Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2014)
One day I received a phone call at my home in Geneva. It was a Sunday morning, a very cold, cloudy morning, and the French mountains you can see in the distance were swathed in clouds. A typical Swiss January Sunday.
The call was from a Spanish guest worker, who asked if he and two of his companions might drop in for an interview with me some evening in the coming week. He told me they wanted to talk about a children’s education program they had planned and were setting up. He mentioned that they were reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and that they would like to talk about that too. “Who knows,” he said, “—if you were to have time, and were interested, we might meet more than once.”
We agreed on a day, and, at the scheduled time, they arrived with certain documents and certain children’s exercises.
We chatted a bit about the climate, and the hard winter. They told me about Spain and asked me about Brazil. Then they broached the question that had brought us together. However, to be methodical, they had to introduce that question with an introduction explaining their political option, their activism. They spoke of their experience as guest workers, of the restrictions on their right to have their families with them to which so many of them were subjected, of the obligation imposed on them, simply because they had been in Switzerland for a year, to go back to Spain and renew (or fail to renew) their privilege of spending another one-year term here the following year.
This legal determination, besides relieving the Swiss government of the burden of expenditures for education and health, not to mention other considerations, obliged them to live in a state of constant tension. Their vital insecurity was one more “why” for the “existential weariness” I have talked about. They gave examples. Many of their companions found themselves on an emotional roller coaster, living in a present that, despite their now having the work that they had been without in their own country, was a today with a doubtful, too doubtful, tomorrow. It was a today in which, missing the love and tenderness, as well as physical presence, of their families, they found their activity, their strength, their resistance, all undermined. Many among them, then, awash in “existential weariness” and “historical anesthesia,” simply gravitated around their personal problems and concerns of the moment, unable to glimpse the “untested feasibility” that lay beyond the “limited situation” in which they found themselves immersed.* Hence also the difficulty of moving them out of their “historical anesthesia,” which spawned a kind of apathy, a kind of paralysis, when it came to a concern for or discussion of political questions. Then, added to the “historical anesthesia” in which so many of them were caught, there was the cultural, political, and ideological climate of Switzerland, which was unfavorable to public political dissent. I remember how, just about the time of the encounter of which I now speak, in reaction to a strike by construction workers on a huge site in Geneva, an official or quasi-official declaration was issued, in the guise of a union document, denouncing the workers’ position, and deploring that “for the first time in the history of Switzerland, and therefore in scant consonance with the uses and customs of this country, they have had recourse to force in order to have their demands met: they have had recourse to a strike.” Obviously a notice like this was not very encouraging to an effort to enable the guest workers to overcome their apathy and participate in the political projects being conducted by their leaders.
On the contrary, the explicitly open nature of the letter condemning the strike reinforced in the guest workers the “historical anesthesia” of which I am speaking.
But from the viewpoint of the immigrant Spanish workers’ leadership, the political reaction implied in the note appeared as a challenge, as well as a confirmation of their conviction as to the need for their Spanish companions’ political training.
The pedagogical project they had come to me about was a special one, and bore directly on their children—the sons and daughters of those Spanish workers who, under Swiss law, could bring their families with them from Spain. When you come right down to it, it was a counterschool project. Their “school” would be established precisely for the purpose of conducting an ongoing criticism of the Swiss schools attended by the Spanish children. It would be a “school” that would problematicize the Swiss school—render it problematic in the eyes of the workers’ children.
The decade of the 1970s was just under way, and Althusserian studies had burst upon the scene denouncing the school system as an instrument for the reproduction of the dominant ideology (studies not always invulnerable to distortions and exaggerated interpretations). I do not believe, as far as I can recall, that we made any reference to the Althusserian theory of reproduction, but our conversation did basically turn on a critical understanding of the role of the school, and of the role in the school that progressive or conservative educators might play. In other words, the conversation bore on the power of the dominant ideology, and how that power might be blocked. And indeed, the program of which the Spanish workers were speaking to me with such justifiable enthusiasm focused precisely on the Swiss school their children were attending—Swiss schooling in all its aspects. This is what they were planning to do, and this is what they had come to speak with me about on that evening.
