Pedagogy -- Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass Essay

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Pedagogy -- Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass

Critical Pedagogy in Literature

There are two phenomena -- discrete even in their close relation -- called structural violence and cultural violence that I have recently learned to call by their socio-political monikers. A discussion about structural and cultural violence is relevant to the topic of the paper since both exemplify the foundation upon which racial prejudice and justification for social class rests. To truly understand how astonishing the perceptions of Frederick Douglass were, particularly given his young age, and to appreciate the place of courage and rage from which Langston Hughes wrote, it is essential to know deeply about structural violence and cultural violence. To that end, this paper will endeavor to weave theories about structural violence, cultural violence, and critical pedagogy throughout the discussion about how two important literary figures understood literacy and education to be a means to defying cultural and societal norms.

Frederick Douglass' intellectual capacity and tenacity were so solidly illustrated in his approach to teaching himself to be literate that it is astonishing. What makes Douglass' situation so striking is not only his exceptional level of motivation at such a young age, but his awareness that learning and knowledge were the keys to power relationships. Moreover, Douglass' capacity to see the conditions of his life as a mutable part of a larger social structure were remarkable, particularly since in tandem with this growing awareness, he concocted and orchestrated a plan to change those conditions.

In the story One Friday Morning, Hughes relates how the protagonist, Nancy Lee, recognizes the potential that her artistic talents have and dreams of the changes in her life that can come about should she receive the recognition and awards her work merits. Hughes wrote, "Dreams began to dance in her head, plans and ambitions, beauties she would create for herself, her parents, and the Negro people..." (Hughes, 1952).

Douglass was both methodical and innovative in his approaches to gaining knowledge -- he had to be ready to adapt his strategies at any time should he be discovered during his efforts to become literate. The abundant bread in the house where he lived served as his payment for tutoring and tuition, so to speak. How fortunate for him that he was not hungry, as so many of the poor children were in his town, and that he was not physically maltreated. Being well-fed and not being afraid of being beaten were two strong elements in support of his plan to become literate. Douglass experienced the full force of structural violence and cultural violence but, thankfully, he did not experience direct violence.

Structural violence and cultural violence are not at all the same as direct violence. It is regretful and understandable that the word violence is integral to the constructs of structural violence and cultural violence because it can confound understanding. Direct violence refers to events or the actions of individuals that kill or harm people -- generally in real time. Cultural violence is used to distinguish the legitimizing process that occurs when any type of violence is seen as normative by the offending members of a society. Structural violence and cultural violence are phenomena made manifest through social inequalities (Christie, 1997; Galtung, 1969). Johan Galtung offered the construct of violence as a phenomenon realized by social barriers that keep people from certain social strata from meeting their needs (Galtung, 1990). Gilman argued that structural violence is a form of "physical and psychological harm that results from exploitive and unjust social, political, and economic systems" (1983, p. 8). The organizational structures of every type of system -- political, economic, social, educational, medical, and so on -- with which marginalized people must deal cause and sustain transactions and relationships that are based on hierarchical arrangements which enable social sectors to be dramatically different. These arrangements, which have been and are dramatically present in the social and economic structure of America, result in the people at the apex having the lion's share of power, wealth, and privilege, while those variables diminish substantively as people move down the hierarchical pyramid. The result is a class of people who are exploited, dominated, and oppressed (Christie, 1997). Just as direct violence harms and kills people, so too does structural violence, which is characterized by more subtlety, more pervasiveness, and slower effects. As a result of these deliberate structural inequities, "some people are deprived of food, shelter, healthcare, and other resources" (Christie, 1997). Because it is so deeply embedded in the very foundations of a society, structural violence and cultural violence become established as a way of being over the long-term. Gilman (1997) notes that poverty and hunger would not and could not exist without the permission of the dominant groups of people in any society. Gilman argues, the human tendency to look the other way is an obstacle to peace, and that it is evidenced by the capacity to "acquiesce in injustice...and disclaim "response ability" (Gilman, 1997).

Structural violence is insidious in its impact on entire classes or groups of people. It was the face of structural and cultural violence that Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes encountered every day of their lives, and it was this force that so cruelly broadsided the character of Nancy Lee in One Friday Morning. And it was the force that developed in Frederick Douglass a cunning that he needed to bring his plan to fruition. Unlike the situations of many African-Americans at the time, Douglass's foe was not so much the white people who governed his life, as it was the structural violence that cloaked the deep prejudices and rationalizations that promoted and enabled the hierarchical social class.

Structural violence becomes so deeply integrated in the fabric of a society that, through cultural violence, it is established and becomes the rule of the land, whether tacitly or overtly. Over time, people will tolerate and rationalize structural violence, just as Mr. Auld did in Frederick Douglass' narrative Learning to Read. In the retelling of the story, Mrs. Auld had to endure being chastised by Mr. Auld for providing instruction in literacy skills to the young Douglass. Mr. Auld asserted, "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy" (Douglass, 2004).

The sense of historical and psychological rightness, and concomitant beliefs in the immutable nature of differential treatment of people, can make structural violence difficult to pin down. Insight about these fast-held notions and biased perspectives often comes about only through contact with societies external to that experienced by the oppressed -- and more rarely -- by the oppressor. Hughes alluded to the beginnings of a changed perspective in this description: "Nancy Lee Johnson was a colored girl, a few years out of the South. But seldom did her high-school classmates think of her as colored…Nancy Lee sometimes forgot she was colored herself."

Nancy Lee's changed perspective about herself and her life held the seeds for critical consciousness, a concept theorized and later implemented by Paulo Freire. A philosophy of education, critical pedagogy was described by Henry Giroux as "an educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action" (Giroux, 2010).

In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire proposed that education could bring about purposeful change in which "men and women develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation" (Freire, 1968). Young Frederick Douglass was quick to understand that his reality could be transformed by education, and that belief carried him forward. In his words, "I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty -- to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it greatly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom."

From Freire and Giroux, and an assembly of other proponents of critical pedagogy, the world has come to understand the importance of a critical consciousness. The notion of perspective goes back much further -- one is reminded of the metaphor of Plato's cave -- and the essence of critical consciousness was recognized by the ancient Greeks. Philosophers taught their disciples to cultivate an "impulse and willingness to stand back from humanity and nature... [and] to make them objects of thought and criticism, and to search for their meaning and significance" (Thornton, 2006).

In comparison to Douglass' narrative, the nation was further along in its social and political development at the time that One Friday Morning was written. But as Nancy Lee was to discover, the power of education to substantively restrict or liberate the thinking and perceptions of a people was…

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