Special to the Mirror by Chas Cornweller
(Wayne – I began writing this article last Thursday, fully intending on explaining my vision or ideal of being self-aware of one’s personal racism. An unfortunate side effect everyone incurs from time to time. I use the term “Woke” because when I first heard it I was intrigued. I love words. You know that. So, what began as a minor exercise to excise my own demons and face a reality few us will even acknowledge became this diatribe. Little did I expect this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville to echo my words. Few us could have…I finished this on a Tuesday morning, spent, broken and ashamed. Ashamed that what I had written was true. Ashamed for the whole human race and the pain we have caused to one another. Ashamed for the silent tongues and the harden hearts. Ashamed that as I enter my golden years, the very same issues I saw as a child, I see today. I look to a blameless god, and ask…Why? Thank you for publishing. This is my heart. Chas Cornweller)
“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” Malcolm X
So, what does it mean to be “Woke”? Dictionary: Past and past part of Wake. In African American vernacular English (sometimes called AAVE) woke is the derivative of awake, rendered as woke. As in, “I was sleeping, but now I’m woke.” But it’s intended content has a much, much more powerful meaning. As in, “I was asleep, but now I am woke.” Still not reaching you? Awake…dictionary: Awake adj. fully conscious and alert and aware: not asleep; synonym: see aware. Now put “Woke” in the context of knowing issues. Especially issues regarding the status of African Americans. Do you get where I am coming from yet? Woke is being not only aware of the strife between cultures (I refuse to use the word race because for me, its very own usage indicates division and better than/less than connotations) but empathic to these issues. The Washington Post recently did an article regarding Millennials and their take on major issues facing America today. Of whites, three percent listed police brutality as being a top problem in this country. African Americans, however, were at twenty-seven percent regarding it as a top problem. And herein, lies the problem. After fifty years of Civil Rights legislation and law. After fifty years of affirmative action and equal opportunities for African Americans. After fifty odd years of a dismantled Jim Crow system, we still have perceived disparages between cultures. Whites still fear blacks, blacks still fear whites and the wheel still turns against poverty.
Have we made forward strides or are we standing still as a society? Well, yes and yes. Legislatively we have progressed. Emotionally we are stagnant. Society has made great strides and the acceptance of African Americans into the fabric of Government, Education and the Private Sector is hardly an issue nowadays. But, individually, we are tight lipped and reticent to admit major failures throughout our country, not just in the south, but north, east and west. The entire country burns from within with a scorn and a distrust of one another that cannot be rooted out by laws and professional positions.
The legacy of this nation is a deep and troubled one. Fraught with deceptions, mass murders, land grabs and war. It also is/was seen as a land of hope, second chances and unlimited resources and riches ready to be had by anyone with the gumption and disposition to work hard enough to make it work. But not everyone had that chance. For some, it was not a land of second chances, but of a last chance of survival. For others, it was the beginning of a string of deceptions and ill-conceived notions that never quite panned out. And lastly, for those already here and established for millennia, it was the beginning of the end. This is the true America. That sad fact is prevalent in every library in the nation. You just have to dig deep enough to see it.
Individuals, however, are another story. For good or for bad, Americans made their marks. No matter the skin color, no matter from which continent they set out. Some even ended up in those history text books I just mentioned. For better or for worst. And when you read this history you begin to see the melding of the American citizen. You learn of how Crispus Attucks died alongside four others through a volley of British musket-balls. Or the story of the ship Amistad, her capture by slaves and their commandeering her to safe passage. Nat Turner and his failed uprising here in Virginia and the costs it bore. Of Frederick Douglas who won his freedom and was educated and became a standard by which slavery was shown for what it truly was by his powerful oratory and books. Of Thomas Garrett, a white man, who assisted over two thousand slaves to freedom. Of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women and was a staunch abolitionist. The Tuskegee Airmen, the Freedom Riders…President Barack Obama. The tapestry of America is rich with those that could and did, despite adversarial injustice and steep uphill climbs. Being “Woke” is being aware of this and much more. Not just being aware, but understanding just how difficult it was being such people. That each and every one of them was/is a human being with just as much going on in their heads as you and I. People with families and husbands and wives and children to support, lives to lived. No one asked to come to America to be ostracized, bullied, beaten and murdered for being different. The beacon of light that shone from these shores was intended to be quite the opposite.
