My Turn: Working class woke

For the Monitor
Published: 4/18/2021 11:00:05 AM

‘Woke’ has become synonymous with political and social awareness among activists in the Black Lives Movement. This innocuous word has become a rallying cry for conservatives who claim “becoming woke” is part of a sinister plot to privilege Black people and minorities at the expense of white Americans. But it wasn’t always so. Woke used to refer to any class of people who, after becoming aware they were given the short end of the stick, organized and fought for justice.

I thought about this while reading about Tillie Olsen, an early feminist writer and working-class activist during the Great Depression. She wrote about how life was stacked against working folks, particularly women, who were consumed with struggling just to survive every hour of the day. They had no time to stop and think, no time and energy to create.

As a result, even “the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or never attained full capacity.” She brought to light the vast silence of “those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.”

Olsen was writing about the poor and working class travails amid the Great Depression when the future of our democracy was increasingly in doubt. An ideological war was raging. It was dawning on the working class that America’s economic and political system wasn’t working for them. Alternatives like socialism and communism started to sound appealing. She was a voice ahead of her time. Today, we could say she had become woke.

Many prominent individuals and business interests were increasingly drawn toward authoritarian models in Europe, like fascism, a top-down system that could restore law and order and keep out the riffraff. One of those prominent Americans was Charles Lindbergh, who became the leading voice of the American First Committee. Does that sound familiar? It was a group that opposed U.S. intervention in World War II and was characterized by antisemitic, pro-fascist rhetoric.

Much like today, right-wing forces considered politics a zero-sum game, blaming Black people, Jews, and immigrants for stealing jobs away from white workers. Even though African Americans were already suffering massive unemployment, some northern cities called for Black people to be fired and replaced with out-of-work white people. Racial violence became more common, particularly in the South, where lynchings surged.

But blaming fellow Americans for our difficulty only made things worse, threatening our very democracy. Into the breach marched Franklin Roosevelt, who held fireside chats to remind us of what we had in common. Rather than divisive rhetoric, he proposed specific remedies to improve our everyday lives. His New Deal lifted the boats of working people and downtrodden minorities, leading to significant reforms and increased prosperity for most Americans, a trend that continued through the 1960s.

Then the situation reversed, encapsulated by Ronald Reagan’s declaration that government was not the solution, but the problem. Perhaps by then government had, in some ways, become bloated. But relentless tax cuts year after year, coupled with deregulating the guard rails on business that protected the public, soon caused the pendulum to swing the other way, back toward the way it was in the 1930s. As working class lives have become more precarious while the affluent prospered, workers have once again become woke, demanding change.

As a consequence, in 2016 we elected a president who promised to address these grievances to make American great again. Unfortunately, he was not interested in instituting policies promoting economic justice for white working folks, or most anyone else. Instead, he ruled by pitting us against one another to no good effect except to enrich the moneyed class, reward his cronies and flatter his ego by preening in front of adoring audiences.

Finally we have elected a new president who, like Roosevelt, can heal our divided nation. He understands the root of our malaise is the same as it was in the 1930s, and the stakes are high. Once again our very democracy is at stake. Toward that end, he has come up with a set of practical policies to put wind in all our sails.

Olsen mourned the vast silence of generations of marginalized poor and working folks of all genders and races who were never able to contribute their creative gifts to the American experience because life was so difficult that just surviving was a triumph. Now that more of us are finding our voices, it is imperative that we support President Biden’s sweeping proposals to lessen the burden on those of us still left out. It’s time we all woke up.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. His blog can be found online at

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