemic injustice seriously should give us pause. We have to wonder: Am I actually listening to the testimony of others, or am I dismissing it due to nonepistemic reasons? Similarly, we have to ask ourselves: When a person struggles to express herself, might this be a case of the speaker experiencing an injustice due to a gap, or a lack, in our collective epistemic resources? In both of these cases—testimonial and hermeneutic injustice—the listener is called to take risks. She cannot rely on her rehearsed responses (Auden, 1989, p. 7), she must be willing to let the experience of another person educate her own understanding of her self and the world. It is important to stress just how difficult this work is; just how risky it is. As Pohlhaus (2012) notes, “such arduously honed concepts like “white privilege,” “date rape,” or “heteronormativity”” (p. 722), continue to be dismissed by individuals who benefit from dismissing them. If we were to take these concepts seriously, then—at the least—our image of who we are and the world we inhabit will begin to change. Again, radical social change may not immediately follow, but Baldwin is confident that what may seem like a minor change will have major ramifications.

We cannot possibly find our way forward unless we learn what love is. Love is not guarding and keeping a way of life that is built on delusion and oppression. Love means being willing to admit that—before others who know better than we do—we are always in the wrong.19 This position does not lead to inaction; it should be motivating. We should want to become our better self when we realize how far we have to grow. Love is a state of grace that allows us to see that we need to grow and that—given the support and pressure of another (or others)—we can indeed move beyond where we currently stand. Whiteness and privilege are stunting. As humbling or difficult as it may seem, we (and here I especially mean those of us who are white or who are privileged in some way) need to become vulnerable. We need to position ourselves as learners. The world and other people have much to teach us. So long as we remain wrapped and warped in a feeling of wronged, indignant, or indifferent righteousness, we will never experience the saving power of education. But, once we realize all there is to learn; once we embrace this realization in a spirit of trust, we can begin the work of transformation. And, as we become our better self, we also express our belief that we can become better collectively. Individual growth through love becomes a catalyst for social change.

Love is not a possession, it is the process of aspiring to our better self by making ourselves vulnerable to the reality that we may be wrong, often profoundly so. We risk this vulnerability because we begin to see that clinging to assumed virtue and innocence leads us into a space of delusion: deluded about the world we live in, deluded about the lives of other people, deluded—even—about who we are. And—as I have tried to stress—embracing love has a positive—in addition to this critical—dimension. While love allows us to see all the ways in which we are wrong, it also offers us hope of breaking from a past where we are incapable of realizing a better future. It is—as Baldwin writes—something like a state of grace. It is a place where we trust that—somehow—we can find a way to accept ourselves (even in the ways we are wrong) with love and find a way to struggle—with others—into our better future together.


Baldwin’s message is that change is difficult, but necessary. There are critical and positive aspects of his call. On the critical side, Baldwin exposes the pitfalls of innocence, and asks white Americans to choose maturity and growth over clinging to innocence. He demonstrates how a belief in innocence leads away from reality: into delusions about personal identity and the world. White Americans need to trade the presumption of innocence for the possibilities of growth. The trade is not an easy one. If you can take your virtue and goodness as a given, why change? This is where Baldwin’s positive message comes in. Baldwin reminds his readers of their nagging doubts. He reminds them that there are moments in life when it is possible to realize that things are not as they should be. Young children are being murdered; peaceful protesters are being violently attacked; America—despite loud protestations to the contrary—is fighting (in the North and the South) to maintain a world where whites can realize privileges that are not—and should never be—opened to anyone else. These nagging doubts lead to a belief that maybe one isn’t as good as one thinks. These doubts lead to a reexamination of one’s own life, forcing questions like: Am I actually happy? Am I actually good? Is the life I am living and passing on to my children one that I should be proud of? Once these questions are asked, white Americans find themselves in limbo. They can retreat back to previous beliefs, but in taking this action, they know they are retreating. That is, they see that there is the possibility for something better, and they are making the choice not to pursue that possibility. In a way the very fact of having to make this choice—of realizing that one is giving up on the possibility of something better—proves educative in some way. Baldwin believes that once we get to a state of limbo, once we really appreciate that we can become better, we will do what we can to try to change. We will step into that limbo, ready to learn; ready to listen to truths that we have blocked, knowing that they would be too unsettling to our identity and our values. Though the process of listening and learning will be difficult, once we step into our limbo in a spirit of vulnerability—knowing we are wrong but open to the possibilities of finding the better—we know there is no way back. We are no longer running from the love we so cunningly avoid; we make the effort to stand in the grace of love, seeing that it is our only hope for realizing a better future.  


