Very Specific Playlists is a weekly feature in which Jezebel staffers make very specific Spotify playlists based on their weird proclivities.
When you think about wokeness, you think about suspicion, cynicism, conspiracy. You think about a person who never buys the official story. Someone who always suspects there’s really a smokescreen billowing from one of The Man’s high-tech contraptions—meant to conceal his nefarious machinations from the half-lidded eyes of the dozing masses—for any given event. You think about a person who doesn’t trust that members of the mainstream media have the ability and/or bravery to reckon with this broken world, in all its stark reality—their blurred vision is at best naive gullibility, at worst direct culpability, and they instead place faith in nothing else than the bloodshot eyes of their own and the people like them, pained from unceasing vigilance, and terribly, joyously awake to the truth. Wokeness breeds doubt that anything truly is the way it seems at first blush, and foments hatred for the puppeteers and the common man, who the woke person can shake and shake and shake and yet never rouse from their mental slumber.
To an intelligent and well-adjusted person, all this wokeness stuff comes off at least as silly as it is intriguing, if not more so. Sure, everything from history to language to contemporary pop culture can to some degree be parsed for biases and agendas. But the impulse to doubt every little thing, and to rage against those who would deny the perceived obviousness of, say, the Eye of Providence’s place on the one dollar bill as a brazen nod to the Illuminati’s deep and sustained ties to the U.S. government, is flat out funny. That is, when you aren’t concerned about it being actively dangerous. And yet for a certain type of person, usually one given cause to doubt prominent narratives, insecure in their place in the world, and often one personally hurt by a group to which they ascribe outsized power and influence, this kind of thinking pervades.
All of this is to say—I am a former woke person. Some friends might describe me as recovering, while those less forgiving of even my current, uh, ideas would blanche at the suggestion of any mitigation on this front. But I was indeed a woke person. Specifically, I was a sullen teen distrustful of the American government and culture, most prominently demonstrated in my hatred for white people. I was, you might say I was more than woke—you might say I was “woke AF.”
My version of whitey hatred was of the common strain of whitey hatred that develops in the hearts of many minority kids growing up surrounded by white people. While my white dad and black mom began their relationship more or less poor—in large part, I imagine, thanks to me, seeing as I was the unofficial in-utero best man at the wedding for which I was the impetus. Thanks to their personal sacrifices and my dad’s knack for slanging cars and, later, getting other people to slang cars for him, they were fortunate enough to drift deeper and deeper into the sleep cycles of the American Dream.
By the time I could tell these things, thanks to my parents’ insistence that none of their kids should want for anything, our family was, in my mind, completely and comfortably middle class. When I hit my tweens—the age when your personality and place in the budding social hierarchy really start to take form—I was already (erroneously) considered rich by most of my peers. I had gone from drinking bottles of my parents’ homemade concoction of ground-up graham crackers and a little milk splashed in in those times they couldn’t afford baby formula to rocking my dad’s old Gucci watch to class in 6th grade. Mama, we made it!
As an upwardly-mobile young family in the midwest, my parents moved us to increasingly nice suburban towns, which also meant they were increasingly white as well. In the elementary schools near the Army hubs we lived near on account of my mom’s military service, I would reliably find at least a couple other black faces in class with me. By the time we’d gone from Kansas to Nebraska and finally settled back in my parents’ native Indiana when middle school rolled around, though, I was able to count all the black kids in my entire school using just a couple fingers of one hand.
I’m not going to tell you that the white people surrounding me were the cartoon racists that populate all of flyover country in the imaginations of arrogant coastal types who think sane America only exists a stone’s throw from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. No, these were the kinds of upper-middle class people for whom Dixie racism was expressly forbidden, if for no other reason than for how gauche it all was. Nobody ever called me a “nigger” growing up, nobody every told me I couldn’t be whatever I wanted to be because of the color of my skin, and I never suspected that anyone went out of their way to be cruel to me out of simple racial animus.
And yet, in these cloistered pockets of suburbia, there is still a kind of subtle prejudice that eats away at you nonetheless. For example, when your first tween-aged girlfriend, a few days after you broke up with her, spitefully and nonchalantly says that she never understood why she went out with you in the first place. Because “He’s black and I’m white.” Hearing another girl you liked tell you she couldn’t date you specifically because her dad wouldn’t allow it. Your friend’s parents not trusting you even though you were by far the most risk-averse and least knuckleheaded of your crew. Having a fellow classmate in high school ask you how long weed stays in the body for purposes of dodging a failed drug test, despite your quite evident strict aversion to even alcohol, let alone drugs. Routinely getting followed at bookstores and supermarkets and malls by the helpful staff who very intently straighten the rack of merchandise next to you, until you move to another aisle and they happen to remember that it was actually the stuff in that lane that needed rearranging. And, probably more than anything, the daily, unconscious but unmistakable reminder that despite your closet full of the freshest Hollister shirts and speech patterns and cultural norms and beliefs broadly shared with those around you, you, who like any other kid your age wanted nothing more than to fit in, were not and could not be one of them.
Basically, being one of like three black families in your town is like being the one black guy cast in any given season of The Real World—everyone is friendly enough on the surface, but every couple episodes you are confronted with a Racial Incident that you have to either walk the whites through or stew on quietly to yourself—only you never get to go back to your regular life and laugh about that wild experience you had with those crazy whites.
