…more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it…

That’s US history, according to James Baldwin in his 1963 essay “A Talk to Teachers.” The first copy of my book, Teaching US History Thematically: Document-Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom arrived today, and coincidentally I came across this talk by Baldwin, the person whose words I most regret not being able to include in this book. (Copyright issues). “A Talk to Teachers” was featured in a segment on NPR that highlighted its ongoing relevance. What Baldwin is so good at, I realized, is turning the world upside down—or, depending on your perspective, flipping it right-side up again:

“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay any longer and had to go someplace else to make it.”

James Baldwin, 1955. Photo by Carl van Vetchen, Library of Congress.

James Baldwin, 1955. Photo by Carl van Vetchen, Library of Congress.

I wonder how the teachers in Baldwin’s audience reacted. Were they offended? Relieved? Inspired? How will teachers react to my book, which collects some documents that support Baldwin’s thesis, and others that argue against it?

            What strikes me, reading Baldwin’s writings, is how brave he was. He said what he thought, although he knew it would be hard for many people to accept. I, on the other hand, just collected other people’s words, and bundled them together so teachers and students can draw their own conclusions. The bravery part? That’s up to the educators who use this book, and the kids they share it with. Honest conversations about our country’s past and present were never easy, and they are not getting any easier.

If I could have included one document by James Baldwin in Teaching US History Thematically, I would have chosen his 1962 “Letter to my Nephew,” which is written to a teenager, his namesake, and which speaks eloquently young people of any race:

"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 men 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, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, 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."

Having taught this essay in an 8th grade classroom, I can say that it was difficult for my white students to understand why they would need to be accepted, instead of accepting. Most of them had been told all their lives that they should be tolerant, that they should support giving equal rights to all people, without questioning why they were in a position to give instead of to receive. Baldwin’s words turned the world upside down for them. How could they be trapped when they felt so free?

            If I want my textbook to do anything, it’s to deconstruct that sense of freedom that so many Americans take for granted. Are we free? Of what, of whom? Who is free? Is freedom what we want?

            Paging through the documents in Teaching US History Thematically, I have to agree with Baldwin: the history of this country is “longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” It’s only by listening to the chorus of voices together, dissonant as they may sound, that we can understand both its beauty and its terribleness.