Baldwin’s only direct message to teachers is the powerful address “A Talk to Teachers.” In this brief address, Baldwin is primarily focused on the world of the black child; what a teacher needs to know about the world in order to begin appreciating what it might mean to begin understanding how difficult it is to be black in school. Education—as Baldwin notes—is about transformation, but education is also about transmission. In American schools, transmission often trumps transformation. This means, according to Baldwin, that black children are not really encouraged to question the structural injustices of whiteness in school, they are taught to accept these injustices as inevitable while expressing gratitude to the white world for the so-called opportunity provided by this education. Baldwin encourages teachers to show black children that the world can be transformed; that it demands transformation. Education that doesn’t do this for every child does not deserve the title. “A Talk to Teachers,” makes this point powerfully and poignantly, and as Baldwin’s only work directly focused on education, it deserves the attention of teachers and teacher educators. Saying this—and as I hope this article demonstrates—Baldwin has much more to say to teachers. In the following sections I draw out what I take to be some of the main implications of Baldwin’s nonfiction for teacher educators.

Innocence and cruelty

Innocence is a delusion that is sustained by privilege. Adults who claim innocence are deluded into thinking that we aren’t all—and those with privilege especially—complicit in countless injustices that should quickly give the lie to our innocence. As I mention above, it is not the case—for Baldwin—that the opposite of innocence is guilt. Rather, realizing that our claim to innocence is delusional, we are set on the path toward growth. Innocence is not a refuge or a worthy goal; it is a stumbling block toward the realization of the better: our better self and our better world. This is one of the lessons of innocence for teachers, but it is not the only one.

A related lesson for teachers is that seeing childhood through the lens of innocence often keeps us from meeting the needs of all of our students. If innocence is our ideal for childhood, then children who have experienced cruelty or difficulty from birth are often seen as less-than, deficient. A teacher can—consciously, but more often not—spend less time with this child, because her “innocence” is already lost. As well, the lens of innocence can cause a teacher to see innocence where it doesn’t exist. The very image of innocence (for too many teachers)—the young well-dressed blonde child from a “good” home with “good” parents—can mask the reality of a child’s life. Perceptions of innocence are faulty, and they can lead a teacher to see innocence where it doesn’t exist (and so fail to address the needs of these children) or put such a premium on a certain vision of innocence that those who don’t fit this image are seen as deficient (and so are neglected as well).

There is another pitfall to innocence. A belief in innocence can keep a teacher from seeing the cruelty that happens in school. Vivian Paley (1993) offers a telling example of this point. While teaching kindergarten, Paley is struck by the fact that teachers allow exclusion to exist from the time a child is able to practice it. She notices that though children follow classroom rules that promote kindness and community, her kindergarteners—on the playground or during playtime—will often tell another child, “You can’t play.” The more she thought about this form of exclusion, the more she saw this happening in school and the more she thought about its effects. Children who consistently tell others that they cannot play or who are told that they cannot play develop habits of mind and heart of lasting significance. To Baldwin, Paley’s findings would be no surprise. He writes,

The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others. (p. 173)

Being told: “You can’t play,” may seem trivial (possibly because it is so commonplace), but I agree with Paley that it is not. Though many of us might like to believe that childhood is a time of kindness and innocence, Paley—and Baldwin—remind us that the world of children very much reflects the types of lives that adults lead. In a world structured by injustice and white privilege, I think we are foolish to believe that our children don’t follow the only models they have: us. The lesson for teachers here is the importance of seeing what is happening in classrooms and not filtering vision through the distorting lens of innocence. Children—like adults—need love; the love that sees each child for who she is and who she can become. This love takes work, and a belief in innocence is inimical to its creation. Paley took a stand and told her kindergarteners: “You can’t say you can’t play.” The children resisted, but she stood strong. Paley’s stand is only one of many that a teacher can take. When we lose the lens of innocence, then we can begin to see the overt cruelty and the microaggressions that can permeate the lives of our classrooms, even in the earliest grades.20