But, equality never was evident here. The moment the first Europeans (Spanish) stepped ashore, they asserted their self-perceived superiority over the native inhabitants. By using religious reasoning and superior weaponry to subdue and suppress a culture they neither understood nor never quite got over fearing. This pattern would continue for nearly four hundred years, resulting in a near genocide of Native Americans on a scale of nearly fifty million (highest estimate) souls between 1492 and 1892. Aside from the general assimilation of a few hundred thousand Native Americans, white Europeans completely decimated a culture and multiple civilizations. On a scale comparable of Germany’s crimes of the 1930’s and 1940’s, just without the efficiency.
It is a known fact that, by the establishment at Jamestown, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British explorers were using Africans as ether servants, slaves or yeomen alongside ship captains. It is also a known fact that Columbus himself, enlisted the assistance of one Pedro Alonso Nino during the first voyage of 1492. The Moors (Muslim Culture from Northern Africa) had inhabited most of the Southern and Northern regions of Portugal, Spain, Sicily and Malta during the Middle Ages before being driven out by the kings of the northern regions. By then, many Africans had assimilated into Western Europe culture by the time of Nino’s fateful voyage with Columbus.
Slavery was a legitimate enterprise prior to and after the discovery of America. It became interwoven within the fabric of American culture during its earliest years. Rightly or wrongly, it became the backbone of the economy of the Americas. From the mines and labor fields of South America, to the islands of the Caribbean with its sugar cane and tobacco plantations, to the large plantations dotting the deep south. Enabling large profits to, though minor in numbers, genteel landowning whites, who, by mere positioning, were also the law makers and political leaders; able to mold society to fit their needs. African slaves, all women, and poor white males had no say during the early years of colonial rule and early colonial freedom. The revolution itself came about from the ire of the very rich and their chaffing under colonial rule from abroad and many unfair tariffs placed upon them. Not until the Stamp Act of 1765 did the effect trickle down to the average white merchant, farmer or tradesman to galvanize a fermenting revolution. Westward moving whites were also angered at a colonial rule inhibiting expansions into the Allegany’s and known Indian territories. In truth, though the Revolution was fought with Militia and Continental troops comprised of lower classed whites and some African Americans (very, very few were allowed to fight-most attended as servants and cooks), the ultimate exchange of power was between the rich white men in England and the rich white men in the colonies. The South maintained its economic power structure in the form of slavery and the North maintained its economic power based on cheap labor, international shipping and the coming Industrial Age. The stage was set for a future, inevitable clash.
That conflict came less than seventy-five years into the new nation’s birth. The bloodiest war on American soil ended five years later with casualties of war dead in the hundreds of thousands. Total casualties from the results of imprisonment, disease, accidental death, wounded and missing for both sides, number in at over a million men and civilians. This at a time when the total population was just over thirty-one million souls. So, three percent, give or take. Two major objectives were accomplished. One was the re-uniting of the original colonial states, along with other newer states, back within the fold of a nationalized Federal government with its central laws. The second was the Emancipation of all African Americans from slavery and the abolishment of slavery. Three years later, all African Americans were granted citizenship with the ratification of the fourteenth amendment. But the white power base had other ideas.
