Human. Woman. Black. These are the things I see when reflecting on my image. Interesting self-imagery when I live in a country where regularly I am perceived as black, subhuman, and then maybe a woman? It’s pretty obvious; this internal knowledge versus external judgment is contradictory and is a daily struggle for me being a proud black woman in America. Every day I rise, ready to demand my existence as a human first, but instead end the day, downgraded to subhuman and Black only. A bleak reality? This is the picture for most Black Americans. I challenge you to examine your appearance; what do you first observe? Gender? Ethnicity? Humanity? Who are you? What do you stand for?
These were all my thoughts while reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. This short non-fiction (approximately 100 pages) book was published in 1963, and all of its concepts and messages still ring true today. The book consists of two letters, with the first one titled, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”. In this letter, he writes to his nephew, informing him about his experiences living in America and the frequent indignities he faces. He briefs him on the difficulties ahead and advises on how to handle them. Baldwin states to him: ” The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You are not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity…The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear”.
This passage was written in the 1960s, and can you believe how much it resonates in 2020?! How? Let’s delve into our current education system. There are virtually two systems in America, the public school education system in the urban areas, and the public school education system in the suburbs. The urban public schools are struggling for vitality due to an intentional lack of funding, while public schools in the suburbs thrive. The lack of funding allows for underpaid staff and fewer resources, which leads the staff to be content with the bare minimum from the students.
Is it a coincidence that Black students populate urban schools and white students populate suburban schools? I think not!
However, let’s say that a Black student is “lucky” enough to attend a thriving public school or even a private school for that matter – the school system is still not arranged for this “lucky one’s” success. I know this from personal experience. I was “one of the lucky ones” to attend public schools in the suburbs and my sister’s private schools. Our success story is only the result of the vigilant eyes of our parents. If not for my parents’ continuous engagement, we would have been disciplined harsher than our white peers and given fewer opportunities for educational advancement. And this where the problem lies. All children should be nurtured and supported equally in schools. There should not be lucky and unlucky students nor bad or good schools. There should be one school system for all students in America who are equally educated. How exasperating that we are discussing this in 2020? Based on this system, you can see how Baldwin’s words ring true – not much is expected of you as a Black person?
I love this book because of how much it resonated with me as a Black woman living in America in 2020. I underlined so many passages that the book started to look ridiculous. I know, I know – underlining is blasphemy for most book lovers. Guilty as charged!
I admire Baldwin for his wit and eloquently written book. As a reader, you can sense his annoyance about America’s injustices, but he states it calmly and calls for all of us to accept one another to heal. He states, ” But at the bottom of my heart I do not believe this. I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is”.
This book is for everyone and a must-read. I strongly recommend it to be immediately incorporated into high schools’ mandatory reading.
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