I grew up before “woke” became a four-letter word and before it became embattled in a culture war where misappropriation and redefinition are the weapons of choice. It is a menacing and cruel transaction when a larger power broker sledgehammers a monument of remembrance and hurls its fragments as weapons of destruction against the community it was erected to empower. A quick google search of “woke” will produce a sludge fest of articles and videos of politicians and pundits out-woking each other, stoking fear for likes and votes. They have purposefully misled hordes of followers without apology.
We teach our kids to do better.
So, what does “woke” mean?
One of the earliest public appearances of the word “woke” in the black vernacular was in the 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” written about nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931.
“I made this little song about down there,” musician Lead Belly said. “So, I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
Decades earlier, prolific author and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois unpacked the double consciousness of black people in America in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk :
“the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, —a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
In essence, being “woke” is understanding this double consciousness and all its implications. It is maintaining dignity, strength and pride while grappling with visitation rights in the land of your birth. Blackness is beautiful, but realizing you are a member of the “other” brings both pride and precaution as one contemplates the perception white America, the majority culture, may have of your ilk. How you move, who you are, and how you look may become a problem simply by virtue of caste. While the word sometimes referred to other scenarios like being wary of a cheating partner or slang for being awake instead of asleep, it was always rooted in an awareness of racialized violence against black people by white America, whether by individuals or institutions, carried out intentionally or in innocence.
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Source: Benjamin Watson