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What Names Us?

How James Baldwin’s work shapes our school.
What Names Us?

The names we adopt equally name us. Each symbol carries its own weight, its own past, independent of any new present or future meaning we would give it.

So we must choose our symbols wisely. Names, colors, crests, insignia, mascots, flags, and banners: If we choose them wisely, these symbols will both grant us the freedom of new interpretations and they will bring us into established communities of meaning — inherited and shared with others — that empower, challenge, and inspire us.

When we chose the name James Baldwin School for our new public high school in New York City, we were born into the vast community of meaning that is Baldwin's life, work and legacy. Above all, it is Baldwin's work, his words that guide us. And it is an oeuvre so vast that the occasions on which we can turn to it are countless.

During the new school planning phase, how to name us was a question that we spent many days and hours discussing. We considered names of various people, like Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. And we considered names with no reference to any one person at all, titles that would instead ground us in an allegiance to concepts, such as "The Common School," a reference to the American republic's public school past, and "The Community School."

It was the winter and spring of 2005 and we, the faculty of Humanities Preparatory Academy, a small public high school in New York City, were engaged in the process of designing, planning, and naming a new school that would replicate our best practices, and be opened and founded by a group of our own teachers, students, and parents the following fall.

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