Jim Crow was established in many of southern states and eventually made its way into the fabric of the entire American justice system and in short, institutionalized. Not until the mid to late fifties did these issues gain center stage through such seemingly innocuous situations such as segregated armed forces, school and transportation systems. When many white, middle class Americans saw the brutality happening in Mississippi and Alabama, in reaction to integration and installing black equality, project from their small black and white television sets, the lies of Jim Crow were exposed and broken. The Civil Rights act was signed into law in 1964, granting equal access to ALL people to a system once reserved for only white, rich land owning males. It seemed America as an intolerant and non-inclusive society had turned a corner. I am old enough to remember the signs coming down. I remember my school being integrated, with one or two African Americans to a classroom and then the following years; an equal balance. But I was mistaken. I still heard rumblings of dissent. Many of my white friends were either frightened, angry or just plain hateful to this perceived intrusion into their “exclusive” world. I noticed that many of their parents were bitter and angry as well. I noticed, also, that mine were not. I was too young to put those pieces together until I was much older. There remained an “air” of mutual distrust between whites and African Americans, up until I went thru school and out into the work place.
Years later, I made a very good friend of a co-worker of mine. He and I did the exact same job at the firm that hired us. We had a friendly competition between us and our work. He was a graphic artist and a very good one at that. He also was very proud of his heritage and his blackness. At first, this intimidated me (for reasons I can only surmise), but as we became good friends, I came to admire his views on his ethnicity and he on mine. He introduced me to a musical group named “Arrested Development”. I was very intrigued by their sound and their story telling. Interestingly, through this friend of mine, I began to see an inside glimpse of his world. He was very honest with me about his perceptions of black/white relations. This was the time of the Greek-fest incident in Virginia Beach where we both resided. The movie, “Do the Right Thing” had just come out and Public Enemy was leading the Rap/Hip Hop charge. After that incident, we had many honest talks about what were the causal events that led up to broken windows, stolen items and general mayhem on a quiet summer night at the beachfront. I do not have the time, nor inclination to go into all of what we spoke about, but; I was being woke up. Rodney King’s taping of his beating was just after this event. And we discussed this as well. You see, there are two sides to every coin. If you truly listen with ears fully engaged and eyes awake and open to emphatically understand, you will see something you may have missed before.
What happened in Charlottesville this weekend is inexcusable. Truly. This is no longer about heritage, nor about great-great-grand pappy lying under a tombstone in his private’s confederate uniform. Neither is it about the flag he carried, or even the generals he followed. This is about hate. It is about eyes that are closed and hearts that are hardened and words that burn the soul as soon as they touch the ears. This is about the lynching’s that occurred by the hundreds just over eighty to a hundred years ago, that went unresolved. This is about Rosewood, Florida and Greenwood, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street. This is about Emmitt Till and Medgar Evers. This is about a Baptist church on 16th street on a Sunday morning in September. This is about an anger and resentment that runs as deep as DNA as much as spirit runs in the soul. This is about tens of millions of privileged white well off Americans who allowed these atrocities to happen and did nothing. This is about an America that has not “Woke” to its real issues and its real cancer and its real face, that face; the rest of the world sees.
So, the next time you enter an elevator as a white man and see a black man in a jogging suit or casual clothing, will you flinch? Will your mind begin to doubt? The next time, as a black man, a police officer pulls you over, will you start to wonder if you’ll make it home? Or the next time any of us sees a Latino mother with four children, two of whom are toddlers; buying her groceries with WIC stamps, will you be scornful, will you exude shame? Or that time you jokingly said to a friend after seeing a gay couple together, “I wonder which one is the wife?”. Or will you smile after you’ve entered that elevator and offer a greeting? Will you cooperate and answer questions respectfully from that police officer? Will the picture of this young mother with so much on her hands and heart affect you and cause you to ask yourself, why? Why does the richest nation in the world still have poverty? Will you treat those that are different from you and your values just as cordially as someone who shares your values? Do you see this multi-colored, multi-faceted, multi-cultural – diversity as a threat or as an embrace of all God’s creation? Are you “Woke”?
“The problems we face now – poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad – will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created them in the first place”. Donald Trump
“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we would want to be treated”. John F. Kennedy
“Even today we raise our hand against our brother…We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death”. Pope Francis
“The three touchstones that woke Buddha up – sickness, old age, and death – are a pretty good place to start when crafting a tragic tale. And if we need to get more specific: heartbreak, destruction, miscomprehension, natural disasters, betrayal, and the waste of human potential.” Paul Di Filippo