Black, Young, and Woke

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The match has been lit. The embers glow orange…brighter with each trending hashtag…fiery red with each “he was resisting” excuse…steaming with each “I’m sure there’s more to the story.”

Last Week’s News Headlines

  • A Black Teenager Asked for Directions. A Man Responded With Gunfire.
  • Black men sitting in Starbucks arrested
  • Fake Starbucks coupon aimed at blacks uses the N-word
  • ‘You black men’ should have a curfew: California newspaper apologizes for police shooting op-ed
  • LA Fitness employees called 911 on two black men they said didn’t pay. They had.

Nothing describes my awakening to the realities of being a black person in a predominantly white country better than a quote from James Baldwin:

“It comes as a great shock…to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance…has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.”

I wasn’t born in America, but one year before Donald Trump took office, I officially pledged my allegiance to the country I have lived in for over thirty years and became a United States citizen. I’d like to say that it is a coincidence that my “awakening” began around the time of his election, but unfortunately I can’t. His election to office made me question everything I believed in, including friendships. How could I not question the ideologies of friends who agreed with this man, this man who espoused such hatred, and seemed to stand against everything that I believed America stood for when I became a citizen. This was the beginning of my rebirth in America.

As someone born in a primarily black Caribbean island country, I had never been ambivalent about my skin color. It just wasn’t something that was an issue for me. Of course, when you are raised in an environment where 72% of the people are of African descent, there really is no reason to feel inferior. There is no reason to second guess your place in the world.

Growing up, I did encounter different ethnicities in school, but I honestly never thought of them as different from me. In fact, I never thought of the white kids in my class as white, just lighter complected.

The first time I noted a difference was after we had all immigrated to the United States or Europe and reunited at home. For the first time, there was an awareness — not an awareness based on our friendships but one based on our new experiences in these globalized countries, an acknowledgement that yes, outside of our small bubble, we are seen as different from one another in the eyes of the world.

Stay Woke

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“Woke is definitely a black experience — woke is if someone put a burlap sack on your head, knocked you out, and put you in a new location and then you come to and understand where you are ain’t home and the people around you ain’t your neighbors. They’re not acting in a neighborly fashion, they’re the ones who conked you on your head. You got kidnapped here and then you got punked out of your own language, everything. That’s woke — understanding what your ancestors went through. Just being in touch with the struggle that our people have gone through here and understanding we’ve been fighting since the very day we touched down here. There was no year where the fight wasn’t going down.”

“Stay woke” may be merely a trending hashtag for some, but for me, it actually was an awakening — an eye-opener to the fact that the America I held in high esteem was in fact just a Photoshopped version of the real thing. Our very own version of the Matrix.

“Are you woke?” essentially asks the question: “Will you take the blue pill or will you take the red pill?” Do you want to live your life in denial of the realities of our existence or do you want to acknowledge the truth, even if that truth means losing the comfort of your current existence?

Those of us who take the red pill and stay in Wonderland are so aware of the struggle, that each headline on racism is a stab through the heart, each unwarranted death hashtag, a soul-sucker.

Being woke is mentally exhausting, so much so that some of us must shut ourselves off from social media for a while, just to recharge our depleted souls.

Some have decided to stick with the blue pill, however, and are so removed from the struggle that they fail to see the bigger picture around them. They are oblivious to the fact that the redline does not stop short of them, but in reality, includes them. I don’t believe most of us decide to stay oblivious. It is natural, however, for us to live our lives in a sort of bubble, only affected by issues that directly impact us or one-off incidents we see in our local news.

Although we ascribe these incidents to “glitches in the Matrix,” they are not rare. Social media has put all these glitches on the same social media platform and shown that they are in fact trends. That one unarmed black teenager who was shot in your community seems insignificant until you add him to the one unarmed black teen shot in 19 other communities in the last year. When you see that trend, there is something inside you that breaks free. A complacency that ends.

We start to recognize the carefully hidden forms of oppression — oppression of race, sexuality, sex, religion. It has been around for a long time, but we have become so used to it, we hardly recognize it anymore, especially as it’s very rarely as blatant as it was in the past. Instead, oppression is shown in much subtler forms, such as economic inequality and inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Not recognizing these injustices doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. That’s why the evolution of the “woke” folks is so fascinating. It’s about recognizing that a lot of us are in the “sunken place” and need to “get out” — and a lot of us are. We are beginning to recognize that the status quo leaves a lot be desired, and for that, we have social media to thank.

“What we need is ‘Black Power.’” This was the cry of Stokely Carmichael at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. Over the years, there have been many different interpretations of the term, but as Stokely himself explained in his book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, it is “a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.”

The Black Power movement of the 60s began as African Americans were discouraged by the slow or non-existent changes of the Civil Rights Movement, including the vast economic gap between blacks and whites. The movement instilled a sense of pride and cultural identity at a time when most African Americans felt they had little control over much else.

With increasing awareness that not a lot has changed since then in terms of equality, we again see a resurgence of black pride. For a black person, it’s a beautiful thing to see unfold. We can highlight Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize in music, Beyoncé being the first black female lead at the Coachella Music Festival, or Ryan Coogler directing the blockbuster movie Black Panther.

More important, however, are the changes I see in the everyday black person: the embracing of the black woman’s natural curves, the pride I see in the growing popularity of the kinky afro, the love shown on Instagram for both our caramel- and chocolate-complected beauties, the drive I see in our men who hustle to start their own businesses instead of waiting for someone to give them a job, and the joy I see on the faces of our children when they get into their chosen colleges. These are examples of black pride that swell my heart.

There is so much understanding that can be drawn from studying the psychology of the African American. Imagine the strength of character you need to grow up in a society where you are treated at every turn as an inferior being. Imagine the mental strength you need to compete with people that magazines and television have told you your whole life are ideal. Imagine the resilience you must have when every news story and headline remind you that the system is built to knock you down…and keep you down. Now remember the last time you saw a news article that used the terms resilience, mental strength, or strength of character when describing a black person. Go ahead…I’ll wait.

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