COLORED CAPES/ Part One: JOURNEY INTO WOKENESS
Sometimes it's so simple, it's difficult. This is my first attempt at explaining an African American comic book writer's reaction to "WOKE HYSTERIA"
The time has come for a little fireside chat…wherein I get some things off my chest…and vent my gathering vitriol over the absolute nerve of folks out here who have made it their sole mission to decry the very simple word… “woke”. The word “woke” has become a colossal phenomenon and is running off the lips of politicians, news analysts and the unwashed masses like explosive diarrhea. Most of the people that are triggered by this word do happen to be most commonly white folk but I am sure there is a contention of brothers and sisters out there who have beef with the media freestyle connotations of the this “racial dog whistle” of a word. I have become exhausted by the numbers of podcast pundits and amateur content creators who parade the term around on their pages attempting to stoke social media fires or rile up their fanbases by simply dropping the “W” bomb several times throughout their broadcasts. So for better or worse…here goes.
emerge or cause to emerge from a state of sleep; stop sleeping.
"she woke up feeling better"
is the past participle of wake
Now let’s beat this up for a moment. Wake means to emerge from a state of sleep. The cessation of sleep…and woke is its past tense.
The immediate mental correlation that I make is that of THE MATRIX. If you’ve never seen the movie, I can break it down real quick for you here…A computer programmer who thought he understood what the world was is shown the inner workings of a vast computer/machine rebellion in which humans have been lulled to sleep by a powerful and malevolent artificial intelligence that uses mankind as batteries to power their own civilization. In order to keep humans at bay, the clever yet monstrous machines develop a neural interface called the Matrix in which we are convinced that we are still a thriving world of sentient human beings. We still have jobs. We still fuck or experience the sensation of it. We party, drink wine and eat steaks that are delicious but it’s all a program. We are really shaved naked, ghostly bodies covered in protoplasmic slime, stored within an embryonic shell and jacked into a master cpu that rules us through a lush, fraudulent reality. At some point in this nightmarish series of revelations, our hero (Neo or Keanu) is given the details about his mortal shell and how he may set himself free if he wishes to be free of the Matrix. What ensues from this part of the story is an amazing sequence that depicts a second birth of the main character who now knows that his existence thus far has been a computer generated sham. In essence…Neo becomes “woke”. So using this fictional framework…was Neo better off as a human battery daydreaming his mortal days away in a manufactured reality or is his life enhanced by throwing off the shackles of blissful ignorance and coming to grips with the fact that the human race has become enslaved?
If you have seen the Matrix and are familiar with it’s mythology…you are well aware of the difference between the red pill and the blue pill. The blue pill allows the unplugged human to drift back into the fabricated reality of the Matrix…however the red pill will open your mind to a much harsher reality…the true state of things filled with perhaps life affirming and transformative revelations. Being “woke” versus remaining asleep.
I hope it’s clear where I am going with this. Why would anyone ever choose to be blind or handicapped in some way as to be unable to perceive reality? I think the majority of people out there, with respect to those who are actually blind and physically or mentally impaired, would not choose to be so if that were the kind of thing that could be controlled. To me and my interpretation of the expression…to be woke is to be knowledgeable…aware…so you can interact within your own environments and realities with a “vision” that you may not have possessed before. What is so damn offensive about people walking into their every day lives with their eyes wide open? Why would anyone be offended by other cultures wanting to know more about themselves and also see themselves depicted in literature, multimedia and the arts? Furthermore, when these different pockets of people finally are awakened to the fact that for the longest time, their stories…their journeys have not been included in the standard picture of American life…why does that infuriate others who have always been in the spotlight…who have always been considered? The answer to those questions should be clear.
I have noticed that there’s been an increasing wave of push back from white males who are fans and employees of GENRE industry. I have watched it build in intensity over the past ten years or so and often wondered why there were no writers of color that would stand up and immediately engage in this conversation…albeit peacefully and in the spirit of good will.
