Getting Woke Uphill Both Ways in the Snow - Issue #20
People have been working to steer this barge [of progress], to wake people up, for a long time. Looking back on their efforts can offer hope, strength, and joy in the present.
It started with conversations. Here’s one I recall from my teen years, with my good friend, Chuck.
CHUCK: Hey, JB…
JB: What’s up, Chuck?
CHUCK: Elvis was a hero to most.
JB: Yeah, I know.
CHUCK: Elvis was a hero to most.
JB: I understand.
CHUCK: Elvis was a hero to most.
JB: Why do you keep saying that? And why do you keep saying most?
CHUCK: But he never meant shit to me.
CHUCK: Cuz he’s straight-up racist.
CHUCK: The sucker was simple and plain.
FLAV (overhearing us): Mother-$#%&! him and John Wayne!
JB: I can see you feel pretty strongly about it.
CHUCK: Cuz I’m Black and I’m proud.
JB: That’s cool.
CHUCK: I’m ready, I’m hyped, and I’m amped.
CHUCK: Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp.
CHUCK: Sample a look back. You look and find nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check.
JB: Dang, Chuck…
Apart from an invitation to then “Fight the Power,” that was pretty much the end of the conversation. There were no links in the comments section. Because there were no comments. There was no Wikipedia on which to look up Chuck D or Public Enemy. There were no algorithms to cue up the next “culturally relevant hip-hop” song or recommend similar artists.
No, we had to go to Nobody Beats the Wiz and pay upwards of $20.00 (adjusted for inflation, the equivalent of $33.96 in today’s dollars) for a compact disc of Public Enemy’s music, of which we’d only heard one or two songs previously.
I want to take a slight detour here to admit two things that may on the surface seem irrelevant, but I think provide important context for what follows.
#1, I recently turned 40 years old. So if I begin to sound like an old man yelling from his porch, that may have something to do with it. I’m going to try not to veer into that territory, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I do.
#2, I was born in December of 1980, and am thus, technically, one of the last members of Generation X. And so, if I’m waxing nostalgic about those who were “woke” before woke “went mainstream,” that’s probably some generational influence at work. You all are great, though, and I know you’ll bear with me!
Recently I got addicted to a genre of YouTube videos known as “reactions” or “first listens.”
Specifically, I love watching people hear Rage Against the Machine for the first time. Seeing their reactions takes me right back to that school bus in the 90s, when my friend first let me borrow his Walkman to hear “Killing in the Name Of.” And I distinctly remember seeing this unsettling album cover amongst some of my cousin’s records in my Aunt’s otherwise immaculate living room. The way these sounds and images have stuck with me for, now, a quarter of a century is a testament to their lasting power.
Take a look here, if you dare. But be forewarned that the joy of these people is infectious, and you’re apt to go down a two-plus-hour rabbit hole watching more and more videos of the kind.
I can’t stop watching their eyes go wide as they hear Zach De LaRocha spit lyrics that can still give the Ted Cruzes and Tucker Carlsons of the world agita.
Particularly, I love watching people hear my all-time favorite Rage song, “Know Your Enemy.”
At the end of this video, the listener simply leans back and declares, “Welp, somebody’s woke.”
Struck by the relevance of Rage’s lyrics to the unrest of the day, another listener remarks, “Man I can’t believe this came out like 10 years ago!”
Bruhns**, try 30.
That first Rage Against the Machine album was released in 1992.
And by 1993, they were playing in front of crowds that looked like this:
Now I say all this in part to tut-tut my friends on the Left, but I also hope to provoke my friends on the Right a bit with this observation: Whatever fears you have about the American “way of life” slipping away, or anti-American sentiment, or the “Woke Left,” or progressive outrage in general, I just want you to know that these things have existed for many decades, long before your cousin could share them in a panic on Facebook, so there’s no real reason to be so freaked out right at this exact moment.
Even the most popular and/or provocative voices in these realms today could not hope to draw a crowd a tenth of this size. And yet, your way of life has not been systematically destroyed.
If a band as popular as Rage (who by the way met at Harvard, so were not just popular but, like, legit smart), with a platform that huge, and with not even a Fox News existing yet to “stand up for what’s right”, let alone a rightwing Internet to immediately cry foul, didn’t turn the youth of our society into raging socialists, I’m not sure anything that’s out there today has a better chance.
So can we chill?
A friend of mine recently expressed a kind of befuddlement at the current panic around the allegedly anti-American ideas coming from the academic world. “You go to elementary school and high school and it’s all rah-rah America. Then you go to college and you get the other side of the story.” That’s the way it’s always been, she said, so why are people so freaked out about it all of a sudden?
This rang true for me, too. By the time I graduated from college in 2003, I was listening to The Descendants sing about how “you’ve got to know the truth before you say that you’ve got pride.”
We were passing around DVDs of Chappelle's Show and asking for the box set of The Wire for Christmas because it cost $100 and we could not just pull episodes up on demand for free on whatever streaming account we share with 25 other people.
So for the youth riling things up today, especially my young, white friends, I just want to gently point out that this movement actually predates the Internet, and thus, some of your spicy tweets can be a little dismissive of folks who worked, in whatever capacity they had available, to be aware and raise awareness in others.
