Awake or Woke?

Are you awake or woke?

Most likely, you’ve at least heard someone use the word “woke” as an adjective, in a social media post, or in activism.

The Merriam-Webster definition of woke is as follows: A word currently used to describe “consciousness”. “Being aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”. It is truly powerful when someone is aware of the truth behind things “the man” doesn’t want you to know (i.e classism, sexism, and any other social injustices). The modern slang term is in use when you want someone to notice their privilege, complacency, and ignorance (sometimes unintentional). To be woke is to be well-informed of the problems and injustices in our country. Being woke doesn’t just apply to race. A person who is “woke” is mindful of racism and other forms of prejudice, and isn’t just going to turn a blind eye.

What does woke mean to me?

Even in my own understanding of being “woke”, I’ve had the burden of ignorance and needed to delve deeper to discern my opinions from my reality. Dionne Brand said so eloquently, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice”. As it is my responsibility to observe, I’ve had the opportunity to really grasp the ability to “notice” during my college career at Geneseo. Amid reading the course epigraph for Dr. McCoy’s class on Literature, Medicine, and Racism, I’ve had my own perspective on race. Since arriving to Geneseo three years ago, I remember feeling embarrassed about my identity. Given the political climate, I was scared to be an African-American woman on this campus. I made it my mission to become “woke” to relinquish my fear, however, it still lingers. Alas, three years later; I write this and wonder if I feel the same. My deep-rooted fear parallels to the text Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson.

When reading the syllabus, Fortune’s Bones immediately stood out to me, for good reason. Fortune was enslaved by his master Dr. Porter, working endlessly for his approval. Fortune endured a reality where he was considered a property, treated as an outsider, and had to obey under any circumstances. As Nelson writes in Not my Bones, “This skeleton was my temporary home… I am not my body”. Like most slaves, they hardly felt like their body was their “home” or a safe space, their fear of living overpowered. By permission of the sculptor, Nelson comments, The bones told how Fortune labored, suffered, and died: A quick, sudden injury, like whiplash, may have snapped a vertebra in his neck. He did not drown or fall from a cliff. He was not hanged. But he was free.”. In death, he was finally free because his reality was too much to bear. Similar to Fortune, I questioned the value of my black identity and never had the ability to feel free until I became “woke”. Most slaves were forced beyond their will, even in life and death, they were not considered human. After death, Fortune was not allowed a proper burial service. Dr. Porter, Fortune’s owner, kept Fortune’s bones to analyze his skeleton to possibly learn more about the human anatomy. Much to Fortune’s dismay, his body is a representation of the many black bodies throughout history who were maltreated. Medical practitioners during this era used bodies like Fortune’s to examine the ill-treatment of slavery, and encouraged the use of more black bodies in the medical field. It disgusts me that black bodies were thought as useless, and until I understood my own history, I believed the same about myself.

I realized in my time at Geneseo that I no longer feel useless. Dr. McCoy’s class on Literature, Medicine, and Racism has opened my eyes to understand my history, even in moments when I question my identity. In future classes, I hope to use my history to motivate myself in my future profession. Especially in my education classes and experiences student teaching, I’ve personally witnessed the flaws in our education system. As an urban studies minor, it has given me reason to unpack those faults to help create a more inclusive system as a future educator.

It can be difficult to stay woke, but I urge everyone to stay mindful of your social media footprint, your words, and your actions in our society.

Stay woke, kids.

Nelson, Marilyn. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem . Boyds Mills Press. Kindle Edition.

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