In 1938, Black-American singer-songwriter Leadbelly released his song “Scottsboro Boys,” written about 9 black teenagers who were fraudulently accused of raping two white women. At the end of the song he includes the line: “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
For many years the phrase “woke” in a political context meant to be aware of the constant harassment (or worse) of black people by the state. In Erika Badu’s “Master Teacher” the chorus repeats “I stay woke.”
In recent times it’s come to encompass a larger idea of being aware of injustice and inequity in our society.
Being woke to injustice and inequity doesn’t suggest any action, but what the individual deems necessary. Being woke only implies understanding that the world we live in has unfairness baked in. Jefferson was wrong when he said that all men are created equal. Some of us are gifted with amazing talents, some burdened with significant disabilities. And many elements in societal structure make us more unequal.
Are there people on the left using the term “woke” to advocate for socialism and increased authoritarianism? Yes.
I refuse to let them own that word, but we should all want to be aware of these inequities. The alternative is an insult to our humanity. Hiding our head in the sand about injustices, especially those that benefit us, is to be complicit in the structure that keeps some people down. I believe that the human experience is a shared one. Those people who ask you to NOT be woke to inequality and injustice are asking you to do so for a very specific reason. They don’t want the system to change. They fear the system changing so much, they want you to be ignorant.
And in fact, the opposite of woke in this context is asleep. Why would someone want you to be asleep to the injustices in our society? The more people who are woke to injustice, the better our chance of someone finding a way to make a more just world in a manner that everyone can live with. We should want be woke to the inequalities that our government creates in our names for people of color and different religions and genders.
We will never fix all the injustices and inequalities in the world. I will never be as smart as Neil Degrasse Tyson nor will I ever be as good a singer as Tom Jones. I will never be as good at basketball as Larry Bird, nor shall I ever be as good at business as Sean Combs. Some inequities are part of the world.
Others however we have created. Being conscious of them and working to make sure we do not perpetuate a status quo that maintains unjust inequities is a good thing. Being woke to that idea is a good thing.
Words have intentional and deliberate meanings. The people who are fighting “wokism” do so because they want to maintain the system that benefits them, and they believe if you are ignorant you will do so. Being aware of the bias inherent in the system doesn’t mean you support any specific solution. It just means you are awake.
On this Juneteenth weekend, I invite you to remember the famous admonition to stay woke in Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…”
People For Liberty
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