Steps to Being Woke in America

I highly recommend checking out the 60’s classic, Soul on Ice. The book holds several essays written by then prison inmate, Eldridge Cleaver. Later becoming an early and prominent member of the Black Panther Party, I knew his book was a must-read. I added it to my graduation list but happened to find it first in my aunt’s bookshelf earlier this week. Since beginning the book I’ve been touched, moved and related to.

The entry titled  On Becoming describes Cleaver’s journey from unaware Black man “woke”. Saying what I could have said myself, he wrote, “Of course I’d always known I was Black but I never really stopped to take stock of what I was involved in” (17). Now, when I did stop and realize, I was thrown into a whirlpool of emotions.

I remember an old friend telling me that if I were white, I’d make the perfect American. Half wanting to be white at the time, I didn’t know how to take the comment. One thing the comment did do was capture was my love of America and all things American. I always told those who’d question my strange love as a Black female in America that I didn’t have a country so I would make America my own. From the consequences of slavery, I would never know the country my ancestors were taken from. Actually, the countries that they were taken from due to all of the mixing through marriage over the past couple hundred years. It wasn’t until going natural years later and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement did I realize just how lost I had been my entire life. Again, I always knew I was Black, but realizing that I was a part of a community, and realizing that community’s stance revealed to me a crooked America. A crooked home. I felt filthy for being so blind for so long.

I took note of the different phases Cleaver seemed to go through after his sudden epiphany. I recognized them in his writing because I too experienced those same feelings with my awareness dawning generations later.

  1. Realization
    1. Cleaver describes being “aflame with indignation over my newly discovered social status” (17).
    2. This feeling falls all too close to home. Being socially conscious in America feels like fighting a massive and unseen devil with more than half of the population proclaimed atheist or at best agnostic. Especially at first, my frustration grew rapidly and gave me the feeling of quick exhaustion.
  2. Rebellion
    1. Cleaver rebelled against America and all things American from hot dogs to baseball
    2. At this point I already transitioned to natural hair but solely for the purpose of having healthier hair. Now, it suddenly became a political statement. The protest growing from my scalp against White Influence.
  3. Outrage
    1. Cleaver questioned why he was in jail when the Segregationists were free
    2. I was outraged that the police officers responsible for the deaths of my people walked free
  4. Challenging Big Ideas Then Small
    1. Cleaver came to the conclusion that there was no God and angered easily by the presence of the visiting jail pastors. “They could usher you through the Pearly Gates after you were dead, but not through the prison gate while you were still alive and kicking” (19). 
    2. I’ve made no strong declarations against the existence of God or religion but in my heart, I challenge and debate all that I’ve been taught. Through this new lens of awareness, it is difficult to overlook colonialism and its effects on faith.
  5.  Discovering Your Own “Man Eating Ogre”
    1. There comes a time of accountability for us all. With honesty, we find our own hypocrisies and double standards. I won’t spoil Cleaver’s Ogre.

I will share my own and end with this. In my fight for equality and attempts to spread awareness, I finally had to look at myself. In Soul on Ice Eldridge Cleaver speaks of a Muslim brother who insisted Cleaver be kept from holding any position until he had been a Muslim for 7 years. He pointed to Cleaver’s light-colored “Beast Eyes” similar to those of Whites. Another replied, “Many so-called Negroes have funny Beast Eyes. The devils have mixed us all up. Even the Honorable Elijah Mohammad has light-colored eyes. Brother Malcolm has light-colored eyes. So don’t be going around here talking like that because you’re spreading disunity” (39). I saw myself in the complaining brother. In trying to preach against European beauty standards of straight hair and light skin, I forgot that my lighter kin was never my enemy and that many who choose to perm their hair do so simply for style. If this would’ve continued, my ideas and outreach would have been skewed, only representing and fighting for only one type of Black.

There are many steps in becoming woke in America. Your steps do not have to resemble mine or anyone else’s. As long as honesty and love are part of every step of that journey, I’m confident you’re moving in the right direction.

What has your journey been like?



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