Uncomfortably Woke


This post was a message delivered by one of our Chiefs, Dr. Margaret A. Brunson at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC on February 4, 2018.  

Recently, I’ve had several encounters and conversations with the common theme of feeling connected to my ancestors.  I am here in this space, in this building, on this campus recognizing that I’m not too far removed from a very different reality.  I know that it wasn’t until 1968 that the first African American students enrolled at Meredith. And in 1971,  Gwendolyn Matthews Hilliard, became the first African American student to graduate from the College.  And that year was also the end of my mom’s freshman year at Fayetteville State University as a first generation college student.

I stand here in this space, in this building on this campus in honor of my ancestors.  I stand here in the spirit of my triumphant soror Zora Neale Hurston,  I stand here in the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dr. Maya Angelou, and Audre Lorde.  And I stand here in the spirit of Mary Francis McNair Hines, my maternal grandmother and Annie Adams Brunson, my paternal grandmother.

Have you ever been so cozy & comfortable that you fell asleep and later woke up and realized that you’d actually been asleep?  One minute,you are watching Black Mirror or your favorite Netflix series and an hour later you’re awakened by the loud blaring of the theme music at the end of the episode.  

Or, have you ever seen children fall asleep in the car?  It’s as if during a 15 min car ride to the grocery store their car seat suddenly became a cocoon taking them to the land of warm coziness.  And when you finally arrive at your destination and awaken them, they seem disoriented and struggle to get it together.    

We know that remaining awake is difficult when you’re tired.  But, I believe that it’s equally as difficult to remain awake, when we’re comfortable.  

You see, I think we’re in a time when many people are waking up from that comfortable couch nap.  They’re realizing that while they weren’t in a deep state of sleep, they got cozy and comfortable and fell asleep for a while. Many are like the children who fell asleep in the car…waking up disoriented and struggling to get it together.  Somewhere along the way We forgot that there’s still much work to be done to make manifest the dream of Dr. King and so many other before him and since him.

So, now, I believe, it’s time to remain Uncomfortably Woke.  

In June 1965, MLK delivered the commencement address at Oberlin College in Oberlin Ohio.  The title was, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.  This address like so many of his other speeches, named racial injustice as a moral dilemma and laid out the reasons for and ways to eradicate it. But, there’s one particular quote from this speech that I’d like us to consider.    

“All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”

At this point in his address, Dr. King was speaking about the importance of having a global perspective in order to remain awake through a great revolution.  The idea is that when we see ourselves in the context of a larger global community, we’ll be concerned with things that happen around the world and see how they impact us.  Yet, I think this quote also points nicely to a perspective that many of us who are embedded in this self-centered, individualistic culture have either forgotten, lost or never adopted.  

I wholeheartedly believe & subscribe to these words from Dr. King.  I believe that we are tied together and interrelated and that whatever affects one affects another.  And what connects us is our humanity.  Our shared innate desire to be loved and to belong makes us more similar than different.  

Yet, I am also aware of a couple of other realities that cause us to feel challenged and uncomfortable by this perspective:

  1. The first reality is fear. It’s easy to think of yourself as connected to people who look, act, think and believe like you.  Or, with people who you think actually get you.  Or with people who society deems worthy of your time, energy and attention.  We feel connected when we’re cheering for our favorite football team or dancing at a concert.  Yet, in our humanity, it’s extremely uncomfortable to think about walking alongside someone and experiencing their pain or trying to understand life from their point of view.  So often, we do all we can to avoid pain and discomfort.  Yet, when we choose to adopt a life of connection, we agree to take the good with the bad.  We are not only signing up to celebrate and experience our best selves, but also to take on the pain of our worst selves and the worst in others.  We are acknowledging that, if and when some of us are in pain, then we are all in pain.  And when some of us are operating in our lower consciousness and the worst of who we are it has an impact on all of us. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once said the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.”  A life of connection looks like constant transformation through encounters with “the other.”  
  2. The second reality is that committing to a life of connection is uncomfortable because it requires focus and intentional, conscious action.  We’re so disconnected and distracted. Often, we don’t realize how disconnected and distracted we actually are.  Our social media driven culture provides the illusion of connectedness.  We scroll our TL’s…we double tap, we comment, we share and sometimes we slide in the DMs. Yet, we are not really connected.  Instead of real interaction and conversations with humans who do not look or think like us, we sum up their entire existence to a few FB posts that we disagree with and allow that to be the reason we leave them alone.  We’ve traded grabbing that coffee with our friend/neighbor and looking into their eyes and hearing their voice for watching their lives from their facebook page.  Instead of asking “what does that mean?” when someone makes an inflammatory comment, we remain silent, walk away and tweet about it.  Or, when someone tries to explain their experience living as a member of an oppressed , marginalized group, we decide that the individual is delusional and find reasons to diminish their experience.  We can open and close the app and log in and log off as we see fit and never be intentional about engaging with our humanity.  