So, yeah, I kind of hated white people. It wasn’t like a visceral, physical thing; I didn’t walk around wanting to punch any white dude who looked at me funny. It was more the idea of white people and the larger society they had built from which I felt excluded than any dislike of actual individuals. But underneath basically my every interaction with them, I was aware of the unstated racist subtext that colored everything. People saying that I—a 5 foot 10, 115 pound twig who couldn’t even stomach the senseless murder sprees my friends liked going on in Grand Theft Auto—was a “scary” guy who could probably beat up anyone in the school? Yep, proof that the white people I knew had so internalized the racist stereotypes of the rage and strength inherent in the black super predator that they’d look at a little waif like myself and see danger. Kids who would come up to me, someone they’d otherwise never talk to, grinning sheepishly while gawking at my hair (which was puffed, twisted, or tied down in the from an afro, dreadlocks, and cornrows, depending on the year), bringing all sorts of strange myths about why my hair “can do that” while theirs can’t, believing even the most absurd stories I could come up with explaining my styling procedures? Still more evidence of how foreign and exotic whites in the ’burbs. Little of it was openly or intentionally offensive, it was almost all insidious, and it disturbed me all the same.
There were two main sources that stoked my sentiments and gave vocabulary to the larger undercurrents of racism that I sensed but wasn’t always able to articulate. One was the knowledge base my mom passed onto me via the scores of Civil Rights-era books she pointed me in the direction of. Herself a voracious student of the oppression of black people from a young age, she had me reading Soul on Ice and Soledad Brother and The Wretched of the Earth and The Fire Next Time and the like, filling my mind with all kinds of new ideas about what was really going on in the world, then and now. It was beyond comforting finding other thoughtful and intelligent people who looked at how white society treated blacks—and not only in the self-evidently despicable manner you’d see in, for instance, Alabama in the ’60s—and wrote eloquently and persuasively that it was fucked up.
While it was nice to have a literary base upon which I could construct my pro-black worldview, and a mom to talk stuff like that out with, it still wasn’t quite enough. It was cool that there were cool people from the ’60s and ’70s speaking to me in book form, but I still sought a more contemporary reflection, and contemporary people to engage in it all with. Luckily, right around that time is when I discovered the best,wokest, most pro-black music ever made: ’90s hip hop.
It was through rap songs—mostly ’90s, mostly New York, though not exclusively—and the message boards that helped me work through my feelings of alienation in Whitey Ville. In my room, on the message boards, listening to Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep and Organized Konfusion, I was in a constant dialogue of sorts with a community that I did feel a part of, and which did speak in a more direct way to my circumstances. These were my peers, friends, and teachers, who, while not in direct contact with me (my shyness prevented from being anything other than a lurker), were in many ways even closer to me than my in-person friends.
As for my wokeness, listening to these people helped me in a couple ways, I think. I trusted those vaguely anonymous message board people, because they had never steered me wrong in the music that became my obsession. Many of them had read the same books as me and were familiar with old FBI conspiracies and COINTELPRO plots against the strong black men and women who had the audacity to speak their truth to power.
Yes, I was to some degree susceptible to their off-the-wall theories about what the white man was cooking up for us in modern times. If these guys are so right on music, why not trust them on other things. Like when their songs told me about satellites under the government’s command that can alter the populace’s brainwaves and cause them to vote for a particular (always Republican) candidate, or elaborate stories about powerful figures who conspired to kill Tupac to prevent him from starting the revolution, or any manner of similar conspiracy theories that sussed out the evidence of The White Man’s never-ending quest to dominate the world?
It was the music, though, that was most influential, and in a much healthier way. Especially with the heavy influence of the Five-Percent Nation (when I really did the knowledge on the Five-Percent Nation via RZA’s Wu-Tang Manual, I realized that until then I hadn’t at all understood what all my favorite ’90s rappers were actually talking about), conspiratorial thinking with an explicitly anti-white bent was rampant. First and foremost, the music was great. But related to the songs themselves and their undeniable quality was the cathartic power of their lyrical content.
For the songs I was listening to at my most angsty, it felt like some small but internally significant revolutionary act to head into school bumping “Nature of the Threat.” These songs were an outlet for my pent-up frustration and aggression, sublimating my vague distrust for the people around me through the music I loved. Not only that, but the obvious ridiculousness of some of the more extreme songs distanced me from the actual ideas themselves. When you hear the umpteenth song about how Yacub created the pig using one-third cat, one-third rat, and one-third dog to poison the original Asiatic Black Hebrews, it makes it easy to laugh off the most exaggerated woke lines of thinking and yet still enjoy the energy of the performances themselves and the power of it as a political statement. Even if it was wrong—and it was almost always wrong—it still meant something that it was being said.
Like any well-adjusted person, I eventually evolved past the most militant aspects of my wokeness phase and learned to forgive people for what they had done to me while I was growing up. We were, after all, mostly just well-meaning kids trying to navigate an increasingly diverse world the best way we knew how with the paltry tools we’d been given for guidance. It would be hard to blame them for failing to solve race relations for my benefit as ill-equipped teens when our country as a whole still doesn’t know how to deal with it after hundreds of years of race conflict.
While I have cast aside almost literally every single tenet I held as a young and dumb, white-hating youth—though I must admit that I still do hate a certain kind of white person, only now it’s about the diametric opposite of the kind of person I grew up with—it’s still fun to go back to the soundtrack of those days and jam out to songs, to varying degrees, about a black person’s distrust of those scheming-ass whitey motherfuckers.