My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a fine article by an inner city high school teacher about the desire of certain students to escape their surroundings. Clint Smith reflects upon James Baldwin’s decision to move to France and, while sympathetic, hopes his own students will stay at home.
In his most famous short story, Baldwin gives us a narrator who, unlike himself, returns to Harlem. More on that in a moment.
Clint thought of Baldwin’s decision after taking his students on a field trip to Paris. They left the day after the Charleston shooting so escape was on his mind:
When we arrived in Paris, I was reminded of the American writer James Baldwin. His departure from Harlem in 1948, aged 24, with only $40 (£25) in his pocket was an attempt to escape the pernicious racism of the US. This decision, he claims, saved his life. “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France – it was a matter of getting out of America,” he said in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review. “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail; I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”
Smith has taught high school English just outside of Washington, D.C. and now teaches art in the Boston City Schools. He has seen close up how his student live in communities “that have been subjected to generations of underinvestment and discrimination.” He understands why Baldwin saw the choice as one between leaving and dying:
For my entire life, I have watched the realities of racism slowly kill those around me. I have watched food insecurity and unequal access to healthy meals saturate black communities with diabetes and heart disease at disproportionate rates. I have watched the residue of federally-sanctioned redlining create small apartheids in cities for decades, generating breeding grounds for crime and poverty. In Baltimore, for example, local policies have existed since 1910 to isolate the city’s black population. To the present day federal housing subsidy policies still result in low-income black families being segregated from richer neighborhoods.
Given this reality, many teachers and school administrators convey a “do well so you can leave this place” narrative to their best students. Smith himself internalized this message and left New Orleans to be educated elsewhere. But he has returned to the inner city and wants the exodus to stop, asking, “How will our communities ever grow into their true potential if we continue to tell our most successful students to leave?”
Here’s his conclusion:
While systemic injustice is suffocating and can often seem immutable, things can change. But we must engage our students honestly, and remind them that we are the architects of the world we live in. That is what I would have wanted my teachers to tell me. That is what I try to tell my students. Perhaps then we can collectively re-create our reality so that one day no one is forced to “escape.”
So what does Smith teach his students so that they can collectively recreate their reality? He introduces them to texts and conversations about racism:
We, as educators, must directly address the realities that cause them to want to leave in the first place. That, in part, means we must discuss racism candidly – both the interpersonal and the systemic.
This does not mean adding a perfunctory Martin Luther King Jr speech to be skimmed over during Black History Month. It does not mean reading the only writer of color in the curriculum and analyzing their work devoid of any historical context. This means holistically broadening the range of texts we expose our students to and having them interrogate why certain voices have been, and continue to be, left out of the literary and historical canons.
And further on:
As teachers, we have a responsibility to our students to provide a more holistic and honest definition of what racism is in this country, so that we might better push back against it as we move forward.
“Sonny’s Blues” would help in this endeavor. Baldwin may have escaped Harlem, but in his story he gives us two characters who return after leaving. Sonny’s brother returns to the city to teach and Sonny comes back after running away to join the army. Here’s the narrator explaining his ambivalence about Harlem after picking up Sonny following a stint in prison for heroine possession:
So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It’s always at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.
Describing the inner city as a death trap, of course, might not encourage people to stay. But the story goes on to capture the vibrancy of Harlem. In fact, by trying to build a “good, clean, faceless life” for himself, the narrator has cut himself off from his community–the missing limb–even though he has come back to live there. Through Sonny’s music he is reminded that only in Harlem can he truly be alive.
I like to think that this epiphany will lead him to become a better teacher. He has already begun to open himself in new ways to a former student in the story’s opening, and one imagines that the process will continue on. For instance, while he initially wonders whether his students get more from shooting up in the bathrooms than taking his math classes, he might think otherwise if he saw himself out to convince them that they are “the architects of the world we live in.”
Baldwin may have had to leave, but he recognized the price he paid for doing so. He felt keenly the ache of the amputated limb. Clint Smith wants to spare his students from having to gnaw off their connection with a community than can nourish them more than any other.
We should all be giving the inner cities the support they need to hold on to their best and their brightest.