Updated: Mar 18
Don't vilify wokeness', seek to understand
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on September 22, 2022)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Veronica Mobley
The word “Woke” is now a part of our everyday vernacular. Many people in America first heard the term "woke" when used by leaders and politicians in a cynical way to condemn and attack people and/or corporations who chose to stand with those who for centuries have been marginalized in our society. The republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis stated, “we can’t just stand idly by while woke ideology ravages every institution in our society”. James Carville, democratic political consultant, stated that “wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it.” For years, I have interrogated how people with power and influence can take one word or phrase like “woke” or “Critical Race Theory (CRT)”, to energize their constituents who generally have no knowledge of the history and importance of phrases that are used as survival tactics for people of color, yet I continue to see the term misrepresented and misunderstood by the media and in everyday conversation. The rhetorical significance of the seemingly simple word "woke" deserves an awakening of its own. Let’s take a deeper dive into some historical contexts of being woke.
In 1848 Frederick Douglas, a formerly enslaved person, writer, and founder of the North Star Newspaper penned a letter titled Abolitionists of Western New York, Awake! Douglas was calling for those who were friends of freedom and haters of slavery to “arise from” their sleep and move toward an earnest and vigorous action to free those enslaved. In 1938, Huddie Ledbetter, a blues songwriter, wrote a song to highlight what happened to the nine Black Scottsboro Boys in segregated Alabama. Huddie stated that every Black person who passes through Alabama should be careful and, “stay woke and keep their eyes open”.
On June 2, 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the commencement address at Morehouse College where he stated, "Now the great question facing us today is whether we will “remain awake” through this world-shaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand”. For decades, the single word “woke” was widely used in the Black community as a way for us to be aware and watchful of those who sought to do us harm and those who could consciously or unconsciously create roadblocks toward Black progress. After the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a heightened awareness in the Black community and thus the phrase, “stay woke” was born amongst activists. The meaning of “stay woke” was for Black folks to be watchful of police brutality and police officers who abuse their power. So how does the word that we know as woke today relate to this historical context?
Charles Blow, an American Journalist, defines the word woke as a simple yet powerful way of saying: “Be “aware of” and “alert to” how racism is systemic and pervasive and suffuses American life.” As we look at the information that I just laid out, I hope that you can see that the phrases “awake”, “arise from”, “remain awake”, “stay woke”, “aware of”, “alert to”, and “woke” all speak to folks in the Black community to be conscious of the systemic barriers and deceptive tactics that we face in this country, despite our status in society. Like many other popular trends in Black culture, the word has been co-opted and distorted by folks who wish to capitalize on the pain and suffering of others.
After seeing leaders, politicians, and even the mainstream media demonize the word woke for years, many people who have absorbed the word woke as a pejorative are starting to mobilize. One group that has recently popped up is Citizens for Sanity. Part of its mission is to defeat "wokeism". They and others are lumping “woke”, “Critical Race Theory”, and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” into the same rhetorical enemy to whitewash them for the consumption of the general public. Turning historical terminology and academic theory into propaganda talking points intended to be negatively felt rather than thoughtfully understood. This is the same strategy that Conservative Activist, Christopher Rufo, utilized last year when he stated, “the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory’…we will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all the various cultural insanities under that brand category”. Do you believe that people of color (and their allies) who are intentional about being aware of and speaking up about systemic injustices is a “cultural insanity”?
Every time Black people and their allies have pushed back against oppression such as chattel enslavement, legal disenfranchisement based on skin color, the denial of resources for upward mobility, over-incarceration, and taking a knee to highlight excessive use of force by police officers, there has always been a response from those who want to preserve existing advantages, maintain the status quo, or excuse continual injustice. I agree with Dr. King that it would be tragic if we allowed our mental and moral attitudes to sleep during this tremendous time of social change.
For those who care about working towards life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL people, I challenge you to interrogate whether you agree with those with power and influence who continue to intentionally denigrate the word “woke” to not only deceive their constituents, but also to undermine Black people, Brown people, and White allies, who continue to stand against systemic injustices.
Gasper, D.B., Hine, D.C. (1996). More than chattel: Black women and slavery in the Americas. Indiana University Press.