I grew up in the 1960s, and verbal memes were significant in my black experience. Conversational shorthand was prevalent, with words like solid, psych’, and even rap having a different meaning then than now. Solid could take on multiple meanings depending on context; it could mean I understand, you are good with me, or good point. Psych’ had nothing to do with one’s mental condition; it was a kid’s game of trickery—look in that box, there is a one hundred dollar bill— when the box was empty, one would shout psych! A good rap was your conversation, especially with a woman or girl. ‘Ronnie’s rap game can pull any woman.’

My short monologue on the language in my neighborhood and thousands of other black communities leads me to the overuse and misuse of the word “woke.” Hearing the bastardization of the word in right-wing media and radio is a purposeful poke in the eye. Being woke for black men and women had a specific meaning. The phrase was “stay woke,” followed by a familial handshake, nod, or embrace. It was often the parting words and a reminder to be careful in the white world of America. Microaggressions, blatant discrimination, and self-preservation were understood to be part of daily life, and staying woke could be life-saving. In today’s parlance, it would be termed it is what it is. There are natural things in societies of color that the white world makes fun of and appropriates, getting lip injections and Brazilian butt lifts.

When my best friend Albert and I were kids, we asked each other if our skin color was so bad; why do white people flock to the beaches every summer to get brown? They called it a tan but the browner, the better. The first woke movie of my life was a film I talked about a few years ago entitled Watermelon Man starring Godfrey Cambridge. Cambridge portrays an obnoxious, bigoted white insurance salesman in the 1960s who discovers he has turned black in the middle of the night on a bathroom trip. A series of microaggressions ensue, including his ritual of racing the bus to his stop for exercise, which was now perceived as—he must be running because he stole something. An increase in his sexual prowess is now assumed, and his treatment by a black coffee counterman and an elevator operator changes from reverence and resentment to familiarity.

The movie took a serious turn in the film’s last 20 minutes, and Jeff Gerber [Cambridge’s character] awoke. I laughed uproariously at all the right places, arguments with a sun lamp company and its’ repair man, bathing in milk, and visiting his doctor. My friends and I walked out of the movie profoundly changed. To hear right-wing forces use the word as a bludgeon against anything they cannot suppress, the LGBTQ+ community, women’s health care, immigrants, blacks, and increasingly Jews, is upsetting. It is not upsetting because they do not understand the word or its origin but because bigots, racists, and their followers are only interested in an imagined grievance. Staying woke in many communities remains necessary for survival.

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  • December 5, 2022