These Spanish workers were planning to set up, alongside the scholastic practice maintained by the Swiss school, in its particular manner, in doing its own teaching, another school that would take the Swiss school as the object of a critical analysis. A child could attend their school only under one condition: he or she would have to decide, after a short trial period, whether to continue to attend. And classes would be held not every day, or for long periods of time, but for only two hours or so at a time, and only three times a week. Nor was the new school intended as a substitute for the Swiss school. It would complement it, through the experience of critical thinking about the world. The Spanish workers who conversed with me that evening were convinced of their children’s need to study seriously, to learn, to create study habits, which, at least in part, they seemed to be doing in the Swiss schools.
The children would spend the regular school day in the Swiss schools, and then, on certain days, go to this other school, as well, where they would “rethink” what they had learned or were learning.
The workers’ primary, overriding purpose was, on the one hand, to diminish the risk of having to watch the alienation of their children, cut off as these children were from their own culture—a risk greatly intensified by the Swiss school, which was unquestionably competent from the viewpoint of the dominant interests—and on the other hand, to stimulate in the children a critical way of thinking, as I now have brought out. Hence their project. Hence their suigeneris school, which would take the other one as the object of its study, critically examine its practice, and analyze its curriculum—not only in its explicit elements, but in its hidden ones, as well.
The educators in the “challenge school” would not always be the same persons. Teachers would rotate, serving when they had free time. They would be trained in occasional evening or weekend seminars, in which they would rehearse their task.
They would also discuss with the children the ideology imbedded in the books of children’s stories, whether or not these were being used in the Swiss schools.
One of the stories they repeated to me, laughing with almost childlike amusement, but critical of the ideology that permeated it, told of the simple, happy family life of a family of pigs—a papa pig, a mama pig, and three little piglets. The youngest piglet was always getting into things, overcome with curiosity. He did not like routine. He tried everything, and was always looking for something new and different.
But nothing ever worked for him. His older siblings followed convention to the letter, and got along fine. One autumn Sunday, under a clear blue sky, the youngest piglet decided to set out for the day and give his curiosity free rein. Nothing worked out. The moment he stepped beyond established bounds, he was attacked by a little dog. Wounded, and escaping by the skin of his teeth, he thought he saw another dog, and “poked the dog with a little stick.” The “dog” turned out to be a swarm of bees. The poor little pig was all but stung to death by the horrible, diabolical attack of the enraged bees. From failure to failure he goes, returning home at nightfall dejected and subdued, now without the courage to so much as think of a new adventure. His commonsensical father was waiting for him, and wisely tells him, with the benign air of a gentle pedagogue, “I knew that you would do this some day. For you, there was no other way to learn that we need not leave the beaten path. Try to change something, and we run the risk of being hurt very painfully, as must have happened to you today.”
Silent and contrite, the little pig listened to the “sensible” discourse of his well-behaved father.
It was against such a hamstringing suggestion, it was against programs like these, calculated to tame, that the Spanish workers’ challenging, questioning school was being created. They dreamed of an open, democratic education, one that would instill in their children a taste for questioning, a passion for knowledge, a healthy curiosity, the joy of creating, and the pleasure of risk without which there can be no creation.
Hence the community of views between Pedagogy of the Oppressed, about which we spoke in meetings we held after this one, and the experience of the school in which children were taught to question things.
Their reading of Pedagogy had confirmed the Spanish workers in some of the pedagogical intuitions that had moved them to the concretization of their experiment—the book’s whole analysis of the dialectical relationship between oppressors and oppressed, of the process of the introjection of the dominator by the dominated; its reflections on a “banking” education and its authoritarianism, on an education that challenges the status quo, on dialogue, on democratic initiatives; on the need, in a progressive educational process, for educands to have their curiosity challenged; on the critical presence of educators and educands who, while teaching and learning respectively, nevertheless all learn and teach, without any implication either that their relationship is one of homogeneous reciprocity, or that the teacher does not learn and the learner does not teach. All of this stimulated them, as I had been stimulated by reading Fanon and Memmi back in the days when I was putting the final touches on Pedagogy.