To conclude, teacher educators need to help future teachers see what innocence reveals, conceals, and makes (im)possible. This can be difficult—especially for students preparing to teach in the earlier grades—because our social imagination puts a high premium on delusions of innocence and its exemplars: White children living without cares in a world that does not—and probably never did—exist. When teachers try to unlearn this vision, they can feel adrift. A teacher can no longer classify students into those who should be pitied (because they don’t fit the ideal of innocence) or protected (because they seem to have maintained innocence). Instead, a teacher is now put in a position to see her job as liberating every child’s potential for growth. Preservation of innocence—or lamentations (that can lead to neglect) over lost innocence—are not a teacher’s calling. Rather, a teacher is called to see the difficult reality (Diamond, 2008) of every child’s life, and to promote an ideal of growth (as opposed to an ideal of innocence) for each and every child in her classroom.

Future teachers need to see growth as their ideal (for themselves and for their students) and not the pursuit of innocence. I believe the most practical way for future teachers to realize this goal is through guided reflection.21 As teacher educators, we have to provide future teachers with ample opportunities to think about how their perceptions of students might be stymied by the distorting lens of innocence. To start, future teachers need to see how good assessment practices can disrupt distorting visions of students. Too many students are placed in ability groups based on a teacher’s intuition and not on what data tells the teacher. As teacher educators, we have to work to help future teachers see through falsifying forms of intuition and to what is actually happening in their classroom. Good formative assessments can help a teacher see that a student she may feel is “unruly” or “a problem,” is actually acting the way she or he is because her needs are not being met. We—as teacher educators—need to make sure our students are collecting a great deal of data on each student, and that this data—and not faulty intuition—is being used to develop instructional plans that meet the needs of each student. As well, teachers need to be aware of the cruelty that occurs in classrooms and its manifold effects. Instead of presuming the innocence of youth, teacher educators need to help future teachers think about how children are impacted by cruelty outside of the classroom (as Baldwin writes, children “are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others”) and we need to help future teachers be more attuned to the cruelty that happens in schools. Teachers cannot let their own presumptions and perceptions keep them from disrupting cruelty. As teacher educators we need to provide students with opportunities to think about how cruelty operates in their own classroom. We do this—as teacher educators—not to dishearten or disillusion our students, but to empower them to be the type of teacher who puts growth before delusions of innocence. A teacher who—like Vivian Paley—can see cruelty where many others see “the normal,” is a teacher who can make the lives of children better. As teacher educators, we should aspire to give our students this type of vision. Helping students come to the realization that working against cruelty—and not the pursuit (or preservation) of innocence—is of the utmost importance, is one of the most important things we can do to promote this vision. Racial microaggressions, overt racism, homophobia, ableism, sexism, sexual harassment, and exclusionary practices even more broadly construed, are very real experiences for too many students, and they happen earlier than many teachers would like to think. Though it may seem—especially given all of the very real pressures that teachers are under (Santoro, 2011)—counterproductive to add the pressure of putting cruelty first (Shklar, 1982) in classrooms, I have to believe that our children would be better served if their teachers were even more fully attuned to the roles that cruelty plays in—and outside of—school.

Fear and tenacious understanding

When the presumption of innocence is called into question and when the reality of cruelty’s pervasiveness is acknowledged, fear sets in. A white teacher candidate, in particular, can feel her world upended and her values—and what she finds valuable—called into question. Instead of presuming her innocence, she begins to see the many ways in which she is implicated in injustice. As a part of this process, she begins to see the differences between understanding and knowingness. Knowingness is stance we take to preserve our identity at the cost of foreclosing the possibilities of learning. A white American will often find it tremendously difficult to admit how little she actually knows about the lives of others differently positioned in—and by—society, and instead of embracing this type of vulnerability—the acknowledgement of just how much she has to learn—she can retreat into knowingness. As teacher educators, it is very important that we understand the feeling of limbo that many future teachers will experience in the process of making themselves receptive and vulnerable to the education that we are providing them. We teacher educators have to be understanding—that is, we have to appreciate just how difficult identity development and self-transformation can be—while also being tenacious in our quest to make sure that future teachers do not backslide into knowingness and a stance of invulnerability. Tenacious understanding: As teacher educators we need to find ways to think and feel with our students in their fear, even as we continue to demonstrate why their future students deserve teachers who can transform this fear into a desire to learn, even—or especially—when learning proves most unsettling and challenging.

