I’ve been asked to speak today in celebration of Black History Month, which I’m happy to do. I teach American Literature, in addition to 8th-grade English, and my training in graduate school was in African American literature. So I have some experience with reading and writing about the work of Black American authors and poets. And I believe that it is so vital to celebrate Black history, in February and throughout the year, because it is American history—it is inseparable from any other strand of the nation’s history that we might discuss.
So I’m happy to be here speaking to you today about a subject that I love. And one of the Black authors in our history that I’m particularly fond of is James Baldwin, the man who said the words behind me, and the man whose picture you’ll see in a minute. James Baldwin is one of the people, living or dead, that I would choose to have dinner with if someone asked me that silly question. If you have taken my American Literature class, you’ve read some of Baldwin’s works, and you know that he was one of the most important voices in the country on civil rights for decades. He outlived Malcolm, Martin, and many others who sacrificed their lives in the Civil Rights Movement, and his decades on this planet gave him the perspective that helps one to have an informed opinion about our world. But I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him because of what he knew and what he had seen, necessarily. I wouldn’t ask him about his decision to leave Harlem in 1948 to move to Paris, at age 24 and with only 40 dollars in his pocket. He would later say that part of the reason he moved is because he knew that whatever he faced, alone, broke, and in a country he had never lived in before, would never prove as risky as living as a Black man in the United States. I wouldn’t ask him what his life was like when he returned to the United States, after publishing some of his most celebrated work, to reflect on the ideas he presents in the quotation above me—to do the work he knew was required to speak the truth about the country he loved and the dangers that Black people faced. I wouldn’t even ask him what it was like to debate William F. Buckley in the Cambridge student union, even though I’ve watched that video on YouTube probably ten times, and each time I reflect on something new—some new way of saying what he had been telling people for years: that most people had no idea what Black people faced in this country, and many of us were happy to keep on not knowing. Finally, I wouldn’t ask him what it was like to be a gay Black man at a time when both of those facets of his identity must have made him so scared at times.
What I would ask him is this: What do you think about what’s happening in the world right now, Mr. Baldwin, and how do I make sense of it? What do you think about the fact that the Supreme Court might seat its first Black woman justice, just over a year removed from Confederate flags flying in the Capitol Building? What do you think about the fact that history and literature themselves seem to be increasingly on trial, as people are worried about learning that history and reading those books? James Baldwin once said, to a group of teachers no less, that “[t]he paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” I wonder what he would think of our willingness to analyze our society and ourselves as part of our education. I think he would say that living that way requires courage—that it is a scary thing to think for yourself and to see the truth about things when it’s more comfortable to keep things the way they are. I wonder what James would say about my life, about my job and the students I teach every day. What can I do to live with courage every day? How can I model that courage for my students, not teaching them what to think, but teaching them to think, to ask questions, to demand answers, and never to stop being courageous enough to learn more, even if the truth is uncomfortable. Because that’s the thing about history—the more you look at it, the more you learn, like William Faulkner, another famous American author, said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” James Baldwin, in his decades on this planet, recognized that for him to live with courage required a willingness to tell the uncomfortable truths about his country, and to continue telling them. He faced backlash for it—he was hated—and he did it anyway.
Part of the importance of celebrating Black History, and therefore American history, is recognizing the ways that folks have been courageous in the past and deserving of our respect and remembrance. It also means having the courage to ask ourselves tough questions about the present. I try to ask myself those questions. What am I doing to ensure that I and my country live up to the standards that we hold dear? What are my blindspots when it comes to opportunities for others? Where do I need to learn more? Most importantly, where are my opportunities to show courage? With my friends? My family? My school? My country? Like so many heroes from Black history, both celebrated and unknown, James Baldwin modeled the kind of courage it takes to demand more of those you love. And of yourself. I hope that we can all heed his lesson. Thank you for your time.
Matthew Davis joined Waterford School in 2015. He is chair of the English Department and teaches in the Upper and Middle Schools. He received his PhD in American Literature from the University of Oklahoma. He specializes in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century African American literature, with a broader focus on the politics of race in American literature.
Dr. Davis is an avid follower of the NBA and MLB and a supporter of all Houston sports teams, especially the Rockets and Astros. He also enjoys playing basketball, camping, listening to live music, and cooking. He lives with his wife, son, and Plott Hound mix in Salt Lake City.
February 14, 2020
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