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).