This is from one of the people I’m least likely to bother quoting:
“We need a national divorce. . . From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrats’ traitorous America Last policies, we are done.”
The words are those of our fellow American, Marjorie Taylor Greene, sputtering unhinged right-wing comedy for all the country to hear. The point she’s making, of course, is anything but unique. The right-wing chorus of snarling contempt is everywhere, focused essentially on a single word, which is the darling enemy of the moment: Woke.
“We will never, ever, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”
That’s Florida governor Ron DeSantis, of course, who recently signed something called the Stop WOKE Act into law, which prohibits the teaching of uncensored (i.e., actual) racial history in the state’s schools, under threat of criminal prosecution, so that no little boy or girl will ever feel uncomfortable as they sit at their desks.
My purpose in splattering these words, yet again, onto the nation’s computer screens is not to counter them so much as simply to analyze them – indeed, to analyze the present moment itself, from which Greene wants her divorce – and to look beyond this moment, into the larger possibilities of a “woke future.”
The amazing thing about the anti-woke crusade of the right is how fragile and linguistically cautious it is, compared to the way things were in the “good old days,” whose passing the anti-wokers so deeply lament. Please, dear Lord, make America great again. Bring back the days when white supremacy was simply the way things were, when America was overtly and indisputably racist and proud of it: proud of its segregation, its racist laws, its outright voter suppression, its lynchings and cross burnings and Klan terrorism, etc., etc., etc. Now all this stuff is just history, and the woke culture wants to teach it to our kids in a negative way, as though it were wrong.
In other words, even though Republicans (i.e., white supremacists) maintain plenty of political clout, the power they had in the old days has been shattered. The civil rights movement, nonviolent at its core, pierced the national consensus. It created not simply political and legal, but spiritually transformative change in the USA, pushing it closer to its own cliché of being “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.” You might say the country is . . . pardon the term . . . “woke.” Well, kind of. And oh so tentatively.
Don’t get me wrong. In no way do I mean the country has fully transformed itself, made itself a land of equality, ended systemic racism, atoned for its history (of slavery, genocide, etc.), which Greene, DeSantis and friends have devoted their lives to whitewashing. I simply mean there has been a breakthrough. Systemic racism ain’t what it used to be. And that matters.
The fact that the white-supremacist wannabes have targeted, in their hate speech, not specific racial or ethnic groups as the enemy of their freedoms, but a word, shows the extent to which their authoritative power has diminished. Today’s America is complex, which is precisely what happens when a large part of the nation – to some extent against its own will – is awake, rather than asleep.
The assault on the word “woke” is, of course, dog-whistle racism. The word is African-American in its origins, dating from the early 20th century. Its original use was in relation to the dangers people of color faced simply living their lives. “Stay woke” meant, in essence, “be careful.” But over the years, the word began crossing cultural barriers and expanded to mean something hard-won and spiritual: awareness of how wrong things can be, of the crucial urgency of change. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other such murders, the word became overtly political.
“Woke” meant being aware that a better world is possible. Uh oh . . .
Soon thereafter it was seized by the right as a verbal scapegoat and, as John McWhorter noted in the New York Times, became “a prisoner in scare quotes,” uttered with a sneer. It was ransacked of its meaning and, you might say, is now being used as the white supremacists’ placeholder until the n-word can return to public discourse.
The point of what I’m trying to say is this: Woke lives! Despite the word’s abduction, the spiritual truth behind it remains a political force for change. It transcends the “us vs. them” mentality of societies built on racism and every other form of domination. It transcends the need for, and creation of, an enemy. The civil rights movement, nonviolent to the core – a movement emerging out love for all life, out of awareness of the world’s connectedness – is humanity’s force for evolution. Its work is far from over.
It penetrated racism. Now it must penetrate militarism, which is racism plus bombs and patriotism. War gives people the freedom to dehumanize their enemies and then, of course, kill them, along with any and all collateral bystanders.
So I end with the words of longtime peace activist Kathy Kelly, writing recently about the 20th anniversary of the beginning of our war on Iraq and the shock-and-awe bombing campaign. She and other global activists were in Iraq at the time.
“Our team visited hospital wards where maimed children moaned as they recovered from surgeries. I remember sitting on a bench outside of an emergency room. Next to me, a woman convulsed in sobs asking, ‘How will I tell him? What will I say?’ She needed to tell her nephew, who was undergoing emergency surgery, that he had not only lost both his arms but also that she was now his only surviving relative. A U.S. bomb had hit Ali Abbas’s family as they shared a lunch outside their home. A surgeon later reported that he had already told Ali that they had amputated both of his arms. ‘But,’ Ali had asked him, ‘will I always be this way?’”
Distraught, Kathy returned to her hotel room, where she pounded her pillow in anger and shame, crying: “Will we always be this way?”
Answering “no” to this question is the journey of peace: the journey of woke.