Walter Suza guest column: Civilizations can collapse, individuals can collapse, but wokeness will still rise

·4 min read

Last month Ben Shapiro gave a lecture in Ames, Iowa, titled, “To Save America, Wokeness Must Be Destroyed.”

“What people on the left like to talk about isn’t actions and solutions; all they like to do is bitch about problems that occurred 60 years ago,” the conservative podcast host said.

Shapiro seems ignorant of the meaning of "woke."

If he wasn’t, he would have known that 60 years ago, in 1962, woke was shot into America’s consciousness by a Black novelist — William Melvin Kelley — in his opinion essay in the New York Times, “If You're Woke You Dig It.”

Kelley’s “wokeness” was not just about the fire burning in the underbelly of the civil rights struggle. It was also about educating America that idioms like “chick,” “cool” and “dig it” had originated with Black Americans.

“If You're Woke You Dig It,” which says if you are woke, you get it. You understand. You are aware.

Wokeness lived even in 1938, which is why a Black Blues musician — Huddie Ledbetter — invoked “stay awoke” in a song to warn Black people of dangers that might exist in white spaces.

Wokeness lived even in 1923, which is why a Black nationalist — Marcus Garvey — challenged Black people to increase their political and social awareness.

Destroy awareness to save America? Wokeness can’t be destroyed, because it was here even before white people set foot in America.

But Shapiro doesn’t get it, which is why he declares that “wokeness” must be destroyed while digging his heels deep in a whitewashed history.

In 1606, King James I tasked a group of white men to set sail for North America, which was already occupied by Native Americans. The men arrived in today’s Virginia in 1607 and established the first English colony, named Jamestown.

In 1619, 20 enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, making Jamestown not just a white colony, but also the birthplace of the struggle for Black American lives.

Even though Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the struggle continued into the 1960s. This is why, in 1962, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a "Second Emancipation Proclamation" to desegregate America.

But America is still segregated even today.

What must be destroyed is not wokeness. What must be destroyed is a whitewashed history. What must be destroyed is the refusal to admit America’s past still affects the present.

If Shapiro were woke, he would agree with King that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

If Shapiro were woke, he would be conscious of the ramifications of a document drafted by a delegate from Virginia named Thomas Jefferson, which became the Declaration of Independence.

The Framers declared all men are created equal — yet back then, enslaved persons, Native Americans and women were still considered less than, which meant they were not equal to white men.

Not declaring all humans are created equal birthed inequality, and inequality birthed inequity. Despite the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the inequitable past still lives in America.

If we choose “solutions” instead of “bitching” about the past, as Shapiro wants America to do, we must make the Declaration of Independence more inclusive.

We do that by replacing the word “men” with “humans.”

To embrace the United State’s rich diversity we declare: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

After amending the Declaration of Independence, we move on to actions. The new Declaration of Independence will provide a “station” for inclusive equality, fairness and justice.

Because all humans are created equal, it will always be wrong to refuse to amend inequity created by enslaving Africans and taking land from Native Americans.

Because all humans are created equal, it will always be wrong to compare Black people to monkeys and calling them the N-word.

Because all humans have the right to Life, the killing of Black people by police would stop, violence against Indigenous women would stop, violation of women’s rights would stop.

Because all humans have the right to Life, neighborhoods would not be redlined and gentrified, and children from such neighborhoods would not be poisoned with lead.

Because all humans have the right to Liberty, no one would be incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, denied the right to control their own bodies.

Because all humans have the right to Happiness, we will not refuse to recognize different circumstances and needs of others.

We are not free until everyone is free.

True freedom is equal rights and equitable opportunities for all. True freedom comes from teaching the entire history, learning from it and amending past injustices.

That’s how we save America. That’s wokeness.

Walter Suza of Ames writes frequently on the intersections of spirituality, anti-racism and social justice. He can be contacted at

This article originally appeared on Ames Tribune: Opinion: What Ben Shapiro didn't tell Ames about wokeness