“That’s How I Got My Name”: Expanding the First Day of Class with Baldwin

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Photograph: Dave Pickoff/AP

Last academic year, I wrote about considering our students’ names more intentionally in terms of diversity and inclusion through activities around the following texts:

Today as I began an introductory course in education foundations and two first year writing seminars, I confronted students about how these texts address names and gender, familial connections in names, power dynamics, race and culture, and the connection between a name and understanding Self.

Instead of the usual cycling around the room for introductions, I asked which students disliked their names (see “My Name”), calling on them to share their names and why. From there I asked who liked their names, using the same process, and then prompted those with clipped names or nicknames, and those who went by middle names.

Many of the students during this discussion of the text did, in fact, introduce themselves, and we also shared stories of our names.

I explained that when I was in second grade Mrs. Townsend told me I was named for my father. However, I was Paul Lee Thomas, II, and named after my paternal grandfather (my father was Paul Keith Thomas, and went by Keith).

Since I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other, my teacher identified my grandfather as Tommy; I suspect almost no one in the town were aware of his full given name.

I correct Mrs. Townsend, politely offering, “No, ma’am, I am named for my grandfather.”

This was the late 1960s in small town America so I was immediately sent into the hall as punishment for arguing with a teacher.

I was terrified, mostly about what punishment awaited me when I returned home. My father’s standard rule was my sister and I would receive double the punishment for any trouble we caused at school.

I imagine my parents either called Mrs. Townsend or my mother spoke with her. None the less, the next day, Mrs. Townsend took me in the hall to apologize.

To this day, I recall all this, more than 50 years ago, and I still resent that she refused to apologize in front of the class.

My story fits well against Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” which explores identity — student/black, instructor/white — and the imbalances of power connected with identity.

That power imbalance in schools and schooling is particularly important to name and address the first day of class, when our teaching is grounded in critical awareness.

With the first year writing seminars, I also added this year a talk by James Baldwin, “Baldwin’s Nigger”:

We watched the first 7 minutes or so, including when Baldwin uses the phrase “Baldwin’s nigger” to explain “That’s how I got my name.”

First, I shared this clip to explain to students my own complicated relationship with the racial slur — refusing to say the word aloud except when I am reading passages that include it, confessing I was raised in a racist home and community where the slur was all too common in the mouths of whites.

From there, I introduced my students to discomfort in a formal learning setting. They should expect to be intellectually uncomfortable from time to time, but none of them, I stressed, should be emotionally or physically uncomfortable.

Further, I guaranteed that they could come to me in private and their discomfort would be honored and addressed. For first year students, these are likely new concepts, I realize.

Baldwin’s talk also addresses the weight of names and ownership (similar to Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself”) so we explored the impact of names on gender and racial stereotypes as well as how names and titles can create or perpetuate imbalances of power.

I included a brief discussion of Malcolm X (renaming himself in defiance of enslavers’ names) as well as the “ordinary thing” of women giving up their maiden names and the implication of ownership in “Mrs.”

Including Baldwin’s talk, I think, has made this opening activity much richer, breathing even greater vivacity into starting a journey with students — notably since I also challenged them to seek ways to be humans and not students in our class.

We ended class by brainstorming about student behaviors that are not common outside of school — having to ask to go to the bathroom, raising a hand to speak.

While I was excited last academic year about my name activity and having a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion, this expanded version, adding Baldwin, has greatly enhanced the experiment — one I think I must always see as in progress.

“I was formed in a certain crucible,” Baldwin explains. For my students, today began a “certain crucible” for each of them, one they will eventually name and one that will, I hope, deepen their own understanding of the names and identities they choose and cast upon them.

A few months from now, we will all be something different, something new, and maybe even something better.

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