The Fire this Time: Bending Toward an
Antibias Antiracist Pedagogy
(The title plays on multiple references: The Fire Next Time, a selection of essays by James Baldwin, who is referencing a slave song in which God promises not a flood but fire next time; The Fire This Time, a selection essays about race edited by Jesmyn Ward; and "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," from “Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood” by Martin Luther King, Jr., who is referencing abolitionist minister Theodore Parker speaking in 1853.)
In “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin suggests a black child first learns of “the shape of his oppression” when he comes to school. He learns “that this structure is operated for someone else’s benefit—not for his. And there’s no room in it for him.” It is a damning condemnation of the null curriculum we offer. Delivered to a group of teachers in October, 1963, and published in the Saturday Review that December, “A Talk to Teachers” comes from a time we might like to think as long ago. That things have changed. That we’re doing better. That we English teachers are not racist and don’t allow racism in our classrooms and open our doors to students of all colors with open arms, teaching them love and respect for one another. That’s what we want to believe. It’s true, isn’t it? We know better, so we’re doing better, right?
Asking the question is the answer.
Compare news of the past year with this from the same essay: Black people “wouldn’t dream of calling a policeman. They wouldn’t, for a moment, listen to any of those professions of which we are so proud on the Fourth of July.” Our world is on fire. We’re only just starting to catch on. The America we are teaching is not the same America Black people are living in.
To be sure, we’ve also been trying. For decades we studied African American literature (and Latinx, LGBTQ+, world…) and put forth considerable efforts to weave multicultural literature into our offerings. It wasn’t enough. It isn’t sticking.
It doesn’t stick because we have been aiming at racism and bigotry on an individual level. Even if all White people were respectful and nice and equitable interacting with others, systemic racism would persist. We need to refocus on institutional applications of racism. We have to look at the structures of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in English Language Arts: curricula that reinforces White as the default norm; instruction that privileges white voices, language, and culture; and assessment that advances White students while suppressing indigenous, Black, and people of color (IBPOC), often relegating them to less rigor, less access, and less opportunity.
As teachers of English, we uphold a professional responsibility for countering systemic racism through antiracist pedagogy. How does that happen? What does it look like? What is a White teacher to do?
The 2021 CTCTE conference The Fire this Time: Bending Toward and Antibias Antiracist Pedagogy seeks to explore those questions. Answers are not easy, and discomfort will the norm. But we can stand by silent no longer, lest we accept culpability in complicity.
We must confront the world on fire, even if we “will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.” We do so with the grounding ethos, articulated so brilliantly by Baldwin, that “the obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has.” English teachers, let’s be the actors of hope.