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It Came From the '90s: Getting Woke


This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

These days it seems getting woke is everywhere, especially on social media. It's hashtag-shorthand for becoming aware, having your eyes opened to the stark and disturbing realities faced by millions of citizens in this country and around the globe every day. Understanding inequality, being cognizant of privilege and how it influences and shapes your thoughts and behavior. Trying to exhibit empathy for those who do not share in your birthright's privilege.

If people were uttering the phrase get woke back in the early 1990s, I certainly wasn't aware of it in my sleepy suburban town. Yet I most definitely had a get woke moment in high school, fall of '92, when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It sounds like hyperbole, but that book changed my life. It made me cognizant of the fundamental and irrefutable fact of my white privilege while also enlightening me to the sad history of discrimination over the course of the twentieth century and of course further back than that.

We were assigned a project in English class—by the same teacher I wrote about recently—and if I recall it was to read and write about a book that was adapted to film. I chose The Autobiography of Malcolm X, likely because Spike Lee's cinematic adaptation was releasing that same year. To my young eyes, Lee was the most electric and engaging filmmaker working at the time. His movie was a worthy adaptation of Malcolm's life story, but it was the book that first blew my preconceptions about race right out of the water. I thought I was at least passingly aware before the book. I thought I had a grasp on our nation's racism. I had no idea.

Malcolm X's story is one of tremendous struggle and perseverance, of seeking some sort of truth in the face of enormous societal obstacles, and of finding redemption. Telling his story with the assistance of journalist Alex Haley, Malcolm's words are imbued with a fire and intensity that practically leap off the page. He is scornful of the white men who caused such unfathomable pain and inflicted centuries of suffering on his race. He's dogmatic and affirmative, staunch and fervent, stubborn and proud. Yet he's also fluid and ever-changing, able to grow and evolve his ideologies over time, especially and most dramatically after his pilgrimage to Mecca.

What his story did for me, a young naive white kid with very little real-world experience outside of the safety of  my high school cocoon, was to present a life's story unvarnished, one filled with enormous change and growth, complete with all of the blood, sweat, and tears that made it possible. Before The Autobiography of Malcolm X I had no clue just how many lives a man can lead, even when that life is tragically cut short at the age of 39. Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, convict, Satan, minister in the Nation of Islam, disciple of Elijah Muhammad, human rights activist, Muslim, husband, father, survivor, icon. Growth, change, adaptation, revolution, and evolution, all in the face of insurmountable odds.

Very few reading experiences for me have ever equaled reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the fall of '92. Late '80s, early '90s black cinema was undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with films like Do The Right Thing, Boyz in the Hood, and Menace II Society providing voice to a new generation of black filmmakers; hip hop and R&B were both relevant and inspiring, from Fear of a Black Planet to Rhythm Nation 1814; and Rodney King's beating at the hands of the police, the ensuing trial, the appalling verdict, and the resulting L.A. riots brought race to the forefront for many Americans who hadn't yet been woke. The rest of the populace couldn't help asking, "Really? Where have you been hiding?"

Just because The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a formative experience for me at a young age, one that triggered a shift in my awareness, an opening up of my mind to experiences and lives outside of my own small bubble, I still cannot pretend to fathom the impact it must have on generations of black Americans who read it for the first time around the same age. I hope it's still being read by thousands if not millions of new young people every year. It deserves to be, as Malcolm X's story of faith, resistance, and enlightenment in the face of extreme prejudice will, sadly, always remain relevant.

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