I don’t want to diminish the hugeness of the moment we are in presently. “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this,” Ta-Nehisi Coates told Ezra Klein back in June, “but I see hope. I see progress right now, at this moment.” I feel this, too, despite the ugliness out there.
I’ve been thinking lately of American Culture like a huge barge: you turn the wheel and it still takes two hours before the boat is finally pointed in the right direction. And then other people (not naming names, but you know who) might be sneaking in while you’re getting coffee or checking the instruments and nudging the wheel back the other way, and you get back and are like, “OH! Who did this!? Now it’s gonna be a whole ‘nother hour!”
Let’s leave that out-of-hand metaphor right there for now. I don’t know how Ta-Nehisi Coates is feeling right now, whether that hope is still burning as bright or whether it’s been diminished somewhat by recent events.
But, the point is, people have been working to steer this barge, to wake people up, for a long time, and looking back on their efforts can, I think, offer hope, strength, and joy in the present.
Just like it did for us back when we were kids, stumbling upon this music and these ideas for the first time; the feeling of “Oh, other people are out there questioning too,” and becoming part of that community of, if nothing else, free thinkers.
One Black YouTuber watching Rage Against the Machine pauses his video in absolute awe of the crowd’s size and complexion. He observes, “Look. There is no way all these white people can be racist. They listen to Rage.”
Now of course you can listen to Rage and still be racist and/or especially ignorant. In fact, as legend* has it, the band broke up because they’d essentially become “jock rock.” I know they soundtracked our high school wrestling matches and were cranked for many a pre-game pump-up. When I finally did get to see them in 1999, the crowd was decidedly douchey, screaming for women on their boyfriends’ shoulders to flash the crowd and taking the opportunity to grope crowd-surfers as they cruised by. Clearly, many in the crowd weren’t there to learn about another side of history.
But Rage got through to a lot of us too.
I had similar conversations with them as I had with Chuck D and Flava Flav. As they literally screamed “Wake Up” directly into my eardrums at extreme volumes.
RAGE: “You know they went after King when he spoke out on Vietnam…”
RAGE: “You know they murdered X, and tried to blame it on Islam.”
RAGE: What? The Land of the Free?
JB: That’s what they say.
RAGE: Whoever told you that is your enemy.
JB: Why are they not talking about this stuff at my Youth Group!?
And that’s another thing!
It’s not like I had some super progressive parents or teachers or community that was going to help me understand the flipside of American history. I grew up in a borderline fundamentalist evangelical church that espoused rightwing political ideology wholeheartedly.
I could literally go to hell for listening to this stuff. But I did it anyway.
So, you know, forgive me if I’d appreciate just, like, half a prop.
And it’s not like I could just pull it up on YouTube, listen to it on my headphones, and be done with it. No. We had to go out and acquire the records, which were slapped with little stickers that warned “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics.” (This was back when Cancel Culture was called the Moral Majority). Or, we’d have to buy packages of 90-minute blank cassettes, borrow the record, or, OR, OR!!!, wait for the songs to come on the radio and TAPE THEM!
We had to hide these albums in our rooms. If our parents found them, we’d have to go pray with our youth pastors about them.
We had to see Do the Right Thing in someone’s dorm room when we went to visit our older cousin at Rutgers. And then, if we wanted to see more Spike Lee movies or explore the oeuvre of African-American cinema, we had to go to a video store and ask the clerk to help us.
And if the clerk happened to be more into, say, pornography -- which also needed to be rented at the time -- than powerful racial commentary, you had to poke around the store on your own and try to suss it out for yourself.
Did I miss a million pieces of important social commentary along the way? YES! It was the 90’s.
I didn’t have an email address until I went to college. But on my very first guitar I did have a bright, red sticker, which I bought at the Warped Tour in 1996, that read, “STOP RACISM,” meaning, if nothing else, that enough white people were aware of and fighting against racism at the time that someone thought it was worth printing stickers and setting up tables for at major punk rock shows. There was and is, I think, something thrilling about that.
Okay, let me put my rambling, Gen-X, Old Head back in his box and try to steer this toward some kind of conclusion.
“Getting woke” and “wokeism” are buzzwords we see a lot these days. Most recently, the Right seems to have cleverly co-opted them as a shorthand for Annoying Liberal Outrage. You’ll often hear them talk about “The Woke Mob.”
But I guess what I’m trying to say is that “The Woke Mob” might be a new term, but it’s not a new threat.
Rage Against the Machine commanded us to “Wake Up” in 1992.
Do the Right Thing literally opens with Samuel L. Jackson delivering the same admonition. It goes on to wrestle with racism, gentrification, and police brutality. This came out in 1989.
And in the same year, Public Enemy challenged us to “Fight the Power.” Something they and a new generation still do to this day.
Sometimes I get a narrative like “nobody cared until now” from one direction and a narrative like “this is a new, scary threat” from the other direction.
I guess all I want to say is that we’ve always cared. And we’ve always been a threat.
So you can either stop freaking out a little bit, or start freaking out more.
Because as Rage Against the Machine reminded us in 2001, as they covered Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s 1983 hit, “Renegades of Funk”:
Since the Prehistoric ages and the days of ancient Greece
Right down through the Middle Ages
Planet earth kept going through changes
And then the renaissance came, and times continued to change
Nothing stayed the same, but there were always renegades.
The views expressed above are solely those of the author, and sometimes barely even that.