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When an Innocuous Literature Class Stirs my Wokeness

There is privilege embedded in the idea that we should all be happy go lucky, pick flowers and let feminists be free because we’re all the same and words mean nothing.

There was palpable tension from across my side of the lecture hall. Somehow, after my Literature 121 professor read the dark piece Punchline, we meandered from J.K. Rowling's transgender comments to the F- and R-words and their different interpretations and uses from one family to the other. We had started our first class trying to find out what Literature was and here we were, proposing ideas on how to fix a broken world.

I have a different kind of fear each day I get on the Pueblo Community College campus. That of driving subsided when I memorized my itinerary, now, however, the fear born when I started writing about being an immigrant has taken a few forms. During class conversations, a part of me cannot afford to sit quietly. I am too aware of my privilege, too conscious of how far I have come as a Cameroonian.

You see, you can’t choose where you’re born. You can’t also choose how where you’re born is seen by others — even those born there. Many aspects of my Cameroonian identity, which hitherto meant nothing, come blaring with each encounter that questions my source and my future. Things like parenting, marriage, the meaning of hard work, what it means to be a good child and a proper adult; complex ideas I never really had conversations about which now require that I make my own definitions.

In class today, the fact that the only other person whose ideas didn’t sit with me — looked like me — got me wondering how much of my rumination around identity was going to cause a problem.

When I wrote about moving to America or even my brush with the realities of being black in the US, there was some excitement lost in translation; a warm embrace of the unknown and a morbid pleasure in looking through a Cameroonian’ twenty-something lens. Because I was old enough to appreciate that I wasn’t from here, I got to take myself out of an equation I belonged and solve for x; x = who I wanted to be.

Is it possible in thinking, talking, explaining, writing about being an immigrant, we become none of everything we think we are and all of the things we fear in others?

Because I found myself sneering inside at a version of identity — one I did not agree with; one that spoke of forgetting about color and labels and looking at how beautiful the soul was. I almost choked at the happy go lucky idea that words don’t have power except that which we give them.

The logical part of me agreed in many ways: there have been instances in my life where something innocuous was said and I blew it up, got terribly upset, only to realize how stupid I was; moments when a suggestion on how to tell a specific story escalated into disapproval of my creative dreams.

If this moment isn’t a learning experience to understand our relationship with words, what is?

Isn’t this supposed to be how we know more about ourselves? How can I possibly refuse the emotion a word — or phrase — brings up in me?

Who do I become if I bury my heavy thoughts and emotions?

My thoughts and emotions around being woke enough to appreciate immigration, yet not woke enough to understand it fully — morph each time I encounter the ideas — especially people — who stand opposed to my current stance that yes, words have power.

There is privilege embedded in the idea that we should all be happy go lucky, pick flowers and let feminists be free because we’re all the same and words mean nothing.

There was a time when I would push these down; when I’d smile, hide my true feelings around being judged with a passive-aggressive comment or getting the mocking laughter only Cameroonians are good at.

There was a time.

Even as I write this, I cannot find a definition of the term woke. For me to search the internet for this would further expose me to ideas I should not be allowed to consume until when done with the dust raised by someone who — for the first time in a long time — made me feel a strong urge to argue loudly, knowing I would probably lose because they seem so confident it was fantastically brilliant.

Am I full of myself and my thoughts? Am I confused and lethargic? Should I get a hold of what it is that I want to say before I say it?

My culture intrinsically stops children from having opinions. Anything that is a question is seen as rebellion. The need for understanding becomes stubbornness and each child who decides to forge their path becomes a black sheep. My parents were lax compared to many, yet, there are moments even now, thousands of miles away, I can predict what each of them would say given a specific circumstance.

We may leave our parents, but they never leave us.

I wonder if it’s just about Cameroon. Or if wokeness is just about race and sexuality. I wonder if freedom of speech is only about the media or morality only about citizenry. I wonder if we are only the things we talk about or think about.

