What is it to be “Woke?”

What is it to be “Woke?”

6/13/20. (l-r) Chennel Anderson, Frederick Douglass and Kelly Linn Kreider. Olivia Kim’s statue outside the College at Brockport’s Educational Opportunity Program on Court Street. [Photos: David Kramer except where indicated]

On Saturday, I went to the Black Lives Matter: Stop Killing Us! 3 demonstration at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Manhattan Square with a single question: “How do you define the term ‘Woke?'” (see articles on previous rallies at end)

The question

For example, the urban dictionary glibly defines woke as: “A word currently used to describe ‘consciousness’ and being aware of the truth behind things ‘the man’ doesn’t want you to know i.e. classism, racism, and any other social injustices.”  At the rally, Brighton Town Council member and congressional candidate Robin Wilt offered a corrective. For Robin, woke is a “bucket term:” one that has enough definitions used differently in different contexts to fill a bucket. Nonetheless, the people I spoke with agreed that awareness is a fundamental feature of wokeness.

5/30 and 6/13, MLK Park. Robin Wilt, Brighton Town Council Member and 25th State Congressional District Democratic candidate at the BLM rallies. See A Black Lives Matter solidarity rally with commentary from Kholaa and a walk down Joseph Avenue

In our discussion, Robin emphasized that to be woke requires more than simply knowing about America’s racist past and present:

Woke, to me, is not just an awareness of the historical legacy and generational impact of systemic bias, but also of one’s personal role in the perpetuation of that bias.

Robin and I also talked about the place of white people in furthering the message of wokeness. Robin firmly believes wokeness is for everyone and people of both races can be “unwoke.” At the same time, Robin does not think the role of white people is to encourage wokeness in black people. Black people experience the results of systemic racism, and can do the encouraging from that shared space of lived knowledge. For example, Robin mentioned her own experience as the only black student in her accelerated classes at Pittsford Mendon High School.

Hannah Tompkins. Hannah borrowed my pen to write a phone number on her arm. Hannah’s generation rarely feels the need to carry around cumbersome and almost unnecessary pens.

I then spoke with Hannah Tompkins, University of Rochester Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences. Hannah says, in a nutshell, being woke is “being conscious.” Within the context of racism and anti-racism, Hannah thinks wokeness means being aware of how systemic racism impacts different communities differently.

Like Robin (whose candidacy sign is in Hannah’s yard), Hannah feels white people should not be on the vanguard when encouraging less-than-woke black people. Hannah’s concern is that white people often declare themselves to be woke, and then feel they are done with the subject. An easy form of virtue signalling.  Wokeness matters when put into practice.

Kylie Newcomer, Coordinator and teacher for the Studio 789 Photo Club at the Flower City Art Center

Coordinator and teacher for the Studio 789 Photo Club at the Flower City Art Center, Kylie Newcomer was interviewing rally goers for the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo).  While Kylie believes wokeness is for everyone, she thinks a black individual cannot be unwoke to structural racism as they live it and experience it.  When it comes to spreading the message of wokeness, it’s not her place to tell a black person she knows better about their experience than they do.

Dorie Cottman interviewed by local tv station.

Dorie Cottman was herself interviewed by a local tv station. For Dorie, wokeness extends beyond racial and social issues, but is also a kind of zen-like philosophy of perpetual awareness always in process. As Dorie said, you don’t wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “I’m woke.” How could you know when your day has just begun?

Dorie thinks the message of wokeness can be spread in any direction: black to white, white to black, white to white and black to black. It’s all in the presentation. A flawed presentation leads to ineffective outcomes; while a positive one can spark change in the receiver.

As they were looking at Shawn Dunwoody’s murals that now include new chalked quotes, I met Chennel Anderson, Child Neurology Administrator at the URMC, and Kelly Linn Kreider, student (pictured at top).

Kelly began the conversation by saying she had only recently learned about the term wokeness. Kelly had lived her whole life in a “white bubble,” believing she was color blind. In school, Kelly learned about Martin Luther King Jr. but not much else.  Concepts like structural racism were very hazy at best.

Below MLK’s quote now reads: Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes – it’s a war, Haile Selassie I. See Finding MLK at Manhattan Square

Chennel quickly injected that there was more to Kelly’s story. Kelly had worked in Zambia and her best friend was black. Based on all she knows of Kelly, Chennel felt Kelly — and told her so — was already woke, even if she had not yet consciously internalized the concept.

We discussed Kelly’s best friend from Buffalo who is black. The friend takes a dim view of wokeness.  She thinks many black people play the victim when it suits their purposes. For her, systemic racism is not a big deal.  Basically, the friend thinks if you find black urban life to be oppressive, get a job and move to the suburbs.

Kelly did take it upon herself to call out her friends’ retrograde unwokeness, basically suggesting she read some history on topics like redlining, open her mind and eyes and get her facts straight.

On her end, Chennel explained a principle she frequently promotes: black people feel the burden or problem of systemic racism and it is white people who need to find and be the solution. When appropriate, Chennel feels it is ok for a white person to confront a less than woke black person. But this only works if a strong relationship is in place between the two. Otherwise, the outcome can become negative. For the majority of the time, Chennel feels black people who live systemic racism are more often the most effective messengers.