Karen Lowenstein (2009) makes the interesting point that the language of teacher education—when it comes to white teacher candidates—may inadvertently take a deficit stance. That is, while whiteness does, in many ways, define a teacher candidate, it is not the case that whiteness determines what a teacher candidate is capable of. We—as teacher educators—need to be tenacious in our work to root out the pernicious influence of white privilege as it operates in the lives of teachers, but we also need to be understanding of all that transcends and complicates white privilege in the lives of the future teachers we are working with. In a "Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" (the short first essay from The Fire Next Time), James Baldwin addresses his nephew James. He writes,  

I don’t know if you’ve known anybody from that far back; if you’ve loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort. (p. 291)

Baldwin here is describing the relationship he has with his brother, his nephew’s father. Baldwin changed his brother’s diapers; he watched him play and develop in his childhood, his boyhood, and his youth. Baldwin saw his brother develop into an adult and become a father of his own. Knowing anyone in this way—and for this amount of time—gives you a strange perspective on human pain and effort. When you know anyone in this way, you develop what Iris Murdoch (1971/2001) describes as “loving attention” (esp. pp. 36–39). Loving attention fundamentally changes the moral world we inhabit.22 Baldwin emphasizes this point in his letter to his nephew, and reminds him that the white world does not know him and does not care to know him. Because of this, the white world will make many proclamations about his behavior and his potential, but these proclamations will all be marred with misunderstanding because these people do not know him with loving attention. We work against this misunderstanding by attempting to see with loving attention; loving attention: the understanding that develops between people who take the time to learn about each other, seeing in each other more potential than either may know to exist, while not letting the other rest easeful in flaws and limitations.

As teacher educators, we need to bring this loving attention to our work. Our students—future teachers—need to feel and know that they are understood in their individuality. We need to aspire to the type of vision that can discern a student’s life story in her fears, her hopes, her gestures, her successes, her failures. Though we must be tenacious in our pursuit of social justice, we need to be equally tenacious in doing justice to understanding the lives of each of our students. Loving attention, attempting to see our students through this lens, should not be confused with giving our students a pass. Loving attention is contrasted with misunderstanding, not with shallow forgiveness or indulgence. A friend—a parent, a teacher—who sees with loving attention breaks the mirror; as Baldwin writes, it is a type of “Love [that] takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” (p. 341). This is what we need to aspire to as teachers of future teachers. We need to help our students confront their fears and work against injustices, but we have to realize that we can only do this when we understand their fears and see those fears with loving attention. I believe this is a very difficult balance to strike, but I also believe that the concept of tenacious understanding is one that will prove useful as we try to push our students as they develop into the type of teacher who embraces the unsettlement of identity when they know that this unsettlement leads away from knowingness and to the type of stance that will lead to a deeper (and more tenacious) understanding of their own students. That is, when our students trust that we understand who they are as individuals, they will be more willing to undergo the difficult work of unlearning privilege and working—with the utmost tenacity—at becoming the type of teacher who risks vulnerability for the sake of growth: her own growth as a teacher and the growth of each one of her students.

Love and growth

As a teacher educator, James Baldwin forces me to return to the question: Am I seeking the possibilities of love, or am I standing (or resting) content in the comforting myths and stories that are readily available to me? Do I—every day—seek to challenge myself—my identity, my privilege, what I claim to know—or do I find ways to silence (or ignore) the types of criticism that I need to hear if I am to become the type of teacher I know my students deserve?