Perhaps, in the process of their experience with Pedagogy of the Oppressed—as they read of the educational practice to which I was holding—perhaps they felt the same emotion with which I was taken when I plunged into The Wretched of the Earth and The Colonizer and the Colonized—the satisfying sensation with which we are taken when we find a confirmation of the “why” of the certitude we find within ourselves.
The positive results they had achieved had led the parents of the children of the questioning and challenging school—they had told me in our meeting—to come to them and ask them to do something like that for themselves, the parents, as well. They said they would like another school, in which they would be able to discuss, together, their presence in Switzerland, the political situation in Spain, and so on.
It had been by way of the implementation of the idea of a school that would challenge their children’s school, that, now, the parents had come for courses or seminars, or political training meetings. In Geneva, the “game” was no card game.
The following year—the year after I became acquainted with that experiment in which these workers, turned educators, were calling their children’s school in question and challenging them to think critically, Claudius Ceccon, the remarkable Brazilian cartoonist, then residing in Geneva, recounted to me the following case, that of his son Flávio.
One day, dejected and hurt, Flávio had told him that his teacher had torn up one of his drawings. At home, Flávio had learned freedom of expression, and was gradually encouraged to use it more and more, as he grew up exercising his curiosity in a climate of respect and affection. Curiosity was not forbidden. And so Flávio’s creativity enjoyed the necessary conditions of self-expression. He could not understand why in the world his teacher would destroy one of his drawings! That had offended him deeply, nor had he been the only one to take offense. It had been as if his teacher had ripped up a little piece of himself. After all, his drawing was a creation of his, was it not? Had it not deserved as much respect as a story or a poem he might have written?
As any father or mother would have done who had embraced a democratic option and whose behavior was consistent with that option, Claudius went to the teacher to talk about what had happened.
The teacher had a high regard for the child. She spoke of him in terms of high praise, emphasizing his talent and his capacity for freedom.
As Claudius watched the teacher, he noticed by her gestures by her tone of voice that it could never have entered her head that he had come to voice his disapproval of what she had done to Flávio’s drawing—for that matter, his disapproval of what she had done to Flávio himself, with his creativity that she had all but torn to shreds.
Delighted at a visit from the parent of one of her students whom she genuinely admired, she paced back and forth, fairly skipping, speaking of her class activities.
Claudius listened, and followed her narratives, awaiting an opportunity to speak with her about what had happened. His rage had abated now. He was calmer.
All of a sudden the teacher showed Claudius a series of nearly identical drawings. The drawings were all of a black cat—a single cat, multiplied, with the alteration of some trait here or there.
“What do you think of that?” the teacher asked, and without waiting for an answer, exclaimed, “My students did these. I brought them a little statue of a cat for them to draw.”
“Why not bring a live cat into the classroom—one that would walk and run, and jump?” Claudius asked. “Then the children would draw the cat as they understood it, as they perceived it. The children would actually reinvent the cat. They would be free to make any cat they felt like. They would be free to create, to invent and reinvent.”
“No, no!” the teacher fairly shouted. “Perhaps that might do for your child. Perhaps. I don’t know, but perhaps with him that might do, for Flávio, with his lively, intelligent, free spirit. But what about the others? I remember how I was when I was a child,” the teacher went on. “I was terrified in situations where I felt obliged to choose, decide, create. That’s why a few days ago I took a drawing away from Flávio,” she said, euphemistically, referring to its destruction at her hands. He had drawn a cat that couldn’t exist. A cat of all different impossible colors. I couldn’t accept his drawing. It would have been harmful not only to him but to the others, too—even more harmful to them than to him.”
And that, it appeared, was the way the entire school functioned. It was not merely that one educator who shook with fear at the very mention of freedom, creation, adventure, risk. For the whole school, as for her, the world should not change, and just as in the story of the little pig, we ought never to leave the beaten path, or deviate from the established norm, in our passage through this world. Walk in the footsteps others have left for us. Lo, our lot and destiny.
