All 250 James Baldwin High School students recently received an advance screening of the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro. A grant allowed students at the alternative school in Manhattan to see the James Baldwin biopic, which is competing against four other films in the documentary category at the upcoming Image Awards.
Brady Smith, the principal at Baldwin High School, told NewsOne that the screening came at the end of an intensive study at the school on connecting the social activism of Baldwin’s era with the modern movement.
Baldwin High is a transfer school in the New York City public school system. It’s comprised “mostly of Black and brown” students from low-income families, said Smith, who is in his fourth year as principal. Many of the students are “over-aged and under-credited,” seeking an alternative path toward high school graduation.
Toward that end, the school’s curriculum emphasizes social justice. It allows them to explore and understand the social issues that affect their lives, while inspiring them to become agents of change, he explained. Through its unique curriculum, many of the students have become engaged academically for the first time.
Smith said reading Baldwin’s work is transformative and informs his students’ social activism. The Harlem writer’s message resonates with them because it’s still relevant today.
The teachers use Baldwin’s novels and essays in a variety of ways. In one course, students create visual art based on Baldwin’s shorter works. In another course, the students dissect and analyze his messages. Many of the students have made amazing academic turnarounds.
Baldwin also impacts the teachers, who read and interpret his work at staff retreats and as part of the hiring process.
The film takes as its point of departure a famous book Baldwin never completed, provisionally titled “Remember This House.” It was to be a memoir of the civil rights movement and his personal memories of three assassinated leaders: Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. His reflections are the basis of film director Raoul Peck’s examination of racial prejudice in contemporary America.
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