I don’t even remember when the word “woke” was reimagined from the past tense of awake to a term straight out of African-American community vernacular, used to describe a keen sense of cultural and social justice awareness. But there’s a problem with wokeness becoming a trend. Like so much else that has been created within the Black community, this idea has been grabbed by the masses and is being choked to death.
Ironically, our community never intended to corner the market on staying socially alert. We want everybody in on this particular state of consciousness But let’s be real: to be Black is to come out of the womb woke—or it should be. Black folks inherit the blood, sweat and tears shed by our ancestors. We are born into systemic racism that not only plagues this country, but has also made its way around the world.
Woke is what James Baldwin called being “relatively conscious.” He said that to be Black and woke is to be “in a rage almost all of the time.” We have to remain aware of racial microagressions in our daily lives as well as the macroagressions of institutional racism that keep social disparities in America thriving. This type of awareness is exhausting, so I fully understand those who have become weary.
I’ve always known there was something a little different about being a Black girl. I was never taught limitations, but that didn’t stop others from imposing them on me. I was in the second grade the first time that racial hatred came in my direction. It was in the form of a boy named Mathew. He was blond-haired and blue-eyed, a physical manifestation of his ancestors’ supremacist dreams. We were sitting in class, with my desk in front of his. I don’t remember who said what, but I vividly recall turning around and feeling this boy’s palm against my cheek. A lump settled in my throat. I didn’t know if anyone saw the slap, but they definitely heard the word Mathew spat at me after the slap: “Blackie!”
The teacher separated us. Beyond that, Mathew was never chastised and I was never consoled. Maybe the teacher thought it was just another childish fight over colored pencils. Perhaps she had no idea that this little second grader had just encountered her first experience of racism. Mathew’s slap woke me up that day. I realized he hated me simply because I was Black.
Black folks don’t have the luxury of resting, taking a break or doing anything but being woke. And yes, most of us are tired. Many have even called for canceling the term altogether. But staying conscious is a powerful tool.
We can’t afford to let it disappear outright. Just take a look at the world we’re living in. Racial hatred is surging anew. Glaciers are melting. A reality TV star is the leader of the free world. The world in 2019 is a scary place to be woke in, so I get why folks would rather throw away the term and the action. But that’s too steep a price to pay.
While it’s easy in these times to be tired of the word, I say, be as tired as you want to be, but stay woke. We can’t allow for the overuse, misuse, or trendy mainstream use of the word to take us out of our vigilance, because staying woke is how we win—together.