What Does It Mean to Be Woke?

June 4, 2020 Comments Off on What Does It Mean to Be Woke?

In the preface to her scintillating picture book of poems for young readers, Mahogany L. Browne provides this definition of “woke”:

It means to be aware. It means to see your surroundings and challenge how we strengthen our relationship with the government, the community, and nature. To be WOKE is to fight for your civil rights and to fight for the rights of your neighbors…The idea of being aware of your surroundings, especially in a time when we are taught to be quiet and not rock the boat, can be difficult to embrace, but this is where our freedom begins.

The events of the last week are calling us to become woke. They are calling us to listen, especially to Black voices unleashing decades of pain and injustice. They are calling us to expand our bookshelves and our social media feeds to include more voices of color (@hereweeread and @theconsciouskid are a great place to start for parents). They are calling us to talk to our children about difficult topics like race, privilege, and racism and help them revise their summer reading lists to include stories by people of color. They are calling us to begin the uncomfortable and long-overdue work of examining the way our own whiteness makes us complicit in the sickness of systemic racism, because until we change what’s in our hearts, we can’t lead our children to do the same.

Topics like police brutality and racial profiling can be overwhelming and frightening to children of all races, but we can also use these conversations to empower them. “Rocking the boat” starts with finding the words to describe what’s happening and how it makes us feel—and then turning these words into beacons of inspiration, hope, and change.

We are being called to help our children find their voice, and I can think of no better vehicle than Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (Ages 8-12). Historically, poets have been on the forefront of social movements. Here, Mahogany L. Browne’s poems sit alongside those from Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood, serving as “instruction manuals and anthems,” as “literary heartbeats and blueprints of survival,” for our children to sift through cruelty and injustice and find the words and courage to speak out about them. Several of the poems address racial history and discrimination. Others speak to gender bias, immigration, activism, body image, physical disability, intersectionality, and our relationship with nature. Taken as a whole, the poems celebrate a definition of community that’s richer for its diversity of voices, skin colors, and genders. Double-page illustrations by Theodore Taylor III enhance the vibrancy of the poems. As “Instructions on Listening to the Trees” concludes, “We are all part of someone else’s journey/ That’s the way communities are built/ Each root sprawling toward the edge of an infinite smile.”

I bought this book for my kids in the early days of quarantine (I figured—and rightly so—that any book with a forward by Jason Reynolds can only be a “must have”). I suspected that reading a poetry book straight through from start to finish would be met with resistance, but I also wasn’t sure leaving it lying around the house would get it the attention it deserved. I tried something a little different. I introduced it to the kids during our morning read-aloud time, reading them both Reynolds’ forward (the kids were intrigued by his definition of “back talk”) and Browne’s explanation of “woke.” I also read the opening poem, “Activism, Everywhere,” which begins:

Our voice
Is our greatest power
When we stand together
We can speak up against mistreatment
We are saying that we will not be silent about the mistreatment of people
We are saying we will not be silent
We are standing tall and firm because we believe in equity and equality
We are standing tall and firm
We are not yielding or bending because the conversation is uncomfortable
We are not yielding or bending

I told my kids their assignment for the day was to page through the book at their own leisure and choose one poem which they especially liked. After dinner, we would gather and they would each read aloud the poem they had chosen.

I can boast very, very few successes with the “crisis schooling” of the past three months, but this was a bright spot. Neither child could choose just one poem, so they ended up reciting multiple ones. This is owing to the talents of Browne, Acevedo, and Gatwood, who have written poems which beg to be read aloud. Which perfectly encapsulate young people’s points of view. Which elicit curiosity, excitement, chills, and wonder, even as they address inequities and injustice.

My son chose Browne’s “We Make a Fist,” which is about how gatherings are richer when everyone brings different talents to the “picnic blanket,” so to speak. He also chose Gatwood’s “I’ve Been There Before,” which is an especially poignant poem about offering compassion to those who are suffering, about finding ways to identify and relate to underlying universal feelings.

[…]but we don’t need to look like each other
or live like each other to know what it feels
like to be sad, to be hurt, to be in need of a friend.
instead, we can simply say the words
i understand, we can make a secret club
out of our sadness, we can let everyone in
who wants to join, we can sit in a circle
and laugh and share, sing over and over
you are not alone.

My daughter picked “In Between, There is Light,” another by Gatwood, which asks us to imagine the human family as a rainbow of hundreds of colors (“the lights and darks of every shade—neon colors, in-between colors, colors you’re not sure what to call”) and then asks how we would feel if someone looked at that rainbow and professed to see only two colors. Or when:

sometimes, the world wants one color of the rainbow
to be louder than the rest, stronger
than the rest, bigger than the rest. Do you know what I tell them?
I say, “Look up, into the sky, do you see it? Look how
perfect it is as a whole.”

Black history is directly invoked in poems like “Say the Names,” by Acevedo, which celebrates “leaders/ who fought with words/ that landed like right hooks,” and in Browne’s “Amari Explains a Frown to Her Little Brother,” in which a girl struggles to explain to her brother why they are frowned at or followed when they enter a convenience store, while their babysitter isn’t.

I try to explain to my little brother
What I learned in history class
And why I’m so sad and I want to tell him

About Jordan Davis or Trayvon Martin or Emmett Till
stories from long ago and just yesterday[…]

I just want to cry
Because my brother is my little brother
He’s my favorite person and he doesn’t
care about how different I may look
Just that I’m as beautiful and friendly as our grandmother
And I’m as kind and curious as our grandfather

So instead I lead him to the squeaky swing set
And think I’ll wait another day to explain to him
what it means when someone doesn’t like you
without every saying hello

I also appreciated some of the language Gatwood invokes to talk about stereotyping in “A Me-Shaped Box”:

Stereotyping is all of the little boxes
in our heads that insist
on fitting people, with all of their
different shapes and sizes and colors
and voices, into a home they didn’t build
for themselves.

As a woman raising a daughter, one of my personal favorites is “The Good Body,” which acknowledges that sometimes our bodies “make you angry/ or sad;/ because it doesn’t look how you want it to,/ or it doesn’t do what you want it to do,” but that “your body is always a good body/ because it carries the good in you.” There’s also a gorgeous poem titled “Teeth Dance With Silver,” which celebrates a girl who proudly showcases her love of color and pattern in the way she dresses.

Over the past few days, we have revisited this book as a family. Some of the poems are assuming new relevance, especially in light of the protests in our city and across the country. Even as we strive to make room in our lives for more diverse voices, we are also committing to finding and using our own voices to speak out more effectively about the equality and justice we demand to see in our country. In this spirit, I will end with the final two stanzas of Browne’s “Right To,” written in honor of Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay:

If we must live—
And we must—
Let it be with our fists in the air
To remind the people that we will speak up
for what is right
We will always stand up against that which brings harm
We will demand what is just
Not only for our own lives
but for the lives that are impacted
by injustice

Let us live
to fight for a better day
every day
for everyone.

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Books published by Roaring Book Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can. Even better, support a Black-owned bookstore near you!

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