And I believe that losing this real touch with humanity is how we lose touch with our own and is ultimately how we fall asleep!  One definition of awake in the transitive verb form is to make active : to stir up.  Many of us are experiencing an awakening.  An Awakening is when the confused and frightened self transcends to a higher consciousness, a awareness full of love and peace.

The news feed and headlines of our present day are stirring us up and raising our awareness.  Many are beginning to understand the totality of our nation’s and world’s problems and the truth about how we got here.  We are being stirred up and ultimately what is being stirred up is our consciousness. And, I recognize that this awakening is uncomfortable.  The desperation and frustration tempts us to disconnect and distract ourselves, lose touch with humanity and eventually go back to sleep.  

But, I’d like to offer us a 2-step way forward:

  1. Discomfort is the first posture for healing.  Accept it. There are two types of people in this world. Those who rip off bandages and those who peel slowly. Lol. The thing that I never understand about those who peeled slowly was the grave concern and care that went into avoiding the pain of ripping off the band-aid.  I mean, the times I tried to peel slowly were actually more painful because the pain lasted longer.  Ultimately, I’m a band-aid ripper because I know that the longer I prolong the pain, the longer I prolong the healing.  Wounds must be exposed in order to heal. The awakening that many of us are experiencing is ripping off our mental Band-aids that we’ve placed over our society’s most pressing problems.  We’ve covered up wounds with bandages called Post-Racial America, color-blindness, and equality (instead of equity); and our present circumstances are calling us to accept the impending discomfort, rip off those band-aids, expose the wounds, and heal.  There are periods of great discomfort during the healing process, but we rest in the discomfort knowing that on the other side of it is healing.  When we understand the relatedness of our humanity and embrace being uncomfortable, we begin to shift narratives about families, communities, and populations and We become intentional in our desire to take on not only the joys, but also share in each others’ pain.  We will begin to SEE people in their glorious humanity because we also SEE ourselves in this way.  
  2. We must BE human together.  There’s a South African philosophy called Ubuntu that was adopted post-apartheid by South African people as a way to move forward from the years of institutionalized and systemic racism.  The people realized that their power as a collective humanity would begin the process of transformation.  The people also realized that language had been used as a way to divide and control.  So they took back the power of the language.  “Ubuntu” means I am because we ALL are.  And Bishop Desmond Tutu described so beautifully, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” I could talk for hours (but I won’t) about why the idea of being is so difficult for us.  But the amazing thing about people like Bishop Tutu (and Dr. King) is that they understand that our collective BEING and ability to work together will determine how far we move the needle of justice and racial equity.  That our collective power is greater than our individual power and that each one of us exist for each other. The spirit of Ubuntu says that I can’t be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be. The spirit of Ubuntu says while we may experience life differently, we will see and name injustices rightly together & maintain the vision that they can be eradicated. And work together until our days are done.

So, what am I saying?  I’m saying that we need to stay uncomfortably woke.  

  • And we need to accept the challenging perspective that this awakening and stirring up is compelling us to reconnect.  To reconnect to our humanity and be ok with how uncomfortable it is.  
  • It means that we need to read more books and learn the truth,
  • We need to wrestle with what we learn & do the emotional labor that comes with knowing the truth
  • We need to do the work to transform our thinking,
  • We also need to ask ourselves and others difficult questions.  
  • We need to see injustices rightly and name them rightly; even when it costs us  
  • We need to critique and challenge our leaders and we also need to challenge ourselves and each other to fill the gaps & do the work of leadership
  • We need to speak truth in love but speak the truth anyway.  
  • We need to believe that being uncomfortable is the posture of healing, accept it and stay there until we heal.
  • And we need to BE human together.  Recognize that we’ll never be who we ought to be until we are all who we ought to be.  Shift the narrative from the selfishness and self-centeredness of our culture to one of connection, compassion and community.  And trust that our collective being will inform our collective doing.  That as we take on each other’s pain, listen to each other, make mistakes together, name problems together, that we’ll also sit with discomfort together, figure it out together, create solutions together and ultimately transform together.  

That is the interrelatedness structure of reality.  

Amen and Ase.


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