Blaze trails as we go? Re-create the world, transform it? Never!
It was because of incidents like this, along with other, more serious occurrences, that the Spanish guest workers had created their school—the school that called their children’s other school, the Swiss school, into question.
Of the memories that I retain of facts and events, over the course of the seventies, which were closely connected with Pedagogy of the Oppressed, there are moments that I shall never forget, so vivid and vital do they remain in my recollection.
Just now I am speaking of various encounters I had in Geneva—whether in my office at the World Council of Churches, or in the apartment we had in Grand Lancy—with intellectuals, teachers, students, religious, blacks, whites from South Africa. During the 1970s, rarely did a month go past that someone, a native of South Africa or at least someone who lived there and was passing through Geneva, did not come to speak with me of the tragic, absurd, unthinkable experience of racism.
Rare too was the occasion, in those days, when I did not have a conversation with a woman or man, white or black, of South Africa—on her or his way to the United States—on the same subjects as those of my other meetings in Geneva, as well as on different issues.
Rarely did much time pass between occasions when the phone would ring and I would pick it up to hear, “I landed in Geneva two days ago. I’m flying to South Africa tonight. I knew it’d be too risky for me to take Pedagogy of the Oppressed into the country with me, so I spent all last night reading it. Could I talk to you today, before I leave?” Naturally I never said no. I postponed other meetings, canceled interviews, changed agendas, but never said no to any of those requests. Headache, upset stomach, bad mood, weariness, homesickness for Brazil, reading to do, writing to do, no such reason could make me say no to any of these requests whatsoever. In the face of the emotional, and not only political, need with which they were accompanied in the one making the request, all such considerations became secondary ones. They carried no weight with me as an argument for refusing a meeting that, at times, was requested for a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning.
The very moment someone asked on the phone whether he or she might come and consult with me, I felt the importance and urgency of the meeting so powerfully that I needed it as much as the one asking for it. I would have been frustrated myself, had I refused it.
My rebellion against every kind of discrimination, from the most explicit and crying to the most covert and hypocritical, which is no less offensive and immoral, has been with me from my childhood. Since as far back as I can remember, I have reacted almost instinctively against any word, deed, or sign of racial discrimination, or, for that matter, discrimination against the poor, which, quite a bit later, I came to define as class discrimination.
The evidence I heard from South Africans, white or black, in Geneva or in the United States, shocked me, and continues to shock me today when I recall it, as I am doing now. The brutality of racism is something beyond what a minimum of human sensitivity can encounter without trembling, and saying, “Horrible!”
I have heard from South African whites, or whites living in South Africa, who are as revulsed as I, who are as antiracist as I, traumatic accounts of unthinkable discriminatory practices. And from blacks as well. “I’m not allowed to say, ‘My God,’” a young black church person told me, to my dismay and near incredulity at what I was hearing. “I have to say, ‘Your God.’”
Blacks and whites, South Africans or residents of South Africa, with whom I conversed usually spoke of relations between oppressors and oppressed, colonizers and colonized, whiteness and blackness, employing theoretical elements common to Fanon, Memmi, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They were especially interested in discussing how to attack concrete situations, and how, through an in-depth approach to the “why” or “whys” of the sense of being crushed that the popular classes have of themselves, they might revise their earlier perceptions. In other words, they wanted to learn how to perceive their old perception of reality and adopt a new apprehension of the world, but without this meaning that, by reason of being perceived differently, the world were suddenly transformed. It meant that, on the basis of a new apprehension of the world, it would be possible to acquire the disposition to change it.
Today, I fear that some men and women, rightly disturbed, some intellectuals in revolt who sought me out in those days, may now be among those who have allowed themselves to be tamed by a certain high-sounding neoliberal discourse. They may have been won to the cause of those who find that, when all is said and done, “This is the way it is,” this is how history is, this is how life is. The competent run things and make a profit, and create the wealth that, at the right moment, will “trickle down” to the have-nots more or less equitably. The discourse upon and in favor of social justice no longer has meaning, and if we continue to hold that discourse in this “new history” of ours, we shall be mounting obstacles to the natural process in which it is the capable who make and remake the world. Among these persons are to be found those who declare that we no longer have any need today of a militant education, one that tears the mask from the face of a lying dominant ideology; that what we need today is a neutral education, heart and soul devoted to the technical training of the labor force—dedicated to the transmission of content in all the emaciation of its technicity and scientism. But that’s the old discourse!
