I’ve been reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for about two months now. Slowly but surely I’m getting through it, as it is a heavy read, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the book as I finish reading it, as well as give my two cents on the events in Charlottesville, Virginia through the lens of this book.
Paulo Freire is a huge name in education and is constantly cited whenever someone talks about liberation of any kind. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire contends that for true liberation and revolution to take place, we must work with the people instead of for the people. In a word, the target group of people that you wish to “help” or “liberate” have to be actively apart of that liberation for true change to take place. Perhaps most amusingly, Freire affirms this idea and emphasizes the importance for revolutionary leaders to include the oppressed in the act of liberation by noting:
“We cannot say that in the process of revolution someone liberates someone else, not yet that someone liberates himself, but rather that human beings in communion liberate each other.”
The largest takeaway that I got from this quote was the necessity for communication and teamwork within the networks of those who are oppressed and between the oppressed and revolutionary leaders. This is particularly novel to me as the structures for “liberation” and false generosity we see today (namely, in the government) rarely ever or completely omit truly including the people in action. We can look to the phenomenon of gentrification to find an example of this. In Atlanta, Turner Field was sold to Georgia State University, well under the noses of the low income residents who lived in the area surrounding the stadium, the West End neighborhood. The residents knew this was an invitation for other Georgia State enterprises to buy up property in the historically black district, and so staged protests and sit ins to demonstrate their anger at the powers that be to begin the process of gentrification without their input. However, the deal was already done and the stadium belongs to Georgia State University today.
This example illustrates the opposite of what revolutionary leaders should strive for, according to Freire. True liberation would have included town hall meetings with the people of the neighborhood to think about what impact it would have on the residents of the West End neighborhood. As the protests would suggest, the residents would have vehemently vetoed the proposal, but as residents of that neighborhood, they had (and have) every right to do so. However, agency is the enemy of oppression, and so it makes sense that the residents were not notified of the proposal. You can read this article for more information on the protests.
This book is an electrifying piece for me. I find myself constantly screaming at the pages saying “That’s what I BEEN tryna say!” or “FORREAL THO!”. Not unlike others who have read this work, I found solace in Freire’s words and ideas. It was like life-giving water to read that it was a crime for politicians and officials to have huge homes and enjoy in excess while kids went to school hungry. His ideas of working with the people, not on behalf of them, was relieving to see on paper. Reading his words affirmed what I already felt was right and wrong with the world.
I especially appreciated Freiere’s emphasis on education—that it is not apolitical, but a medium through which teachers can teach students to continue to be oppressed or an instrument for self-liberation and actualization. This made me think back to my educational career and analyze teaching methods; what teachers taught me to be apart of the oppressive system we found ourselves at the mercy of, and which teachers showed me what position I was at in society and how we could work to transform it. Naturally, I chafed hard against teachers of the former school of thought. But what Friere has revealed to me is language and vocabulary to explain their actions, that they are acting to preserve unjust systems because they think they will benefit from it. But what Friere warns is that proximity and service to power is the illusion of such and it will never save the oppressed.
Using Freire’s words to think about Charlottesville
I am finishing Pedagogy of the Oppressed as I am watching the events in Charlottesville, Virginia unfold. Honestly, all I’ve been able to think about is “Neo Nazis are not the worst thing that could happen to us”. Now, living in this dark skinned body, I obviously would not like to interact with any Nazis or KKK members, but I think it is important to use works like Freire’s to provide a lens to look at these flashpoints of violence.
First, I think of this event as a really sore pimple that has finally made a head. If you pop it without cleaning your hands or washing your face, the underlying bacteria that made the pimple in the first place will be there again, ready to terrorize that beautiful skin of yours again in the near future. Likewise, the resurgence of the ultra right and Neo Nazis are a result of built up pressure and colonialist ideas white people already had. The oppressors defending their power through violence and scare tactics (reminds you of big stick diplomacy, no?) are the “whitehead” of the oppressor bacterium. What I am actually afraid of are the powers that be that I cannot yet name, that work in such an abstract and hands-off fashion that they can hide in plain sight. I’m afraid of whoever wrote the order for Stokley Carmichael to get prostate cancer. If there is anything that I have learned from history and reading books like Freire’s, it’s that those in power send Neo Nazis out as powerful, attention grabbing, magnetic distractions to ruffle our feathers and occupy the airwaves of our attention. But we must always be critical, friends.
Second, it is imperative that we arm ourselves with theory to predict when these things happen and to act against them accordingly. More specifically, Friere spoke of events like this in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While discussing on how some oppressed people work to keep their oppression intact, he also speaks on horizontal violence between oppressed peoples. What incites this violence, he claims, is a word or action “which threatens the oppressor housed within them” (Freire, 135). What Freire means by this is that there are certain words or actions which threaten the power system in place, and therefore threaten the oppressor housed within oppressed people. In Charlottesville, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to tear down Confederate statues directly threatens the oppressor housed within those who participated in the rally at Charlottesville. As a response, these people took to the streets to reclaim the oppressor’s power. Books like Freire’s tell us what happen when power is threatened and the lengths oppressors will go to in order to get it back, and also to remind us that our necks are under the boot of white supremacy. Theory and language gives us a “theoretical roadmap” for the twists and turns of revolutionary struggle, and arms us with knowledge to defend ourselves, intellectually or otherwise.
A Short Conclusion to a Long Post
This was supposed to be 700 words. Whoops.
In short, Freire’s groundbreaking work and others like it provide a healing center for those lost in the rip current of media outlets and modern activism today. Pedagogy of the Oppressed gave me the mental space I needed to deeply think about power structures and what I would do to work against them. If anything, it gave me revolutionary theory to ruminate on, write about, and apply to current events. Most importantly, perhaps, it showed me that this work can be done.
Anyway y’all, what do you think of the events unfolding in Charlottesville? What book has helped you think of all this? Let ya girl know.