Baldwin has taught me that possession is antithetical to growth. We—as teachers and teacher educators—are always in the process of becoming. Claiming—or presuming—the title of the good teacher, we stand in front of our students—future teachers—as representatives of a type of invulnerability that forecloses meaningful growth and development. As difficult as it is, it is important to remain vulnerable; representing a life lived in the belief that love discloses possibilities to those who are able to withstand the fears and the limbo of not knowing. This process does not end. The more love discloses, the more we realize the need for growth. And, the more we grow, the more love discloses to us. As teacher educators, I feel we are called to be this type of exemplar for our students. Our students need to see that we are—just as they are—on our way. Teaching is a process of becoming. Becoming a better teacher doesn’t make us more certain; it makes us more open to vulnerability and the possibilities of growth. While this vision can feel terrifying, Baldwin’s message is that it should prove liberating. We are not called to perfection or to guarding ourselves against warranted criticism. Instead, we are called to the joy of realizing how much we have to learn and how far we can grow as teachers and as women and men. The final line from John Dewey’s (1916) Democracy and Education captures this nicely: “Interest in learning from all the contacts of life is the essential moral interest” (p. 360). Note that Dewey is not making the strong point that learning from all the contacts is the essential moral interest; it is interest in learning that is important. Being vulnerable makes us interested in learning. We never get to the point where we have learned all of the lessons that experience can teach, but we can always stand as a representative; we can be an example of someone who takes an interest in learning these lessons. This example is tremendously important for our future teachers to experience. More, we need to help our students—future teachers—see vulnerability as something that is both risky and educative. Knowing that we have room to grow can be overwhelming at points in our career, but as we begin to experience the transformative nature of growth through acknowledgement of our lack of understanding, it becomes something that actually sustains and empowers us as we aspire to become our better self and the best teacher possible for our students.23

I see this as one of Baldwin’s most important messages to teacher educators. Reading his nonfiction is sustaining as we make our journey to realizing our better self. Though the path is not easy, Baldwin reminds us that it is necessary. We need to be transformed, and only by seeking personal transformation will we have any hope of transforming the lives of our students. There are no guarantees, but Baldwin’s prophetic voice—I feel—remains inspiring and should command our attention and effort. By opening ourselves to the possibilities of love, we can step into a world that discloses possibilities that we are incapable of seeing when bound to the pursuit of invulnerability or blinded to because of our privilege—induced vision that distorts the reality of our world. With love, we see possibilities where others—even our previous self—see deficits; with love, we see possibilities for transforming our self when before we felt fear; with love, we see possibilities in our students that even they may fail to fully appreciate. As teacher educators, we need this love, because without it, we foreclose possibilities for growth and consign ourselves to limited—and limiting—ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.


The aim of this article is to demonstrate that James Baldwin has a great deal to offer the field of education, particularly teacher education. I hope to have succeeded in this modest endeavor. I cannot imagine a more loving interlocutor than Baldwin, and I am still in the process of learning just how much he has to teach. When you are lost, you generally know that you need a guide, but when you are lost in the bright and blinding glare of whiteness, you don’t even know you are lost. I am thankful that I found Baldwin and that his voice—his beautifully tenacious understanding voice—allowed me to accept that I was lost. Thankful he taught that though it would be difficult, seeing through whiteness would free me for possibilities—possibilities for growth and for love—that would allow me to undergo the unending journey of working against whiteness. One never arrives, but once one hears Baldwin’s call, one knows that there is no other choice than to risk vulnerability for possibility. Again, I can only hope that I have done justice to Baldwin’s prophetic call, and that this paper serves as a reminder that we—as educators, especially teacher educators—would do well to find ways to respond to his call as it reaches us in our own positionalities.

I close with two quotes about Baldwin’s influence that I believe speak directly and beautifully to why we need Baldwin’s love now more than ever. National Book Award winning poet Nikky Finney (2014) writes, “My world view was set in motion by this big, bold heart . . . Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide. Baldwin was also the priceless inheritance to anybody looking for manumission from who they didn’t want or have to be.” And, Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison (1987b) offered these reflections on the occasion of Baldwin’s death:

In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive. . . . It infuriated some people. Those who saw the paucity of their own imagination in the two-way mirror you held up to them attacked the mirror, tried to reduce it to fragments which they could then rank and grade, tried to dismiss the shards where your image and theirs remained - locked but ready to soar…But for thousands and thousands of those who embraced your text and who gave themselves permission to hear your language, by that very gesture they ennobled themselves, became unshrouded, civilized.

