Tim Wise made a very important point during his lecture about people in the dominated or oppressed class of any category of people. Namely that the dominating class can not truly understand the oppressed without entering into a bilateral dialogue with them. One can not grasp the struggle that a person who can not walk experiences as a result of their physical disability by reading a list written by an able-bodied physician. This idea is the centerpiece of Paulo Freire’s classic book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
In the book Freire states: Only through comradeship with the oppressed can the converts understand their characterisitc ways of living and behaving, which in diverse moments reflect the structure of domination. The converts that he is refering to are the members of the oppressing class that have come around to aiding the oppressed in their path to liberation. Much like the architect that tries to design a concert hall which is accessible to disabled persons, a history teacher can’t design an effective ciricculum without learning of the circumstances and feelings that the disadvantaged people face.
And so a slave master can not understand the suffering and horror to which he subjects his slaves by reflecting on the orders that he has given them. If the culture of his society stigmatizes social interaction with the slaves, and he is captivated by that culture, then there is no way that he can justly object to their oppression. The consequences of this were, at the time of the American slaves, palpable. Northern abolitionists who understood, on a philosophical level, the evils of slavery spent a great deal of energy to end the institution. But ultimately their alienation from the oppressed led to passivity and little rogress.
Indeed, had there been more slavery in New England, perhaps the abolition movement would have been far more passionate and the end to slavery came sooner. But it is not the failure of southern slavery to reach out to the north, but rather it is the failure of the north to reach out to slaves in the south that slowed down the abolitionist movements. Had they done so with the intention to learn and gain understanding, then they would have gained the ability to actively participate in the liberation of the slaves, The oppressed typically can not wait for the “converts” to realize this.
If they want to liberate themselves then they should reach out to the sympathetic oppressors on their own. However, in the era of institutionalized slavery the opportunity available for slaves to do this was likely nonexistant. There are examples in history of oppressed groups rising up among themselves without defection from their oppressors. This does not mean, as should be clear, that the dominating class has no responsibility in freeing the dominated. It is the duty of all of us that are dominators to create, or otherwise allow, avenues of communication with the dominated.
For if we do not open ourselves up, thus giving them the opportunity to give us understanding, then the end to oppression will be far. It is important to differentiate between communication initiated by the oppressors and that which is intiated by the oppressed. Both forms of interaction are important, for if one party can not discuss on its own terms then it will always be at the mercy of the other in their pedagogy. In other words, social isolation of the oppressed dooms them to isolation in their struggles. Furthermore, the more isolated an oppressed group is, the more brutal the oppression may become.
In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon’s isolation from his masters increased from the first to the last. And to the same degree the brutality of his enslavement also increased. The latter master, Edwin Epps, experiences this same phenomena in interacting with his own slaves. The way that he speaks to and treats Betsy is, without any doubt, horrifying. However in relation to the rest of the slaves, she is talked to in the most soft spoken tongue and, to a small degree, protected by Edwin. It is only when he detaches himself from his socialization with her that be brutally strikes her with his whip.
So by not seeking to understand the oppressed and learn with them we are creating an environment of even more horrific domination – even if we reject that domination. And this could be said, without any regret, to be the most important aspect of this course. In learning about slavery and the society which it existed in, our interest should not be purely scientific, for we will have learned nothing of value. Rather we should have a desire to understand the insturments of oppression and its evils. If we can recogonize them then perhaps we can adapt ourselves when faced with their posion in our own lives.
It is not possible to learn, in the context a college class, the horror felt by slaves nor the action or inaction which they felt necessary to take. However, as members in the long family line of the opressor class we have extensive documentation of our ancestors thoughts and actions. For me, this course aims to show us those thoughts and actions in their totality so that we may see their failures in the greater context of slavery and reflect. Tim Wise said that each and every one of us is a member of at least one dominating class.
It is in those words that this course finds its greatest meaning – and if we are to learn anything this quarter it is that our status as a dominator brings with it tremendous responsibility. This is not the responsibility, as many slave owners believed, to take care of and educate the dominated as if they were too weak and foolish to survive without our guidance. But rather it is the responsibility to educate ourselves, and to that end, face oppression through the eyes of the oppressed as can only be done by those who take the journey into their minds.