These visits from South Africans or residents of South Africa, with their expressions of justifiable anger and necessary indignation, were contemporaneous with my first visit to Africa—to Zambia and Tanzania, once again in connection with Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I was to stop over in Zambia, where I would hold a week-long seminar in Kitwe, in a center for theological studies, Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation, then I would go on to Tanzania, for another seminar, at the University of Dar es Salaam. In both encounters, discussion would turn on Pedagogy, which was central to the “why” of the invitations I had been extended. While I was changing planes in Lusaka for a local flight to Kitwe, I was summoned to the “meeting area” on the airport public address system. Waiting for me there I found a young North American couple, whom I had met, I believe, in Boston, two or three years before. They were working in Zambia as volunteers, and had very good relations with the leadership of the MLA, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola.
We greeted each other with an embrace, and they asked me whether I could stay in Lusaka that day, and fly to Kitwe the next. The MLA team in Lusaka would like a conversation with me on problems of education and struggle, literacy programs in liberated areas, and so on. If I should accept, my friends told me, they would see to flight arrangements and advise the theological center in Kitwe.
By one o’clock that afternoon I was having lunch in the young couple’s home with the MLA leaders, headed by Lúcio Lara, who within a few years would be second in the Angolan government and chief of the party’s political bureau.
We spent an afternoon and night of work, using some documentary films to flesh out our conversations.
Lara started us off with a realistic report on the status of the liberation struggle, then we went back and forth about the educational practice to be applied during the struggle itself. We dwelt on an analysis of how to take advantage of the need for sheer survival in the struggle by turning that need to account in the discovery of more effective and more rigorous means or procedures than, for example, benziduras (spells) or simple talismans. But in no wise, not even here, where going beyond common-sense knowledge was a matter of life and death, would it be legitimate to belittle that knowledge or look down on it. It must be respected. A transcendence of commonsense knowledge, I was already saying back in those days, must be achieved only by way of that very knowledge.
Indeed, this was a conception dear to the heart of Amílcar Cabral, the great African leader who, alongside others, inspired the liberation movements in what are now the former Portuguese colonies: a more rigorous empowerment of his comrades through seminars in which they would be authentically trained and their methods evaluated, which he would conduct on his visits to the battle front. Cabral’s objective was to overcome what he called culture weaknesses or debilities. He put it this way:
Let no one imagine that the officers of the revolutionary forces approve the notion that, if we carry a talisman in our belt, we shall not die in battle. No, we shall not die in battle if we do not wage war or attack the enemy from a position of weakness. If we make mistakes, if we are in a position of weakness, we shall certainly die. There is no way around that. You can tell me a string of stories that you have in your heads: “Cabral doesn’t know. We’ve seen cases where it was the talisman that snatched our comrades from the jaws of death. The bullets were headed right for them, and they turned around and ricocheted back the other way.” You can say that. But I have hope that our children’s children, when they hear that, will be glad that PAIGEC [African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde] was able to wage the struggle in accordance with the reality of their land—and not have to say, “Our grandparents fought really hard, but they believed in superstitions.” This conversation may mean nothing to you now. I’m talking about the future. But I have certitude that the majority understand what I say, and know I am right.*
Interspersing our conversation with documentaries, we also discussed, at length, the question of literacy, and the imperative need that the struggle itself, as a process, enjoined upon its leadership: that they bend serious efforts to this end—in terms of activists’ technical training, of course, with a view to the progress of the struggle, and to the use of more modern and more sophisticated weapons, which could require more sophisticated knowledge on the part of the activists. Simultaneously with this kind of preparation, however, should come the activists’ political training. These persons, in the framework of Cabral’s critical understanding, ought always to be armed militants—activists, yes, military never.