Create and control your own narrative has become another cliched battle cry of so-called marginalized groups (people of color, LGBTQ, and women)…there’s also “speak your own truth…” “Me too…” “Black Lives Matter” “You will not replace Us…”, the list goes on and continues to multiply as the culture war deepens and intensifies in America. These phrases that may have once meant something pure have been horribly mangled, savaged by the media/politico toilet swirl that passes as national conversation these days. Create your own narrative still resonates with me for some reason. I am forced to ask myself…what is my narrative and do I share this narrative with other people? Meaning is my narrative as an African American male consistent with other African American Males…and is that narrative key to my existence, does it impede my progress and can it be changed to improve my human condition? This is a very loaded and complex set of questions to ponder, but I am doing so in an effort to demonstrate the path of my “head politics” on this matter.
What is my NARRATIVE?
Early on in my academic pursuits I had been alerted by my mother that there was much expected of me in the classroom. I was attending a private catholic school…the kind that required blazers and clip on ties. I had gotten into a few situations with teachers and was exhibiting an early propensity for rebellion. My mother became agitated with the teachers’ growing dislike of me and told me that my behavior and my performance in the classroom would have to be better than everyone else’s in order for me to avoid the scrutiny I was starting to attract. I can remember how indignant I was, even as a first grader, insisting that my teacher was mean…that she never called on me when I knew the answers, and she was always telling me I talked too much. I asked my mother what was it that I had to do to avoid trouble? She informed me that I did talk too much, but that was just because I was inquisitive and probably brighter than most of the kids in my class. She also pointed out that I was one of the only little black boys in the class (except for this other kid named Kelley Mason who had a huge afro and wore a black leather jacket to school) and that sometimes when you’re different than everbody else it’s harder to fit in. This was the moment of my sudden “racial catharsis”. Different? What is she talking about? All the kids in my first grade class were pretty much the same age…we all liked cartoons and toys…loved recess…played sports and frolicked in the sand box together. There’s no difference between myself and the other students I demanded…my teacher is just mean. It was at this moment that my moms dropped the bomb on me.
“I know that all of you are kids and may be the same age but you and Kelley are black and the rest of them are white. Your teacher is also white. That’s the difference I’m trying to point out to you.” Mom said trying to carefully select her words.
“And I’m Black. So what? Does that mean I’m bad? That she’s being mean to me because I’m…” I was getting heated…even as a seven year old.
“No…that’s not what I’m saying at all. Black is beautiful. But as you get older you’re going to notice there’s a difference in the way you are looked upon and treated by white people…it’s just one of those things you will learn to accept and deal with. And what I’m telling you now is that you can avoid all of that by doing one thing…” She looked at me with the adoring eyes of a mother bear.
“By being the best at what you do…in everything. Be the best reader in the class…be the best artist…be quiet and behaved while the teacher is talking, and then if you have any questions or something you would like to say…politely raise your hand. Be the best so there is no way she can ever say anything bad about you.”
One could characterize this as my first “woke” episode. An episode that has become the essence of my survival in America.
Our discussions about race were unceasing after this watershed conversation. I became extremely interested in my own family history as well as the pieces of African Americana that seemed to be present in most Black folks homes and apartments during the seventies. As a young child I became familiar with the significance of my hairstyle which was the Afro. The Afro hairstyle became very prominent during the Civil Rights Movement. The movement and it’s residual societal effects permeated the suburban middleclass household that my parents created. Now by the time my afro was being shaped and molded it was merely a stylistic fashion choice but the message still reverberated through my curly locks…messages like “Black is beautiful”… “Do your thang”… “Right on.” “Power to the People” “Soul Sister” and “Soul Brother”. These positive and self affirming buzz words were the lexicon of my nuclear family and many others. I was the child of progressive Negroes who had undergone a distinct and refreshing renassaince of black thought and achievement (not unlike the Harlem Renaissance before it)…this new outlook on the “American Experience of being Black” and the handbook that went with it was not easily attained or communicated, but it was a blueprint to escape the psychological chains that slavery, Jim Crow and the assassinations of some our brightest and most courageous heroes threatened to keep on our spirit and minds if not around our wrists. This is the blueprint that I received from not only my parents, but my grandparents…my friends’ parents, my barber, older black kids…hell even winos on the street knew what time it was. Being woke in the seventies was like wearing an invisible high tech exo-skeleton…there was a swagger, an unwavering elocution accompanied by a high voltage energy that only comes with a higher understanding of self and your place in this universe. You were undeterrable and steadfast, and even though there were many institutions and obstacles created specifically to block your comeuppance…this alternative narrative that was being transmitted throughout the black community when I was coming up was a palatable thing. As Brother J (from the conscious hip hop group, X-CLAN) once said, “You can feel it in the air.” If being “woke” brought this much confidence and self love to a group of people who had been brainwashed into thinking they weren’t worth a red cent, then there’s time for sleep when I’m dead.