(l-r) RCSD students Rebekah Reid, Sarah Adams and Paulina Brooks. On the far right, a former RCSD student now at the University of Buffalo who guided the girls as they marched.

East High School social worker Eddie Blanding

Finally, I saw an old acquaintance, East High School social worker Eddie Blanding. Eddie was taking pictures from the earlier rally at the Liberty Pole Way as well as at the park. (see Eddie Blanding’s photo montage: Ministry and Youth Protest 6.13.20)

Photo: Eddie Blanding from Ministry and Youth Protest 6.13.20

When asked what “woke” meant to him, Eddie said awareness and knowledge. He emphasized that woke is definitely not “just having your eyes open. You can have your eyes open and still be asleep.” Rather, it’s what you do with your knowledge.

Being woke has so many meanings. For example, it can mean, “You’re Not Getting Over On Me.” From a slang perspective, we say, “they was sleeping on me,” meaning they missed out on me, because they didn’t know my abilities. But, from the perspective I believe you speak of, “Being Woke,” is being aware of what’s happening in and around you, assessing your true feelings and thoughts about it, and then doing something about it. Being woke doesn’t mean just gathering information or knowledge. There’s plenty of information, research and knowledge out there; however, your active role now is waking up others. That’s the most important part! Now that you’re ”woke,” you must take on the responsibility to wake up others, who are affected (victims) and infected (perpetrators)!

Wise words indeed.

Singer and activist Danielle Ponder with interpreter for the Deaf behind. [Photo: Eddie Blanding from Ministry and Youth Protest 6.13.20]

Photo: Eddie Blanding from Ministry and Youth Protest 6.13.20


At one point in the rally, a woman asked if I was woke. We were interrupted before I could answer. I probably would have defended my woke bonafides by saying, hey, for five years I was a Guest Teacher (the preferred term rather than substitute) in the Rochester City School District.

With time to reflect, I looked back at a July 2016 story, On the Mount Zion Mass Choir’s fundraiser, Edison football summer practices and some city schools, about my experience in the RCSD. (excerpt below). I had not done guest teaching to become woke. They paid me, and quite well. But if wokeness means more awareness and exposure, then I was more woke after than before.

In 2016, however, the experience was already beginning to fade.

But it was the schools I had missed. A while back for about five years, I did some guest teaching in the RCSD. I went to every school in the District, including those in the 19th Ward.

At the Clara Barton School # 2, we often needed the patience of dear Clara herself.

At the George Mather Forbes School # 4, I was the music teacher for three days.

George Mather Forbes School # 4, 198 Doctor Samuel McCree Way. From On the Mount Zion Mass Choir’s fundraiser, Edison football summer practices and some city schools

At the Dr. Charles Terrell Lunsford School #19, we did research for On Dr. Charles T. Lunsford and the house where he entertained Martin Luther King Jr.


Dr. Charles Terrell Lunsford School #19. 465 Steward Street. See On Dr. Charles T. Lunsford and the house where he entertained Martin Luther King Jr.

At the Joseph C. Wilson  Foundation Academy where I read Walter Dean Myers to the big kids and the little kids got warm snow pants.


Joseph C. Wilson Foundation Academy at the Madison Campus. 200 Genesee Street. See Warm snow pants make happy student at the Wilson Foundation Academy

Although most only briefly, I met thousands of faculty, staff and students. And, if the truth be told, I met more minority people in a day than I would in a year in Brighton where I live.

Of course, urban education is hard. We all felt frustrated with student indifference and disruption. And all the problems that spring from generational poverty and racism. And felt the heartbreak of seeing those kids who came to believe that their black lives didn’t matter.

David Kramer with Edison Head Football Coach Jack Dees in the playing field behind the Madison Campus., 7/9/16. From On the Mount Zion Mass Choir’s fundraiser, Edison football summer practices and some city schools

I came to enjoy the rhythms and energy of urban school culture and the life I saw in the neighborhoods. Like many teachers who live in the suburbs, after a while you don’t think about race when in school — until you drive back over the city line to your leafy white Brighton neighborhood. Then the Two Rochesters come home.

Looping through the 19th Ward, I realized my guest teaching experience was fading from vivid memory.

While I kept up with some colleagues, more or less I reverted back to my old ways. Less and less frequently do I find myself in the Crescent.

When schools reopen in the Fall, I will have the opportunity to do more Guest Teaching in order to gather material for the district facebook page.  After the events of last few weeks, I look forward to spending time in these city communities, hopefully taking new perspectives on wokeness into the classrooms.

6/18/20, Meigs Street in the South Wedge, Stay Woke (behind, WE THE PEOPLE For Everyone). The man who raised the flags has only received positive responses.


On the Mount Zion Mass Choir’s fundraiser, Edison football summer practices and some city schools


The good more than overshadowing the bad on Monroe Avenue and Liberty Pole Way

VILLA and the trashing of a movement

A Black Lives Matter solidarity rally with commentary from Kholaa and a walk down Joseph Avenue

When Washington Square Park felt like Tiananmen Square

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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