On Obama, Freire and Freedom

Nine out of ten doctor’s agree: Barack Obama‘s “race speech” spurred some serious discussion. Of course, yesterday’s remarks were more than just a speech – and they were definitely about more than just race.

Obama wasn’t simply addressing political woes. He wasn’t making excuses for past associations. This was not some political media play. It was a lesson in liberation – and it’s up to Americans to take up the Senator’s challenge.

Obama said it himself yesterday – he doesn’t want you to just listen to his words. He wants you to use them as fuel to move forward. We cannot erase our “original sin,” slavery, nor can we eradicate the wrongs of the past. We can only use those wrongs to move forward as a society:

I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

The lesson may be new for some Americans, but it’s been on the curriculum for years. Well, since 1968, at least, when Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire published his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

No one familiar with Freire’s work can deny the similarities between his thoughts, which spurred movements all across South America, and Obama’s, which are meant to do the same here in the United States.

Like Obama’s speech, Pedagogy of the Oppressed revolves around the need for collective absolution. Oppression, such as slavery, dehumanizes everyone, not just the slave. Sure, Mr. Smith may be holding the whip, but that’s not what being human is all about – not ideally. Thus, to be truly free from racial, economic or social repression, a society must reclaim its humanity – and it’s up to the oppressed to teach their peers the lesson. Writes Freire:

…Being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.

Traditional American perception would lead many to believe that white Christian men are the oppressors and thus the rest of us schmoes have to teach them what’s right from wrong. In Obama’s America, however, we’re all the oppressors. We cannot dissociate ourselves from each other, much in the same way half-black Obama can’t disown his white grandmother, even after she admits being afraid of black men.

Obama’s candor functioned on two levels: it perpetuated his “one America” rhetoric and, more importantly, it brought racism out of the hypothetical and into the familial, which is ultimately recognizable. Obama made America’s shared woes digestible.

The United States cannot move forward by turning a blind eye on the past. And we absolutely cannot make progress without first making painful amends, another cornerstone in Freire’s Pedagogy: “To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.” Obama held up a mirror yesterday, and asked Americans to recognize – and dissect – our shared experience. You know the saying, “No pain, no gain?” Well, it’s true.

Yes, Americans’ races, economic classes and religions may be different, but, as Obama said, we all want the same thing. And we need each other to get it. So, while we’re all talking about Obama’s speech, we suggest people start acting on it. Obama tried to teach our nation an important lesson yesterday. Let’s just hope people actually learned something. If not, well, it’s a supreme waste of breath.

Here’s the full video of the speech – guaranteed to become a classic!