Looking back to my Literature lecture today, to the quiet half of the class as a handful of people monopolized a vitriolic conversation, I wonder a lot more about the people who never get to share their versions of the tale. The lions who let the hunters write. When I think about them, I think about how my idea of wokeness only lies in being able to use the word in a headline and not even having a meaning for it. The same way I write and think about being an immigrant without an actual definition of it.

What does it mean to be woke? What does it mean to be an immigrant?

But most importantly, what happens when we don’t wrestle with these subjects? What happens when we’re too busy arguing our own convictions, dancing to our own madness, that we never listen to the other side?

Here’s what happens: we become too woke.

I felt the effect of too wokeness when someone commented on how shameful and insulting it was for me, as a black person, to write about my identity the way I did. I felt this wokeness in class with the point about words not having power. Now, I know this stirs anger in me.

But what to do with it? What to do with feelings we were never thought to handle as children?

I suppose we write.

Because words have power. Stories change lives, build nations and break worlds. The human tongue is capable of inciting betrayal, soothing a broken heart and even getting a sick baby to sleep.

There is no such thing as “just a word”. Words have meaning, a cultural history in pockets of time. A word cannot be removed from its source.

It’s an insult to refuse this! A word means many things to many people, and without the humility to redact such privilege from one’s own perception, we will never get the chance to start seeing together.

To say that my struggle to understand my place in my new home is full of mixed reactions is an understatement. On one hand, I am lauded for my ability to adjust: my job, my driving, my marriage. On the other hand, I am mocked for owning a dog — such an unCameroonian thing to do!

When I do write about any of it, there’s the pride from friends and family, pride from people who may or may not have used my lens but can perceive clearly. Then the comments from people who don’t know who I am and others who clearly have a family but have never taken the time to understand what it feels like to be in this position — judgment filled spews.

It is clear to me that my duty — as one who loves words and ideas — is to dissect my world and how much we don’t really know about the people we judge and who judge. The anger I feel when I read incomplete assumptions is fueled by my own memories of the thoughts I had about living abroad before I moved. The reality hits my face every morning I wake to rush to school, then work and try to schedule a time to be with my wife. My version of this life cannot and shall not be blanketed under the canopy of the almost universally accepted immigrant story.

We are legion.

And by “we”. I mean humans too — and how each independent story gets lost under the holy see of stereotypes. When I turn the knife of the labels in my mind, what comes out is that strong distaste for the assumptions people have about others. True, this stems from comments — opinions — under my writing, but it also comes from my own life, memories of people judging me because of my name — or simple statements like No wonder you’re smart. You wear glasses.

There is so much more under the surface, so much to be dissected and presented. Without going inside, facing how much we already have, it will be hard to allow others the space to be themselves — to be woke in their own right.

This makes me think of the surprised brows I raised when I told a group of female friends that I can cook but I’d rather not cook. The too wokeness of feminism barked at my assertion. How could I? Everyone must cook!

Why? When do we cross the line between being wokeness and oppression?

Without being okay with letting others being woke, we will never be woke enough.

That is where I soothe my anger — knowing that because I still feel this way about opinions I disagree with, that I have a ways to go. It’s this feeling that calms me down, sends me to cradle my missing portions and even embrace my keyboard harder because there are many without electricity — others born without hands.

In a classroom of privileged humans talking about ideas, trying to fix a broken world, who takes the time to appreciate how out of that world we really are?

The tension in my class came from me alone. I was annoyed that people who could afford to own computers would not take advantage of their positions and accept the pain in the world.

I was even more angry, that at that moment, I had completely forgotten about the pain I had seen with my own eyes. Even worse, the pain I’d never see because of my own privilege as a black Cameroonian adult living in the US with his wife and dog.

How woke is that?

Written by

Cameroonian writer and video creator. Featured in LEVEL and P.S. I Love You. I write about building relationships and personal transformation.

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