"Woke" Ain’t Enough: Towards Collective Consciousness Building

by Candace Simpson@CandyCornball

My dad and I went to see Chiraq together. He said, “I want to see it with you, but I want to hear your opinion after.” Though I was bothered by much of the movie, we had a rich discussion afterwards. As a pastor and professor, he modeled how one might maintain a strong conviction while also learning about what people enjoy. So as a teacher, a seminary student discerning her own call, and an organizer, I watched the movie to gain a better understanding. As much as I disliked the movie, it resonated with so many people in my world. That tells me something important about what they believe the problem, and the solution, to be.

It was here that I realized my own performance of “woke” was not enough. When we say someone is “woke,” we mean that this person is aware. This is the person who will check us on our problematic language. This is the person who gets praises of “yaaaasss!” at conference panels. This person should be celebrated. The Woke Life is exhausting.

But woke is now a marketable commodity. Institutions and organizations have recognized the monetary benefit of performing “woke.” There is an entire industry of conferences funded by the true need to gather the wokes and encourage woke fellowship. We use “woke” as a label of approval to be stamped on someone’s forehead. It is how we decide who will keep and discard. But if we are serious about seeing a real revolution, we need to do more than scream “this is problematic! It offends my woke sensibilities!”

I want us to be safe and fulfilled, so it is certainly not everyone’s project to do all things. Many of us are triggered and overwhelmed by the work that lands in our lap. I hope we all do what is best for us. In the spirit of moving with woke and beyond woke, here are some steps that might take us further.

1. Naming the thing that offends our woke sensibilities is an important first step.

We’ve seen the divisions between people who either love or hate ChiRaq, War Room, and Love and Hip Hop. Thanks to a host of independent media companies, we have found ways to tell the stories we never may have heard. When I started college, I could not stand Chris Brown. I had little language for this, particularly when many of my friends participated in victim-blaming rhetoric. I thirsted for accessible work that reminded me I wasn’t alone. For this reason, The Crunk Feminist Collective and For Harriet hold a special place in my heart. The women who wrote at these publications validated the truths I had not yet felt comfortable saying myself. We need to continue to tell these stories, because people are listening.

There is no harm in forming an opinion. Particularly for Black women, whose voices are frequently silenced at systemic and personal levels, there is power in the story. Through gaslighting and misogynoiristic microaggressions, Black women are told to “get over it.” We must name the problems in our world. Otherwise, as Zora Neale Hurston says, “they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

2. Turn dung into fertilizer. Imagine an alternative.

In her autobiography, Assata Shakur articulates discomfort in the organizing practices of the Black Panther Party. Shakur observed that the Party had behaved with an “arrogant, flippant, and disrespectful” attitude. As such, it became nearly impossible to organize the not-yet initiated. Sometimes activists and public thinkers are guilted into “watching their tone,” and those critiques frequently are situated in White Supremacist notions of comfort.

But Shakur’s concerns take on special meaning, particularly coming from her. It is easy to tear down a crumbling building. It is not as easy to build a solid one. For example, what should a reality television program look like? What do we learn about gendered economic exploitation through the story of *insert powerful producer man* and *insert vulnerable artist woman*? Why does Stevie J romantically manipulate his partners? What do we learn about the prison system from the lunch table with Mendeecees, Yandy, Remy, and Papoose? Those questions are meatier. We can whine about the presence of these shows, but we better figure out how to ask some better questions before we miss the lesson. Professor and organizer Walidah Imarisha argues that “being able to collectively dream those new worlds means that we can begin to create those new worlds here.” We will always be disappointed. What happens when you demand a not-yet-here world? That’s the aim of protest, of writing, and art.

3. Find your people.

The operative word in Imarisha’s work is “collective.” We should be skeptical of people who want the credit alone. What part of the movement is that? We have learned to categorize people’s worth in our worlds according to the woke catalog of likes and dislikes. Problematic people go there and woke people go here. I cannot be seen near un-wokes, nor can I be seen consuming un-woke media. As it behaves now, “woke” is an individualistic commodity. It is a performative behavior. It satisfies a selfish need to be understood as “more valuable.” Its main aim is to help us mark whose table we should be seen at, but it does not help us imagine a world where those tables needn’t exist.

What alternative is there to individual woke? Community building. Reading circles. Political education programs. Writing groups. Storytelling circles. Kitchen table laughter. Oral histories. It is the unsexy stuff. We have the tools to do so. Shakur helped organize political education programs for children. While The Panthers wanted to teach them the ten-point program and the Panther songs, Shakur preferred to sit and talk with them. In the end, the program combined both of these experiences.

It is possible to do both at the same time. Unfortunately, most of our think pieces rotate in the same circular network of like-minded people. Online writing does something, but so long as we share things among our friends on Facebook, we run the risk of being loved and read exclusively by people who already agree with us. Unless we are asking questions, highlighting portions, and listening to people’s reactions, we are doing no better than the folks who smack people upside the head with Bible verses. Knowledge is power, but information needn’t be a weapon.

By the time most writing goes online, it’s free to the reader. It might not be everyone’s project, but some of us can commit to sharing these stories with our neighbors and our cousins. We have the tools to talk about these issues in the places we already have access. And, if we use resources from independent sources in our bible studies and teach-ins, we can send donations to those sources. Let’s keep funding the work that brings us life.

It’s nice, but it’s not enough to be a teacher who knows all. What about your students? It’s nice, but it’s not enough to be an organizer who has the sharpest analysis. What about your protest family? It’s nice, but it’s not enough to be a preacher with fire sermons. What about your congregation? We become powerful when everyone has the authority to name their own woke consciousness. The powers that be might be okay with our having one or two or twenty woke leaders. They are not prepared for an entire nation of people who learn together.

“We fight the same battles over and over again. They are never won for eternity, but in the process of struggling together, in community, we learn how to glimpse new possibilities that otherwise never would have become apparent to us, and in the process we expand and enlarge our very notion of freedom.” — Angela Davis

Photo: nisargmedia.com / Shutterstock.com

Candace Y. Simpson is a seminary student and a Brooklyn native. You can follow her tweets on faith, the gospel of shea butter, and her love for Mixtape-era Nicki Minaj at @CandyCornball.

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