What is Woke?

I fully intended to write about how hard it is being a “woke” black person black person in this country. But then I remembered, James Baldwin wrote everything that needs to be written about that in this one sage phrase; “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” So, I puzzled, what does it mean to be woke? I believe myself to be “woke” and I am sure there are folks who would strongly disagree. I can think of some people I know who think they are woke, who I am convinced that Harriet Tubman would have clubbed unconscious with Army/Navy pistol and held their heads under a creek until they stopped squirming.

The Urban Dictionary, definition 3 of woke is; “A word currently used to describe consciousness” and being aware of the truth behind things “the man” doesn’t want you to know i.e. classism, racism, and any other social injustices. The term comes from a genuine place but is becoming overused. People mainly use it to sound like deep thinkers when they are really just following a trend.” This is what I think I mean when I use the term to describe myself. I don’t think I am following a trend; I have been a race man for most of my adult life. Which means, that when I woke up, I could not stop talking, reading and thinking about race. It is akin to the religious convert whose entire life becomes consumed with their deities(s).

The transformation from “colonized negro” to “race man” happened for me over thirty years ago in a country that no longer exists. The small town in West Germany that I was stationed in while serving in the U.S. Army was called Aschaffenburg. (Isn’t the ultimate act of the colonized negro to join the colonizer’s military in a tragi-comic attempt to be treated as a human being?) There was a bookstore called the Stars and Stripes bookstore, and they had the best African American Literature I have ever encountered in a brick and mortar bookstore.

I would need a couple of volumes to make you understand how the existence of this building and the books that were for sale there, literally, changed my life. This was 1986. I was 22 years old, a college drop-out who like many poor kids, join the military because there is no better option presented. I have always read, from Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge, which I devoured, month by month to anything I found on my mother’s bookshelf. In high school, I was in Honors English so did not read the obligatory, urban public-school Baldwin (usually Go Tell it on the Mountain or The Fire Next Time) which sounded corny to 17/18-year-old me. So, I read and talked about English poets (I developed and still have a deep respect for A.E. Houseman, the man was a def poet) and Shakespeare. Which seemed reasonable to a working-class kid who knew nothing about his own culture.

What I did find out when I got to Michigan State was that I was woefully unprepared to be a college student. But I did start reading some of the great classics of Occidentalism, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, H.L. Mencken and the American, post-war existentialists. I could almost see myself and recognize my feelings and ways of being in those hallowed pages, but not quite. I could almost bang out some halting, stilted sentences of horrible, short-sited, 18-year-old literary criticism, but who was I to tell Hemmingway that his casual use of the word nigger made me feel uncomfortable. Who was I to tell my professors that I would be more engaged if the syllabus included one item, even an article, written by a person of color? I could not express these things because even though I felt these feelings, I had no words or experiences in which to bring them forth.

In mid-summer 1986, I find myself in West Germany, at this bookstore, which changed the course of my life. In 1986, for a geeky guy like me, a bookstore was life. There was no internet, well there actually was, but it was not for the general public and was nothing like it is now. The bookstore was the place to discover new fiction, magazines and the all-important black literature section. (it was likely called African-American or even Afro-American literature, but I discovered Wole Soyinka classic Things Fall Apart, so black literature was more correct)

The person who ordered the books and stocked the black section shelves must have had a Ph.D in black writing, they had everything you need to get started, they had on the shelves, absolutely everything by James Baldwin. A decent selection of Alice Walker, way beyond the legendary Color Purple, to include books of short stories and essays. They first exposed me to the important compilations Black Voices and New Black Voices. Which I would read to discover new writers and poets. Did I mention that this bookstore would also order anything that was still in print?

Reading these books made me different about the people I was serving with and feel differently about the situations that I was put in. In case you have not served, the military is not the best place in which to express your revolutionary spirit. I noticed the micro-aggressions and subtle slurs that were directed toward me and other soldiers of color. When I was not woke, I believed what my grandparents told me, that I had to be twice as good to receive even any opportunities. However, when I attained these positions, I had to be humble and deferential to white people in order to keep them. Being woke showed me how self-loathing this way of thinking was.

I understand that when someone wakes up from a long sleep, they may make miss-steps. It is a natural part of the awakening process. Please forgive your co-workers who incessantly points out perceived racism in the workplace. Have some understanding when someone has the temerity to point out some basic fact in black history to you, like you did not already know. It is easy to fly flags and give lip service to the revolution, but when the revolution calls for sacrifice, then the true revolutionaries will step forward.

Follow me on Twitter: @wilkes36


books on shelves in library

Photo by Karol D on Pexels.com

This entry was posted in African American Studies, American Race Studies, Critical Race Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

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