By W. KAMAU BELL
Here we go again. And I don’t just mean on a new season of United Shades of America. I mean here America goes again, getting confused about what “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” means.
Those concepts seem so simple – and yet they are made complicated based on who gets to define them. And in the United States, those definitions are usually and overwhelmingly written by people in power who want to keep their power. So seemingly simple questions become complicated, like: What defines “life”? What does true “liberty” look like in practice? Is it okay if happiness for me is different than happiness for you?
So many of the themes of this new season of United Shades take on those questions, but none of the episodes confront it more directly than this Sunday’s premiere: The Woke War. It takes place in one of America’s newest and most surprising battleground states, Arizona. And in Arizona they take the “battle” part of the battleground very seriously. Don’t go to a school board meeting without a flak jacket and your head on a swivel. I’m kidding … mostly.
Arizona is a state I often refer to as “desert Florida.” It is a state that was so slow to decide whether or not Martin Luther King Jr. deserved a holiday that Public Enemy had time to write a hit song about it. It is a state that is known for setting new standards for cruelty in law enforcement.
Long before Florida passed what me and my friends call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Arizona had a bill that could’ve been called the “Don’t Be Brown” bill. SB 1070 allowed police to pull you over if they suspected you might be undocumented. I’m guessing that didn’t affect many of the White retirees who move to Arizona for its dry air. Arizona also had Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who seemingly thought his job description included criminal contempt and inhumanity. But don’t worry about Joe. Even though he was tried and convicted for his actions in going after immigrants, he got one of those highly coveted pardons that seemingly every member of former President Donald Trump’s orbit was hoping he would pass out like Moon Pies off a Mardi Gras float.
Knowing all that, it makes sense that Arizona, like much of the country, is in a frenzy over “woke” in all of its forms.
“Wokeness.” “Wokesters.” “Wokerati.” “Woketember.” “Wokeuary.” Okay, I made the last two up. It’s easy to do because everybody seems to be making up variations on the woke theme. Everywhere you look someone is worried that America has gotten too woke. People who society has embraced as supposedly intelligent and thoughtful are worried that Netflix (for example) is too woke. Netflix, the streaming service that has a show called, Is It Cake? Is it too woke to find out if something is cake or not?
And as Black person, I feel like this whole argument might destroy me. At this point in American history there are clearly more important things to fret about. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and made it clear they are coming after more of our hard-fought-for rights. We have averaged more than one mass shooting a day since the beginning of the year. We are having hearings to determine if the insurrection that we all saw was actually an insurrection at all. A truck filled with 53 dead undocumented people was found in San Antonio, Texas. Cops are still killing unarmed Black men while they are somehow able to non-violently arrest armed White men. And that is just the things off the top of my head. But the GOP, much of the media and various self-appointed concerned citizens think that “woke” is the scourge of our times.
Woke is just another example of the White dominant culture taking a word Black people invented and then twisting it beyond recognition. Woke was a word first attributed to the singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter in the 1920s. But it didn’t really pick up major traction for Black folks until the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014 in the wake of the killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown by White police officer Darren Wilson. “Stay woke!” was a battle cry and a hashtag. And then it became a t-shirt that White people could buy from Etsy from other White people. Kind of like how namaste went from a Hindu greeting to “Are you getting up?” “Nope. Nama-stay in bed.”
In an interview we did in 2019 for United Shades, CUNY professor Syreeta McFadden and I even declared “woke” dead because of all this. But that scene got deleted. Maybe if we had included it, we might not be in this mess right now. Maybe this is all my fault.
While fear of “woke” is the battering ram to get our attention, the GOP’s real plan is to remake public education in their own overwhelmingly White image. And they found the perfect way to do it: smart Black people and their smart ideas. You know it. You love it! – or maybe you hate it. Critical Race Theory, aka CRT. But before we get into all that, I have a question that I asked many people the week I was in Arizona.
Do you believe that our schools should teach an accurate and age-appropriate history of the United States of America?
I hope the answer is “Yes.” If it isn’t, then we have a problem. Isn’t that why we teach history? So, we can learn from it? If it isn’t accurate, then the learning ceases to happen.
Just this week in Texas, a group of nine educators proposed that schools refer to “slavery” as “involuntary relocation.” Nope. “involuntary relocation” is what happened when my mom decided we were going to move from Boston to Chicago without my permission. As much as I hated Chicago at first, I wouldn’t compare it to slavery. But this is what the GOP wants. They want America to be the hero in every story told about America’s past so that America can then be seen as the hero no matter what unheroic deeds America does in the present or the future. In the lexicon of the GOP, America doesn’t have “too many mass shootings.” It has “occasional involuntary not-alives.”
Critical Race Theory is not about any of that. It is an academic theory of how to look at the law through a racial lens. It asserts that you can’t look at the laws in America without considering how America deals with – or doesn’t deal with – race. If your child is learning about that in class, then your child is most likely in law school, not elementary.
I spent this episode talking to Arizonans on all sides of the issue of “wokeness” in America. I talked to local parents, concerned citizens who don’t have kids in the schools but are still concerned, a former member of the school board and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is the person who was in the room when CRT was invented.
But most importantly, I talked to some students. These were LGBTQ+ high school students who are feeling the effects of all this nonsense. But it isn’t nonsense to them. Unsurprisingly, schools that won’t teach an accurate history of America are also not places that encourage their LGBTQ+ students. Much like the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade, if we let our public schools teach an inaccurate history of this country, they are sure to use that to also leave out teaching about lots of other things, including the LGBTQ+ community, religions other than Christianity and Black people not named Martin Luther King Jr.
I hate to say it, but this “woke war” is a symbol of so much more. Remember those PSAs that said “The more you know” and had a fun jingle? That’s all “woke” is. It’s the more you know. The more you know the better you’re able to maneuver through this life and understand that the world is not all about you. And when politicians, and the media, and bad actors, and Elon Musk and the Muskettes, and Tucker Carlson and the mother tuckers use the word “woke,” they are just trying to distract us from the fact that this country is on fire. And the only way we’re going to put it out is if we learn how the fire started.
But the more we learn about the fires, the real ones, the metaphorical ones, the historical ones, the better able we are to put the fires out. Don’t let people use kids as the shield. This is not about the children! When people say, “Think of the children,” I say, “Yeah, I am thinking of the children. My children. And I want them to learn all about this country. I want them to learn about slavery, algebra, Jan. 6, Frank Sinatra, great trans folk in history, Janelle Monae, the pet rock, the war in Ukraine, science and much, much more. You want your kids to learn much, much less? Ugh, I feel bad for you. Why would you raise kids like that?”
See you on Sunday!
Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian and author, as well as hosts and executive producer of the CNN Original Series United Shades of America, which airs Sunday evenings. He and Kate Schatz are co-writers of the new book Do the Work! An Antiracist Activity Book.
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