James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paulo Freire

Baldwin’s words and observations in The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King reminded me of Paulo Freire’s commentary on radical liberation in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Interestingly, when I looked back at my notes from reading Pedagogy, I noticed that Freire had written it based on his observations from the period in which he was in political exile, which naturally made me think back to Baldwin and his self-imposed exile to Paris. I found that Baldwin’s observations on the importance of MLK Jr. as a figurehead had a lot of overlapping themes with Freire’s work, predominantly on the idea of a fear of true freedom, and how conformity, compromise, and complicity ends up hurting both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Freire emphasises that our identities as human beings cannot be fully achieved when structures of oppression that harm and exploit oppressed peoples continue to exist, since such structures actively work to dehumanise them. Freire also highlights that oppressed people can regain their humanity in the struggle for liberation, but only if that struggle is led by oppressed people, which is something that Baldwin observed: “King really loves the people he represents,” (639) and King’s congregation (and the larger Black community at the time) were in fact the ones who “had begun the struggle of which [King] was now the symbol and the leader” (643). 

Participating in structures of oppression may seem to benefit the oppressed at first glance, but Baldwin highlights how this is an impossible standard. “The white man on whom the American Negro has modeled himself for so long is vanishing. Because this white man was, himself, a very largely mythical creation” (657). To model oneself after a myth does not contribute to liberation of the self or of their people. Additionally, Freire highlights that the oppressor also dehumanises themself when they participate in structures of exploitation and oppression, since they begin to see others as simply a means to their own ends, and as objects to be used. Baldwin writes that “salvation, humanly speaking, is a two-way street” (647), and even though this was used as a description for MLK Jr.’s upbringing, I think it encapsulates this notion very well.

Oppressors see the freedom of those who they oppress as a threat to their power, but Freire also writes that the oppressed also fear freedom because it could mean letting go of or admitting where one has power over others, or abandoning a self that has been modelled around internalised structures of oppression. “People seldom give their power away, forces beyond their control take their power from them,” (654) writes Baldwin, but Freire takes this a step further by positing a solution: encouraging dialogue and self reflection on both sides, and pairing it with concrete actions. I thought of this when Baldwin praises Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to make “it a matter, on both sides of the racial fence, of self-examination” (657).

2 thoughts on “James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paulo Freire”

  1. I love how you’re tying in critical pedagogy with this class! This week’s reading, “Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters,” reminded me of your post. In the Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote: “white people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
    That quote reminded me of what you said in class about how the oppressed also need to be freed, which is part of the point that Baldwin makes in his letter to his nephew. Continuing to think about your post throughout the week!

  2. I think Freire is a valuable voice to pull into our conversation of civil rights. I struggled in class today with the idea you introduce in your third paragraph. Baldwin makes a compelling argument that the “white man” is a myth and you do an excellent job of using Freire’s words to show that the perpetuation of this myth is as dehumanizing to the oppressor as it is to the oppressed. However, I wonder how to use this idea to create change. How do you convince someone whose success, comfort, and wealth is built on the exploitation and oppression of others to sacrifice those things for the very people they oppress? I want powerful white Americans to recognize their privilege and willingly sacrifice for the betterment of the rest of society but I doubt that reality will ever occur. Thus, how do we create change without burdening the oppressed? It’s a tough question that I cannot quite wrap my head around but your post gives words to some of the ideas I thought about in our discussion today.

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