‘Woke” means we are conscious of racial discrimination and other forms of oppression. By that definition, many of us have been woke for a long time. How could we live in the Chicago area and not see the racial segregation and prejudice?

It was so obvious it seemed like a permanent fixture of the landscape. Many just accepted it and could not foresee how it would ever change. Now, people are “woke” to the fact that it has to change for the good of everyone, not just the victims of racism. 

My family was woke about racism long before others, thanks to my older brother, Edward. He attended the University of Wisconsin Madison, the liberal center of the universe. Edward fell under the spell of progressive professors and starting spouting radical ideas. He also brought home strange music, like the first album of a guy named Bob Dylan. We thought his voice was scratchy, but Ed liked the social justice message of his songs.

Like other fans of the folk scene, Ed was all about protesting and became an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He changed minds by educating us on the origins of the war. After college, he really woke us up by marrying a Black French woman from the West Indies. We were suddenly exposed to French culture and international travel.

Edward and Micheline did not embrace materialism but invested in travel and expanding their circle of like-minded friends. He used his history degree to teach at small Black colleges in the South. They were too poor to pay him much, or offer him tenure.  Visiting these campuses was an eye-opener for me.

He also opened our eyes during the Iran Hostage Crisis, by inviting Iranian college students to our house for Thanksgiving. The students appreciated the hospitality during a time when many Americans reviled them. Ed was always inviting interesting guests to our holiday table. They were from different countries and cultures and kept the conversation lively.

Ed continued to educate me by giving me a copy of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It’s an alternative look at our history that celebrates people like Frederick Douglass, Cesar Chavez and Mother Jones, rather than traditional American heroes like Andrew Jackson. His biggest heroes were the Haymarket Martyrs and he never tired of visiting their monument in Forest Home Cemetery.

Edward woke us up about so many aspects of American history and the current injustices in our society. But when George W. Bush was re-elected, he left America for France and became a French citizen. He still called home regularly, though, to get the scores of Notre Dame football games. We thought we were sufficiently woke by then but we weren’t even close.

We naively thought the election of Obama had made us a post-racial society. We didn’t foresee it would stir up racism to levels we hadn’t seen since the ’50s. The events of 2020 have been a wake-up call like no other. The current crises have exposed the inequities in our society and motivated many of us to march for change.

 It’s funny, but racism is so entrenched in our culture, we didn’t even notice its presence in everyday products like Aunt Jemima syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice. We ignored it in old movies and TV shows. Police brutality was seen as an anomaly not a pervasive problem.

Edward isn’t here anymore to keep us woke. People like him, though, raise our consciousness and show us how far we are from finally becoming a just society.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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