James Baldwin’s work remains a powerful guide for all of us who seek the better and who are willing to trade comforting, though ultimately lifeless, delusions of knowingness for the possibilities of love and growth. His call needs to reverberate, and I can only hope that re-sounding Baldwin’s call in this paper will help teacher educators envision new loving possibilities and ways of empowering their students—future teachers—to work through fear and to all that Baldwin’s love discloses and makes possible. We are all on our way, and I can only hope that this work has contributed—in some small way—to a belief that James Baldwin is a guide we teacher educators should heed and value as we struggle to realize our better self and our better world.


1. For a less recent, though even more informative, discussion of Baldwin’s shifting reputation, see Gates (1992).

2. It is important to note that when I use “they white Americans,” for example, I am implicating myself. “They white Americans” is meant distinguish between a universal “we” that clearly implicates me in the analysis but that also implicates many others who should not be implicated. So while it is awkward to refer to a “they” that also includes me, it is preferable to the alternative that implicates—for example—black Americans who are not meant to be implicated in my analysis. As the article progresses, and when I begin talking about love and vulnerability, I will often change from “they” to “we” when Baldwin’s message is meant to speak beyond whiteness.

3. There is an interesting parallel here between how Stanley Cavell (1979) thinks about how we might response to the problem of skepticism concerning other minds.

4. All references to Baldwin’s work are from Baldwin (1998).

5. As Baldwin notes “the most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, and Racine” (p. 121).

6. See, in particular, “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown.”

7. This line from Baldwin is particularly apt on this point. “Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them” (p. 293).

8. We might also consult her other novels, or Morrison’s (1990) equally powerful nonfiction.

9. For a powerful—and very early, in terms of critiques of whiteness—narrative of making the attempt to work through white privilege, see Smith (1949). For a recent historical look at this issue, see DuRocher (2011).

10. This deeply divided interpretation of public events can also be seen (to take prominent examples) in issues like the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Jena Six, and the presidency of Barack Obama.

11. For a discussion of existentialism and Baldwin, see Farneth (2013) and Lapenson (2013).

12. Many works already cited speak to this fact. For a particularly interesting analysis of this phenomenon, see Anderson (2013).

13. Language of care is pervasive, and is generally traceable back to the groundbreaking work of Noddings (1984, 2005).

14. There are, of course, exceptions. Garrison’s (1997) work on eros is very influential in the literature; as well, there is a growing body of literature on the topic (Assiter, 2013; Liston, 2000; Rocha, 2010). I see this literature only growing, especially because of the recent focus on love by an increasing number of philosophers (Cordner, 2011; Ebels-Duggan, 2008; Frankfurt, 2006; Helm, 2010; Jollimore, 2011; Kolodny, 2003; Velleman, 1999).

15. For a very interesting and important discussion of vulnerability, see Gilson (2011, 2014).

16. I discuss giving and its difficulties at the end of this section.

17. There is very rich work on this topic in the philosophy of education literature. For a good starting place, see Haroutunian-Gordon (2010).

18. For an extended discussion of this topic, see Frank (2013b).

19. Kierkegaard (1843/1993) pursues this thought in a religious direction that is not wholly consonant with Baldwin’s approach. Nonetheless, there is a lot to learn from the idea that before someone or some thing, we are always in the wrong in a way that leads the way to growth, learning and transformation. For this reason, Kierkegaard’s insight that “before God on is always in the wrong,” is useful to think with as we consider Baldwin’s position.

20. For an extremely insightful discussion of this point, see Jackson (1968/1990). As well, Frances Hawkins (1997) also exemplifies a vision that sees past platitudes and to what is happening in the lives of children.

21. For a wonderful discussion of one form that this can take, see Carini (2001) and Rogers (2011). The descriptive review process is a wonderful way to help teachers see what is happening in the classroom and not what they presume to be happening there.

22. For more on this point, see Diamond (2010) and Diamond (1991).

23. I make something of a similar point in Frank (2011).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 9, 2015, p. 1-38
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18050, Date Accessed: 7/23/2017 12:49:59 AM

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About the Author
  • Jeff Frank
    St. Lawrence University
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    JEFF FRANK is a teacher educator at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. His most recent work, “Mitigating Against Epistemic Injustice in Educational Research,” appeared in Educational Researcher. His research interest is American philosophies of education, particularly the African American tradition.
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