Capital Area District Libraries wants its readers to get woke

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Learn more about the Read Woke program at CADL.org/woke

Author Ezra Jack Keats once wrote, “If we could see each other exactly as the other is, this would be a different world.” That statement appears in his controversial 1962 book, “The Snowy Day,” which featured an image of an African American boy mesmerized by a snowstorm on its cover. Today, his writing might be described as “woke.” 

“Woke,” “stay woke,” and many more configurations of the phrase, have been flying across social media, political speeches and at demonstrations with the intent of promoting social justice and social awareness.

The first popular use of the phrase might have been in Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 political campaign. Over time, the phrase has been used by luminaries such as Marcus Garvey, blues singer Lead Belly and by the Black Lives Matter Movement, which popularized the phrase beginning in 2014.

The phrase has now been adopted to describe woke books. Librarians are popularizing the Read Woke movement across the United States.

The movement can be traced to Cicely Lewis, an African American teacher and media specialist from Norcross, Georgia, who, after seeing Essence Magazine’s “Woke Woman” edition, along with watching her students cry when they learned of the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, decided to promote reading books representing social justice issues.

Lewis says on her website woke books must challenge a social norm; give the voice to the voiceless; provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised; seek to challenge the status quo and have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group.

Lansing’s Capital Area District Libraries is sponsoring a Read Woke promotion to encourage the community to read books that consider social awareness and social justice.

Jolee Hamlin, senior associate director of public services at CADL, has worked with 15 other staff members of the CADL staff to develop 16 extensive lists of woke books for community reading at all levels and interests.

Library patrons can sign up to read books and win prizes for their participation including stickers, T-shirts and other goodies. For example, readers who complete three books qualify for a prize. The more they read, the more prizes they can win. Readers can also read books not on the lists.

The categories of books are extensive and have been curated by CADL librarians to include African American, Native American, Asian American, Arab American, Jewish and Hispanic women authors, and address issues such as immigration, poverty, homelessness and LGBTQ rights.

Reviewing the lists indicates a preference for contemporary works, which makes the project more approachable for young readers. It’s not heavily weighted with authors like James Baldwin, although “If Beale Street Could Talk” is on the reading list.

“We tried to respect as many people’s voices as possible and there's a surprisingly large number of new authors,” Hamlin said. “There has been a publishing boom toward youth addressing issues like LGBTQ rights. Along with growth in books featuring Hispanic, Indian and Asian American writers.”

Patrons interested in participating in the Read Woke book promotion must register online at CADL.org/woke. After reviewing the reading lists, patrons can reserve the books online and pick them up at CADL’s 14 branch libraries using the successful Grab and Go program. In addition, many of the books are available for download. Registration is underway for the reading challenge, which runs from Sept. 15 until Halloween.

Books on the lists include fiction and nonfiction entries. They include Michele Obama’s “Becoming” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” as well as Michigan author Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “American Salvage” and Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive.”

Other authors include: Toni Morrison, Angie Thomas, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Walker, Viet Thanh Nguyen, David Treuer, Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Anderson. The lists are also broken down for teens and young children.

The lists got me thinking about books from the ’60s that considered social justice issues.

Most will remember “Black Like Me” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” both by white writers. There were books like Betty Frieden’s “The Feminine Mystique,” and a plethora of books on the Native American athlete Jim Thorpe. And then there was Malcolm X’s groundbreaking autobiography, co-authored by Alex Haley, who would go on to write “Roots.” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” also debuted in 1969.

A variety of books covered issues from race to mental illness and slavery. Detroiter Donald Goines wrote hard-boiled detective novels like none we had ever seen, and the numerous books published by Detroit’s Broadside Press began to fill in a missing niche. Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” delved into mental illness. “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” by William Styron, considered a slave revolt, and Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” delved into topics like being transgender. Adding exclamation points were Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Why We Can’t Wait” and LeRoi Jones’ “Blues People.”

Readers in the ’60s may have been woke but many have been napping.

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