Photos by Ruvan Wijesooriya
Oct 18, 2021
How the Wide Awakes revived a 19th century movement in the name of joy
Wide Awakes Day, held in Gowanus earlier this month, commemorates an abolitionist movement born during the 1860 election
A crowd of bopping maximalists has convened to celebrate Wide Awakes Day in Gowanus. Animal prints are rustling, the matcha is chilling in a community cooler. The Moko Jumbies, a group of stilt walkers, are coaxing folks onto the dance floor. Getting down comes easier for some people, but everyone here is wide awake.
In fact, that’s what they’re called: Since their original inception as a youth political movement in the late 1800s, the Wide Awakes have grown into “an open source network who radically reimagines the future through creative collaboration.”
Wide Awakes Day went down around the world earlier this month, on October 3, everywhere from Cuba to Japan. The modern reboot of this historical collective actually took shape at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the years leading up to 2020. Hank Willis Thomas, a co-founder of the artist collective For Freedoms, invited creatives from his network to discuss their ideals, like public disruption through radical joy and liberation through a more collectively-minded future. Over a series of meetings, attendees discovered a shared admiration for the original, often forgotten Wide Awakes.
In February 2020, the For Freedoms and friends officially revived the Wide Awakes, mobilizing their network, creating a website, and planning events. The group has brought their mission into the 21st century with public demonstrations called “disorientations,” including digital events like their Back to the Source meditation series and live happenings, like a birthday party for Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was killed by police for selling loose cigarettes, and intermittent marches that maintain the inertia of 2020’s fervent protests.
The Wide Awakes’ goals, established last year, are twofold: “Increase the joy of voting” and “Build a political and cultural identity around listening, healing and justice.” Their slogan: “On our own, we’re asleep. Together, we’re awake.”
“I was always surprised by how different the Wide Awakes were than the other marches happening last summer,” says Christina Caputo, a Wide Awaker who also works as communications strategist with the For Freedoms. “They were filled with joy and inspiration, and tried to bring together individuals and other collectives in a really inspiring way.”
Where last year’s Wide Awakes Day fell smack between the pandemic summer and presidential election, this year’s celebration offered respite with a lowkey block party. From 2 p.m. until 9 p.m., an intergenerational crowd of area residents, accidental attendees, and local Wide Awakes shared a congenial Sunday complete with music, refreshments, and conversation. There were tables filled with fabric for crafting vibrant cloaks, tables scattered with markers and coloring pages inviting attendees to design highway billboards for alternate realities. Multi-threat creative and Brooklyn-based Wide Awake Wildcat Ebony Brown remarked, “It almost was like going to a barbecue or a family reunion.”
In Brooklyn the Wide Awakes practice their utopian ideals by partnering with local organizations like Gowanus-based Dance Wave, who helped secure the location for this party on Degraw and Fourth Street through the city’s Open Culture program, which offers “a way for cultural organizations and institutions to use outdoor space more effectively, and actually bypass some of the more complicated parts of the permitting process,” as Wide Awake Carly Fischer explained.
To keep the festivities hopping, world champion double dutch troupe the Jazzy Jumpers brought their ropes out for a performance with audience participation. Wildcat Ebony Brown invited them to show their stuff at Wide Awakes Day after recruiting the squad to jump on a music video she directed for The Roots a few months back. Jazzy Jumpers coach Toni Veal grew up in Brownsville, and has been competitively jumping since age 12. She took over as leader when her coach, Sandra Baker-Fortune, passed away in 2011.
“I’ve tried to change the world one rope at a time,” Veal says. “Brownsville doesn’t get the light it needs, we get the light that’s given to us… We don’t get highlights for the positive stuff that comes out of Brownsville. I can get a news camera over here for anything negative, but the same way that negativity gets the light, so does the positivity.”
When I ask how the Wide Awakes would reply to a cynic who says that joy is a flimsy weapon against violent systems, Fischer points out that, “Joy is not a delusion. To be joyful in the face of violence isn’t to ignore violence, but rather to fully acknowledge the realities of that violence, and then to choose each other over that violence.”
Wide Awakes Day
The Wide Awakes were born at the cross-section of idealism and action. On February 25, 1860, Southern abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay visited Hartford, Connecticut to give a speech. “There was a real awareness of how radical those ideas were, and how dangerous it could be to espouse those ideas,” Fischer says. “John Brown had been killed just about six weeks earlier.”
Six local folks volunteered to escort Clay back to his hotel after his speaking engagement. They carried torches to light their way, and wore cloaks of coated cloth to protect against dripping wax and oil from the flames. Their utilitarian garments caught the light and made them glow in the night. Thus, the Wide Awakes were born.
Wide Awakes Day celebrates perhaps the most iconic moment of the Wide Awakes. On October 3, 1860, their legions swarmed Manhattan for a torchlight parade down Broadway where attendance topped the thousands, rallying for the election of Abraham Lincoln, but also liberation and glee. “That moment in history has become a real inspiration for a moment that we now celebrate,” Fischer says.
The current iteration of the Wide Awakes is non-hierarchical group. There are occasional town halls, but no dues, no elected leader—-just a global network of creatives joining forces unpredictably to disrupt the daily humdrum. Some cities like Oakland and Miami host their own organized chapters. The group encourages newbies to form a “cypher,” or cluster of five people, and engage with the wider “organization” on Instagram.
All their dancing and fashion, fluorescence and bedazzling isn’t just eye-catching, though. The Wide Awakes aesthetic intends to shock citizens into awareness. Fear is only a habit. It can be shaken off, but first the dancers must feel safe to move. “People don’t even understand how vulnerable expressing yourself in public can be,” says Brown, who is usually the first on the dance floor.
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