Years later, I had opportunity to continue some of these conversations with Lúcio Lara, in Luanda, when he was working as chief of the party’s Political Bureau, and when, at his invitation and that of the minister of education in Angola then, the poet Antônio Jacinto, who had spent seven years in the colonial dungeons, I worked as a consultant to his ministry through the World Council of Churches.
That meeting in Lusaka left a deep mark on me. The same is true of my meeting in Dar es Salaam with the FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) leaders, at the Formation Campus for leaders and administrators, a short distance outside Dar in a lovely location placed at the disposal of the front by the Tanzanian government. Finally, I was invited to hold a dialogue with experienced activists currently engaged in the struggle and therefore having no time for woolgathering or intellectual tours de force. What they wanted was to dive into a critical, theoretical reflection with me on their practice, their struggle, as a “cultural fact and a factor of culture” (Cabral, 1976). Their confidence in me as a progressive intellectual was genuinely important to me. They did not criticize me for citing a peasant along with Marx. Nor did they regard me as a bourgeois educator because I maintained the importance of the role of consciousness in history.
That was a satisfaction. I, a thinker in the field of educational practice, had been understood by activists currently caught up in their struggle, and had been invited to hold a dialogue with them precisely concerning that struggle, sometimes an armed one and sometimes not. It was a satisfaction that accompanied me all through the seventies, and that has accompanied me to this very day, most recently in my visit to El Salvador, of which I speak at the end of this book. The same was true of my journey through all of the former Portuguese colonies (with the sole exception of Mozambique), my trips to Tanzania, my conversations with President Nyerere, in which we discussed “education as self-reliance” and Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my sojourns in Nicaragua, Grenada (that lovely Caribbean island that was the victim of an invasion), my encounter with Cuba. But along with the satisfaction of these encounters came the joy of so many others, at the four corners of the earth, with progressive folk who dreamt the possible dream of changing the world. And almost always, Pedagogy of the Oppressed had preceded me in these corners of the earth, in some sense paving the way for my own arrival there.
I remember writing, during my nights in Africa, in Kitwe, in Dar es Salaam, a harsh, strong report of my visit. My report transcribed stories I had heard from Africans from the period preceding the independence of Zambia or Tanzania, and I myself wrote of the cruel marks of colonialism and racism.
“A few years ago,” a Tanzanian professor told me as we walked into the bar of the hotel where I was staying in Dar, “I wouldn’t have been able to walk into this bar like this. Things were different. The warnings posted along our beaches were unbelievable: ‘Blacks and Dogs Prohibited,’ ‘Blacks and Dogs Prohibited.’” My friend from the University of Dar was murmuring these words, softly, in a kind of singsong, facing me across the table in the bar, as if by repeating the offensive words of the shameful sign, he were somehow expressing the righteous wrath of women and men the world over in the face of the outrage represented by racism.
Afterwards I strolled along the beach with him—the beach that had once been off-limits for him, and accessible only to whites. His “genetic inferiority,” according to the “science” of a professor who “coincidentally” was white, counterindicated that his Negro feet tread those white areas, and that his Negro body “pollute” the blue waters of his own sea. “Blacks and Dogs Prohibited,” he kept whispering, as we left the beach and headed for his house for dinner.
There are no such signs posted on the beaches of Tanzania. But racism is alive and well, crushing, shredding people’s lives, and besmirching the world.
As Patrick Lekota, Popo Molefe’s comrade—two extraordinary black South African leaders—put it in a letter to a friend:
Today we are receiving judgment. Earlier on I had some anxiety for my family. All my years are going to our struggle, and the question must cross their minds as to whether I still remember my obligations toward them. But now, all that has suddenly changed into unbridled rage with this system of South African law. This past week, an Afrikaner bully, Jacobus Vorster, was fined [$1,200] for tying an African laborer to a tree and beating him to death. He was then released to go back to his farm with an order that he pay the widow [$43] per month for five years. The laborer (deceased) had accidentally killed Vorster’s one dog and injured another one. . . . African life remains extremely cheap in this country.*
So here is an instance of racism. But it is only one out of millions of such violent, shameful, absurd instances.
