Assessing the war on woke

Published September 21, 2023

By Lib Campbell

I am not sure we can get more stupid than Tommy Tuberville trashing poetry reading on a war ship as being too “woke.” Really? Isn’t it enough that he has singlehandedly put a stranglehold on military promotions and appointments just to make a point of denying medical access to women in military service? My daddy might thump him on the forehead. That always seemed to work straightening me out.

The use of “woke” began in the in the mid twentieth century in the African American community as an encouragement to young people to be vigilant and stay aware of racist tactics of intimidation and physical harm by white people in Black communities. Being awake to danger is a good thing for anybody’s culture. The way it has been used as a pejorative put down sheds more light on the user than it does anybody else. Waging a war on awareness, enlightenment, empathy, and care will yield nothing but publicity (maybe), and ridicule (certainly).

Ron Desantis took up the mantle of “woke” against the LGBTQ community and the Mouse. It was “woke” to be inclusive and support diversity. It was “woke” to offer libraries that reflect accurate history, art, sex education and good literature. Drag shows are too “woke.” And now apparently poetry is too “woke.” Even Amanda Gorman’s poetry is too “woke.”

Anything that is open-minded, enlightening, expanding, welcoming, including, awakening, is too “woke.” So what is the alternative? If we are not growing in knowledge, awareness, concern, we are giving life over to those who choose to squelch and stifle, narrow and erase because they are afraid that if we are too awakened, we will throw the bums out. That’s exactly what needs to happen. Our legislatures and the halls of congress are filled with the poison of self-interest. There is great work now in a war on “woke” to make us afraid. The only thing it is making us is disgusted and mad. And it is co-opting a word and a concept that are very meaningful in the Black community.

There is a great big swath of us who want to stay “woke” to the shenanigans of the Freedom Caucus, the Maga Republicans, the Neo-Nazis, the White Supremacists, and any who come down on the side of making us smaller, more afraid, less informed, less enlightened, less educated. Your life suppressing actions threaten our very Democracy and your war on “woke” is poking a sleeping bear. We will be vocal. We will be loud. We will vote every time the polls are open.

A war on poetry is a war on the soul. Mr. Tuberville must have forgotten his high school literature. Readings, like John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields still stir the soul. “In Flanders fields the poppies grow between the crosses, row on row…” Does Mr. Tuberville not know that the Star Spangled Banner is actually a four-verse poem about the great battle at Fort McHenry that was witnessed and given testimony to by a young Frances Scott Key. Key was moved to pathos and patriotism that continue to move a nation. Billy Rose wrote, The Unknown Soldier. “There is a graveyard near the White House where the Unknown Soldier lies, and the flowers there are sprinkled with the tears from Mother’s eyes.”

Poetry, like the Psalms, captures the heart of the human experience, the human longing, and the  place along the long arc of history where the soul is pierced and the heart is changed. War is one of the catalysts for reflection and awakening to the pain and suffering of the human condition. Solace in found in poetry. We all need a little bit of that.

Dismiss the inward journey – the journey of awakening - or if you call it “wokeness” – at your own risk. However you appropriate the word “woke,” know that being against all that “wokeness” means to many Black and under-represented people will corrode your soul and leave you empty of any capacity for your own personhood, your own humanity to flourish. Using “wokeism” as a blunt instrument against anything that is expansive, progressive, or inclusive is like shooting all that is positive in this “woke” moment in the foot.

Let it go, Mr. Tuberville. You’ve embarrassed yourself enough already.