THE LUKE CAGE PARADIGM
The history of comic strips and cartoons and their initial depictions of black people is problematic for me. I love comics and the power images have and convey. But early on in the dawning of mass media and communications…brothers and sisters from the so-called Dark Continent were getting “straight cancelled” by white writers and cartoonists to the point where people actually became comfortable with lawn jockeys, Aunt Jemimah and black face salt and pepper shakers. For readers of all colors who want to truly investigate what being “woke” means…get on Amazon and order the BLACK BOOK by Middleton Harris. My mother had this book in her personal library and slyly left it strategically placed where she knew my line of eye sight would take me. I grabbed the book one afternoon and opened it to find a paralyzingly racist image of a black woman cracking open a watermelon and springing forth from said watermelon was a newborn black baby girl….Oh the horror!!! I continued to turn the pages and stare wide eyed at these repulsive images of tar black caricatures with gleaming white teeth and the requisite “Buckwheat” style platts. In a few moments of research I had discovered something that I had never been taught in school or shown on TV… the systematic destruction of Black people’s image that had been allowed to permeate early media and inform people’s imaginations and opinions worldwide. Global slander. Defamation of character. This was a ruthless and ingenius play by the white power structure. Control the image and narrative of the culture that was originally brought here to be second class from DAY 1.
Then I found LUKE CAGE. Another “woke” episode in the life and times of Brian Williams.
Actually, LUKE CAGE was delivered to me via The Amazing Spider-Man Issue 123 published by the Marvel Comics Group. My dad had snatched a copy for me at the local drug store along with his various toiletries. He gave me the book and I took it into my bedroom for personal review. I stared at that damn thing for hours trying to unravel its enigma…why was I magnetized by instantly by this cover besides the fact that it bore the image of my my second best and favorite superhero, Spider-Man (Superman is first, Batman is third, Fantastic Four…fourth). What was this fairly handsome, flashily dressed as far as superheroes go, BLACK GUY doing punching Spidey’s lights out !!! I read the comic about three times. I inhaled it, I sniffed it…if I could I would have intravenously tried to absorb the feeling this book gave me. It was during this episode of “WOKENESS” that I realized there could be such a thing as a BLACK SUPERHERO. This was something I truly had never paid any attention to. Throughout my first seven years on this earth I had cultivated an interest and then a love for comic book superheroes and never once in that span of time did I ever consider color. By the time I had reached the tender age of 8, I simply thought that “SUPERHEROES” were white and the worlds that they interacted with were also white just like most of the TV shows I watched. I hadn’t gotten hip at this moment Black Panther (My fifth favorite superhero) or the Falcon. So to see a nostrils flared, , afro-wearing, silk shirt ripping, musclebound black man with a link chain for a belt slap the mess out of Spiderman, on the cover no less, was a traumatic event for me to say the least.
“Daddy?! Look at this. This is a black dude. A black superhero. He’s beating up Spider-Man. But…I don’t get it.” I said breathlessly.
“What’s not to get, youngblood?” My pops asked without taking his eyes off the newspaper.
“There aren’t any black superheroes, Daddy.” I actually spoke these words.
“Of course there are. You just have to come up with them.” And my father actually responded with this retort.
And thus…an African American Comic Book Writer is Born!!!
To be continued…soon!!!