Between January 3 and mid-February 1973, at the invitation of the religious leaders associated with the World Council of Churches, I visited twelve states of the United States. On that pilgrimage I found myself together with countless educators. Once more with Pedagogy of the Oppressed as mediator, I discussed their practice with them, seeking to understand it critically in its given context. Not always, let it be said in passing, were the groups in agreement with the analyses I made of certain components of their historicosocial context. But none of the divergencies—even when they bore on substantive issues, as we shall see below—rendered inviable a generally rich, dynamic dialogue.
Working from an ecumenical perspective, the team responsible for the study days had contacted the various groups of social workers, scattered throughout the twelve states, who wished to be included in these seminars, and set up with them a coordinating committee to arrange the calendar of meetings.
On weekdays I met with groups, or leaders of movements that, although they declined to join church groups for the process, were not thereby excluded from the same.
On weekends, in a city of one of the states in which I was working, a larger seminar would be held, with upwards of seventy participants. The main lines and themes of the discussions had been set down minutely and in advance. For the last weekend, representatives of the twelve seminars crowded together for an evaluation meeting in New York, whose framework had been constituted from the reports of each of the twelve seminars.
As I have said, beginning in 1967 I visted the United States regularly, participating in meetings and giving talks, even apart from the time I lived in Cambridge, at 371 Broadway (nearly a year). But never had I been exposed in such systematic, direct contact with the complex and highly technologized reality of North America. Those forty-five days challenged me to the maximum, and taught me a great deal. I relearned things I had learned before, obvious things like the fact that oneness in difference will be the only effective response of those forbidden to be, those prevented from living, to the ancient rule of the mighty: divide and conquer. Without unity in diversity, the so-called minorities could not even struggle, in the United States, for the most basic (and therefore the “least,” if we may so say) rights, let alone overcome the barriers that keep them from “being themselves,” from being “minorities forthemselves,” with one another and not against one another.
The first time I made this statement on unity in diversity was in one of the weekend seminars of which I have just spoken. It was at a seminar in Chicago. It had begun in the morning, in the hotel where Elza and I had been put up, and where I had one of the most concrete experiences of discrimination I have ever had. We were sitting in the restaurant having breakfast. The waiters were going back and forth, taking care of customers to our right, to our left, in front of us, and at some tables a little way behind us, but passing us by as if we did not exist, or were under the effect of one of those marvelous science-fiction drugs that make you invisible.
It was an experience of discrimination that I shall never forget. And the reason why I shall never forget it is precisely that, after all the years I had lived without having it happen to me, it was suddenly happening to me. Deep down inside, I realized, I had not conceived of myself as a possible object of discrimination. Of course, this betokened a lack of humility on my part, to say the least.
We went without breakfast, even though (after my righteous protests, and the explosion of my no less righteous anger, softened a bit by Elza’s more gentle manner) we left the restaurant to the accompaniment of the profuse apologies of the manager on duty, who was as racist as the waiters.
The hour was upon us: the seminar was scheduled to begin in a few moments. So we went to a cafe on the corner for an orange juice and a cup of coffee.
And so I walked into the big auditorium, where the participants had been waiting. I felt burdened—with a kind of sorrow, a great deal of anger, and a sense of helplessness, along with a little hunger, not to mention a hefty dose of frustration at not having my favorite American breakfast: “eggs up and a toasted English.”
The coordinator opened the meeting. Then, one by one, the leaders of each of the various groups stood up and said, “We’re black, and we’d like to meet just among ourselves.” Or, “We’re Indians. We’d like to be by ourselves.” Or, “We’re Mexican Americans, and we’d like a room to talk.” Then, his voice ringing with sarcasm, a young black pointed at a group of whites and said: “This is the ‘other’ group!” The whites had been silent. And silent they remained.
