Wide Awakes were formed, or at least reformed, at the beginning of 2020, when the year’s biggest cultural marker seemed like it might be the US presidential election. The group became a fixture of American creative protest in 1860, as a youth-led movement fighting systems of slavery and oppression. Drawing on music, art, tech and fashion, the newest iteration includes installation artist Hank Willis Thomas – whose banner “All Li es Matter” was draped blocks away from the White House in June – art activist and cultural curator Wildcat Ebony Brown, painter and sculptor José Parlá, and artist Eric Gottesman. Here, the Wide Awakes hub comes together to ride the year’s shifting tectonic plates.
Claudia Peña (executive director of For Freedoms, civic platform co-founded by Thomas, Gottesman and Michelle Woo in 2016): Let’s connect the Wide Awakes in the 1860s to the current Wide Awakes. What’s the link? We’re supposed to remember history so we don’t repeat it, but we’re also supposed to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Eric Gottesman: The Wide Awakes was a youth-led movement at a pivotal moment in American history, where young people – first in Hartford, Connecticut, and later in towns and cities across the country – started promoting abolitionist candidates. Hank Willis Thomas: The Republican party was founded in 1854 out of the ashes of the Whig party, which dissolved based around the debates that more slave states should be entering the union. By 1860 it was one of the more radical parties around the abolitionists’ movement, inspired by people like John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and a man from Kentucky named Cassius Marcellus Clay. A group of young Republicans were inspired to protect abolitionist candidates and abolitionists in general and out of practicality they carried torches, so they could be seen at night-time – then they started wearing capes to protect themselves from (the flames). It became a political statement about putting yourself out there, but also having vision and insight. They appropriated the logo of the all-seeing eye as a metaphor for being wide awake to all the forms of corporate, governmental and social distraction and disruption – and to the things that unite us towards a greater future. They imagined a greater future where abolition, immigration and women’s suffrage were things that could work in harmony. They piled these beliefs on to Abraham Lincoln, as a conduit for them, which led to the emancipation proclamation and, more than 50 years later, the passing of the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage.
dissemination of really beautiful visuals, they could get people on board with their cause and change the world. And so much of that is what drives this group of people, which goes far beyond the people in this Zoom room. We talk about the clothes that the Wide Awakes wore, those capes and the torches they held, as protecting space for radical ideas and the liberation of mind, body and spirit. In terms of the reality of bringing it into 2020, it’s been a few things. Part of it is getting clear on what it means to build a narrative around 1860, to look at this history and see both the things that were so inspiring about it and its flaws. It was a diverse movement, but it was (comprised of) primarily young white men, as (the only demographic) able to vote in 1860. This is not a white saviour narrative, this is about bringing together all of the folks who inspire us and giving them space to present their radical ideas. Beyond understanding the narrative, it’s also been about making space for conversations like this. It’s been about building a call-and-response network, presenting ideas and elaborating on them, and understanding that, if you put a lot of brilliant people in the room, the conversation will take turns that you wouldn’t expect. So it’s been about how overlapping circles lead to a new set of actions. CP: How has the recent Black Lives Matter upsurge shifted or refined what we’re doing as Wide Awakes?
Tony Patrick (worldbuilder, writer and founder of the Tenfold Gaming Initiative): For Freedoms had a congress in LA at the end of February which was a convergence point of years of work, political engagement and transformational political discussion. This was also the moment the 2020 Wide Awakes were announced. So there was a procession and we started to talk about who and what we were. Well, two weeks later Covid-19 hit, so there was a pause, rightfully so, as everyone tried to acclimatise. Months later, centred around the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and countless others, we found ourselves (focused on) the original pandemic, which we could call supremacy. So as we found ourselves battling these twin pandemics, it became an opportunity to get on the ground and start our work, and that started with the Juneteenth (Emancipation Day) celebration. We see ourselves as a kind of excavation continuum, which means we have to look
“It’s about an infinite conversation. It is about a structure where we are able to continue to explore and express in infinite ways” – Tony Patrick at decolonising a lot of the terminology, holidays and practices in our society, so that we stop ourselves from being stuck in what seems like a finite game and start to play an infinite game of liberation for all. CP: Why is it important that the Wide Awakes membership is spread widely, geographically?
These (struggles towards) abolition, women’s suffrage, immigration and even slavery – under mass incarceration – are still really relevant today. And that is what brought each of us here in different ways, because we are all abolitionists in one way, shape or form, finding new ways to work together and collaborate towards building a better future where vision is centred.
EG: We need to find pathways to change ourselves and to unlock in ourselves the ancestral knowledge that has been stripped from us by the systems that govern. And so I think that Wide Awakes is, for me, about reawakening ourselves, a metaphor for how we can really bring radical self-knowledge to the reconstruction and deconstruction of these systems. CP: Tell me about Wide Awakes’ reignition for 2020 and what organising its core aims has looked like.
Carly Fischer (impact strategist, collaborative cultural facilitator): Wide Awakes was a liberation movement, among other things. And part of what we’re so interested in is not just (talking about) electoral politics, but looking at the paradigm of the United States – slavery as the basis of the economic system. (The original Wide Awakes) imagined that, through collective action and the
Mecca Brooks (cultural producer and arts strategist): Well, I think the first thing to consider is that people are different – we’re all the same at the core, but you’ve got to consider how where you live (influences your political identity). I thought about my years living in Chicago, which I think of as a tribe, just like Wide Awakes… There’s a tribal connection of like minds, spirits and thought patterns. If Wide Awakes is inclusive to everyone, anywhere, why not bring people from different places into the conversation and see what they want to do with it? Miami, Minnesota, Minneapolis, Berlin, Amsterdam – I can confidently say that, in each of these places, Wide Awakes will look different because circumstances are different. But as a common thread, I always like to remind people that we’re spiritual beings having a physical experience. ( Just think) what each place could reimagine for Wide Awakes and for (their city). CP: What are the cornerstone aims of Wide Awakes?
Wildcat Ebony Brown: In general people want to express themselves, to feel like they have a voice and to feel connected and understood. With Wide Awakes, we have an opportunity to create space for people to do that. The events we’ve been curating have been heavily focused on music because we believe in collective joy as a form of (community building). We’ve been operating by this
DAZED AUTUMN 2020