What is "Wokeness" and Why is it Tearing America Apart?
Wokeness has become a new catchphrase for both the far right and far left in America, but the meaning of the word is incredibly different depending on who you are talking to. Despite, "to be woke" is a positive approach to understanding those with differing backgrounds, and understanding that core approach may build bridges moving forward.
What is "Wokeness"?
In the beginning, "woke" is a term that derived from African-American culture that meant "[becoming] aware or alert of racial prejudice and discrimination." It comes from Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey, who wrote in 1923, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations." This was an attempt to bring unification to black people around the world, as so much strife was and still is going on in areas all around.
Black American singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter used the phrase near the end of his song "Scottsboro Boys", which tells the story of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women. It sings, "I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open." Aja Romano wrote that, "[Huddie Ledbetter] uses 'stay woke' in explicit association with Black Americans’ need to be aware of racially motivated threats and the potential dangers of white America."
The term "woke" continued to gain momentum in the African-American communities, but it gained even more political connection in 1971 when the play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham released. This play includes the line, "I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I'm gon' stay woke. And I'm gon help him wake up other black folk." It was around this time that the term become more widely used and set a motion for what was to come.
The term continued to make an impact within Black America, but it did not see national attention until the 2000s, especially the 2010s, after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Black Lives Matter is a movement that began one year before this shooting, so an organized group was ready to strike when the next major case of racial discrimination would take place. This is when Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the term "woke" got into the national spotlight, and naturally, they were seen as heroes to one side and villains to the other.
It has been a decade since the creation of BLM, and the group continues to fight and bring awareness firstly to Black Americans and ultimately everyone as they pursue true equality for black people. To this day, it is a movement that has international ties, continuing the desire of Marcus Garvey to reunite black people and bring peace, but the movement has its strongest roots in America where things are unfortunately the most divisive.
The term "woke" has since evolved into a broader term, although its roots and goal are clear. In its current state, woke is explicit and direct regarding injustice, racism, sexism, and more in the hope of creating a safer, more unified, and better understood world. Unfortunately, this message of understanding, justice, and unification has hit one particular group the wrong way, and a political war has been created regarding the "real" meaning of woke and what it means for the future of the United States and the world at large.
Why is "Wokeness" Tearing America Apart?
At first glance, this may be an easy topic to assess, but the problem is that like the long and rich history of the term "woke" for black people, the anti-woke crowd is motivated by their own history that does have deep roots that go way back. Even looking at a recent event like the coronavirus pandemic, we can connect some dots in regards to the 1918 flu pandemic (a.k.a. the Spanish flu). Strong religious types and conservatives of the political realm saw the demand for social distancing and mask usage in 1918 as a direct attack at their civil liberties, which were promoted by conservative political leaders at the time. Ironically, the reaction in 2020 and 2021 was almost identical, but understanding the political influence helps to read the mind of these individuals more.
In what is largely the American South, predominantly white Republicans, especially far right ones, have felt the continual progressive movement as a direct attack towards their well-being and livelihood. Even during the American Civil War, where the political parties had opposite ideologies, the conservative Democrats did not want to give up their slaves or their primary means of income. Not only that, but the underlying roots were that they were unwilling to recognize black people in America as equals. That reality has stayed with white conservatives since then, and the strongly religious among this group justified their means through Biblical teachings as well.
It is the religious side of things were history in America is most interesting, and much of it has been subtle to the point where it goes unnoticed. The rise of the Dixiecrats in the mid-1900s started pushing States' Rights as a top political desire, and that is something that is still being fought for to this day, even seeing people like Marjorie Taylor Green calling for a "national divorce" so that conservative states can create their own rules. On the Dixiecrats platform, this was specifically to prevent black people interacting with white people, and today it feels like a means of separating "woke culture" from conservatives.
The core of the conservative message is quite literally in the name, and that is to conserve. Conservatives feel like they need to protect their culture from harm and destruction, so when their norm is challenged, they gear up to fight. The problem with this thinking and the Make America Great Again movement is that its desire is to revert back to a time where things were "better" for them, not for black people, LGBTQ+ people, Muslims, and more. This is particularly why their is a clash currently, because one side is still pointing out inequality and discrepancies while the other is turning a blind eye to those realities in favor of protecting their own culture.
For conservatives, change is scary, and any progressive movement pressures society to change. This is why attachments to backwards ideologies tend to rise through the cracks in highly progressive times like right now, and thanks to 24/7 news networks and social media providing "professional" insight at all hours of the day, tension and animosity continue to grow alongside progression, which is why things feel especially divisive in this day and age, because lots of progress is being made and lots of push back is happening at every progressive corner.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The message behind "woke" is still very similar to the original message back in the early 1900s, and that is to understand, bring peace, and unite. Sadly, a lot of people behind the woke movement have lost sight of how to help ignorant people to move towards better understanding, and that means no cancelling, no insulting, and no bullying the conservative side. We need to reconstruct the message back to the times it was most effective, and we need to remember that good change takes time. As the great Nelson Mandela once said, "One of the most difficult things is not to change society - but to change yourself."
Knowing that there are a lot of people out there that still need to be educated, the message needs to stay strong and pure. When one ultra conservative understands the woke message personally and begins to change within, that person will then educate people in their circle immediately after better than anyone else. Society changes when the individuals are informed and move forward, not the other way around. This is why we need to step away from antagonistic approaches in favor of humanistic ones, recognizing that conservatives are not the enemy but individuals with their own unique backgrounds and cultures that need to be informed.
So although the term "wokeness" has gained a lot of momentum in recent years, the message behind it is no different than that of individuals like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., César Chávez, Muhammad Yunus, Harvey Milk, and many others who helped raise awareness of human rights and equality for all. The message behind "becoming woke" is simply waking up to the reality that certain groups of people are still facing hardships, and that fight will continue until true equality happens for everyone.