In relations between blacks and whites, if I am not completely mistaken, there seems to be, on the part of many whites who do not regard themselves as racists, something that encumbers them in their dealings with blacks, and prevents them from mounting an authentic battle against racism. Here is what I mean. It seems—at least to me—that whites have strong guilt feelings with regard to blacks. And if there is anything that annoys those who suffer discrimination, it is to have someone dealing with them in a guilty tone. The presence of this feeling of guilt suggests, at the least, the existence of vestiges of the actual “why” of the guilt: in this case, traces of the preconception itself. Here is the reason for the posture of accommodation adopted by so many whites in the way they behave in situations like the one just described. What I mean to say is this. In my relations with blacks, with Chicanos, with gays and lesbians, with homeless persons, with workers white or black, there is no need for me to treat them paternalistically, brimming over with guilt. What I ought to be doing is discussing and debating things with them, disagreeing with them, as new comrades, or at least as possible comrades-to-be, comrades in the battle, companions along the way.
Actually, what the rejected ones need—those forbidden to be, prevented from being—is not our tepidity but our warmth, our solidarity—yes, and our love, but an unfeigned love, not a mistrustful one, not a soppy love, but an “armed” love, like the one of which poet Thiago de Melo tells.1
It was precisely amidst the silence that ensued among us after the various “minority” leaders had claimed the right to isolation, that I spoke up.
“I respect your position,” I said,
but I am convinced that the more the so-called minorities accept themselves as such, and close off from one another, the sounder the only real minority—the dominant class—will sleep. All through history, among the many self-proclaimed rights of power, power has always arrogated the right, as an intrinsic condition of its very being, to paint the portrait of those who have no power. And the picture the powerful paint of the powerless, to be incarnated by them, obviously will reinforce the power of those who have power, by reason of which they do their portrait painting. The colonized could never have been seen and portrayed by the colonizers as cultivated, capable, intelligent persons worthy of their liberty, or, for example, as the producers of a language that, because it is a language, advances and changes and grows historico-socially. On the contrary, the colonized will have to be barbarous, uncultured, “nonhistorical” persons—until the arrival of the colonizers, who ‘bring’ them history. They speak dialects, not languages, fated never to express “scientific truth,” or “the mysteries of transcendence,” or the “loveliness of the world.”
Generally speaking, the powerless, in the early moments of their historical experience, accept the sketch the powerful draw of them. They have no other picture of themselves than the one imposed on them. One of the signs of nonconformism on the part of the powerless is rebellion against the portraits created of them by the powerful.
The so-called minorities, for example, need to realize that, when all is said and done, they are the majority. The path to their self-acceptance as the majority lies in concentrating on the similarities among themselves, and not only the differences, and thus creating unity in diversity, apart from which I fail to see how they can improve themselves, or even build themselves a substantial, radical democracy.
My discourse annoyed some of those present. “That’s white talk,” said the young black leader, lifting his index finger solemnly and looking daggers at me.
“No, this isn’t white talk,” I said. “It’s intelligent, clear-sighted, progressive talk, and it could have been uttered by a black man, a black woman, a blue-eyed Irishman, a Chicano, anybody at all, as long as they’re progressive. The only person who can’t do this kind of talk is somebody whose self-interest would be served by the maintenance of the status quo. The only person who cannot logically speak in this way is a racist. Of course, it may be that, historically, right now, for any number of reasons, it is impossible to attain this oneness in difference. It may be, for example, that the grass roots of each ‘minority’ have not matured as yet, or have not sufficiently matured, to accept dialogue, accept ‘being with’ one another (or, more likely, their leaders have not). That’s something else again. But to say that ‘unity in diversity’ is ‘white talk’? No, that’s not right.”
The groups had divided up and isolated themselves. They held their discussions and arrived at various conclusions on certain problems.
* For “limit situations” and “untested feasibility,” see my Pedagogia do oprimido, pp. 90ff.
* Amílcar Cabral, Obras escolhidas, vol. 1, Arma da teoria, p. 141.
* Rose Moss, “Shouting at the Crocodile,” in Popo Molefe, Patrick Lekota and the Freeing of South Africa (Beacon Press, 1990).