During the summer of 2020 the nation was rocked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of uniformed police officers – a death that was later adjudicated as murder. As in many cities, Tampa also had a series of protests and marches with the theme “Black Lives Matter” prominently displayed. At the same time, Pope Francis, commenting on the murder of George Floyd said, “We cannot close our eyes to any form of racism or exclusion, while pretending to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
At the church where I was the Pastor, we displayed a large poster that featured a likeness of Pope Francis, the quote just cited, and a tagline: “black lives matter.” The poster was prominently displayed, affixed to the church, at the corner of two major downtown streets that carried a good deal of vehicular and foot traffic. Save one person, the response was always polite ranging from “Thank you for making a statement” to “Why are you doing this. Stay out of politics” accompanied by a range of views in between. I remembered several people, both of whom declared that they could see that I was “woke.” One meant to convey that they acknowledged (approved?) my awareness of the institutional and systemic problem of racism. The other person meant to convey that I was appeasing a liberal, progressive, left-leaning, socialist group whose goal was destabilizing the United States. I did not need to guess at the intended meaning of the later, all adjectives just used were said aloud following the comment, “I can see now that you are all woke or whatever.”
In those two brief exchanges it is evident that there was already a divergence of definition. Surely there was a blog post waiting to be written about the etymology of “woke.” It turned out to be a larger, more time-consuming research project than envisioned, with lots of side trips through all kinds of related topics such a critical race theory, the development of western philosophical thought in the 19th and 20th centuries, the role of a historian, tracing hashtags and memes, and all manner of wandering and exploring.
History of a word
Like all words, “woke” has a history. Etymologically, “woke” is an adjective that originated in what linguists call African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). It emerged into broader use in the 1930s with a meaning of being alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.
The earliest known examples of wokeness as a concept revolve around the idea of Black consciousness “waking up” to a new reality advocated by Black activists and dates back to the early 20th century. In 1923, a collection of aphorisms and ideas by the Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey included the summons “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” as a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious.
Most attribute the specific use of “woke” to the Black American folk singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, who uses the phrase near the end of the recording of his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys”, which tells the story of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women. Lead Belly says at the end of an archival recording of the song that he’d met with the Scottsboro defendants’ lawyer, who introduced him to the men themselves. “I made this little song about down there,” Lead Belly says and based on that meeting he wrote the lyrics to the song: “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” Some attribute Lead Belly’s use of the word as an accelerant of a term already in use within the African American communities. This is perhaps seen in the work of African American scholar, philosopher and writer, J. Saunders Redding, who recorded a comment from an African American United Mine Workers official in 1940, stating: “Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.”
The Oxford English Dictionary notes an early usage in a 1962 New York Times Magazine article titled “If You’re Woke You Dig It” by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley, describing the appropriation of Black slang by white beatniks.
Woke had gained a more political connotations by 1971 when the play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham included the line: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.”
By the mid-to-late-20th century, woke had come to mean “well-informed” or “aware”, especially in a political or cultural sense, in addition to its meaning to stay alert to the racism one encounters in the everyday. But it was also a malleable word which received a nuanced meaning in the 2008 song “Master Teacher” by soul singer Erykah Badu’s which repeatedly used the phrase “I stay woke” in the refrain. Within the context of the lyrics, “woke” refers to being self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better on a personal level. While it is hard to say that the intended meaning was meant to connect to movements of social justice, the term “woke” made even more inroads into popular usage.
Songwriter Georgia Anne Muldrow, who composed “Master Teacher” in 2005 said that while she was studying jazz at New York University, she learned the expression “stay woke” from Harlem alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, who used the expression in the meaning of trying to stay awake because of tiredness or boredom. Again, we see the jazz connection in the word.
In 2012, the Twitter hashtag #StayWoke was used in a tweet mentioning the Russian feminist rock group Pussy Riot, whose members had been imprisoned in 2012: “Truth requires no belief. #StayWoke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot”. It is unclear how the author of the tweet came to use “woke” in this context and from what source. But it does indicate that the expression was gaining preliminary traction in spheres far removed from the Black American experience.
About the same time, “woke” became increasingly common among the community of African American users of Twitter. André Brock, a professor of black digital studies at the Georgia Tech, suggested that the term woke proved popular on Twitter because its brevity suited the platform’s 140-character limit. Be that as it may, the term began crossing over into general internet usage as early as 2015. Searches for “woke” and “stay woke” surged on Google in 2015.
In the same decade “woke” clearly took on the meaning ‘politically and socially aware’ among Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists. BLM started in 2013 following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the phrase was popularized by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists seeking to raise awareness about police abuse and shootings of African Americans. The term “woke” became an even more wide-spread Internet hashtag and was increasingly used by white people, often to signal their support for BLM. The BET Network produced and aired a documentary “Stay Woke,” which covered the BLM movement. It aired in May 2016.
BLM is decentralized organizationally, politically and socially, but associated with the national organizations BLM Grassroots and BLM Global Network Foundation – although at this writing there are significant issues within and between the national organizations.
Again, revealing its malleability, the term “woke” has also had a meaning as slang for one’s suspicions of being cheated on by a romantic partner. In November 2106, the singer Childish Gambino (actor Donald Glover) released the song “Redbone” which used “woke” in reference to infidelity. Within the broader definition attention to stay aware of injustice, this branch of linguistic use is consistent with the usual morphing of word usage.
The term increasingly came to be identified with members of the millennial generation. In May 2016, MTV News identified woke as being among ten words teenagers “should know in 2016”. In 2017 the term was included as an entry in Oxford English Dictionary.
In a 2106 NYT Magazine article (Earning the Woke Badge) Amanda Hess points out that social media accelerated the word’s cultural appropriation outside the Black community. As the title suggests part of the appropriation is to receive what Hess calls “a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive.” But there was a hidden cost that Hess points out: “The conundrum is built in. When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation.” This is an echo of African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley comment about the appropriation of Black culture by white beatniks and echoes many other sociologists. Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures.
It seems to me that 2017 was the year in which “woke” had become mainstreamed into popular and increasingly white culture, obscuring the original home in AAVE as a warning and in the later Black American political consciousness rise. The linguist Ben Zimmer notes that as the term was increasingly used among white people on social media, black activists criticized the use of “woke” as being more concerned with internet point-scoring that systematic change.
Perhaps as a bell weather of the mainstreaming, in 2017 Saturday Night Live (SNL) produced a segment on its show, Levi’s Woke, which has been viewed 6.1 million times. The video is a parody of the modern progressive movement as being label-driven and superficial. The video description is: “Introducing Levi Wokes: sizeless, style-neutral, gender non-conforming denim for a generation that defies labels.” I think it is safe to say that when SNL is writing comedy skits about such things, it points to some aspect or element of culture going off the tracks. Their use of blue-jean-making Levi Strauss as a prop for the skit was a harbinger of a trend that several years later, NYT writer Ross Douthat will call “Woke capitalism.” It seems to me that this affirms Hess’ and Zimmer’s views about cultural appropriation and “point-scoring.”
Cultural appropriation aside, if the affirmation from others (of which Hess spoke) becomes a true dynamic in and surrounding “woke” it seems to me inevitable that someone become the grantor of the affirmation. Social-justice scholars Tehama Lopez Bunyasi and Candis Watts Smith, in their 2019 book “Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter,” point to the inevitable “Woker-than-Thou-itis.” They describe it as seeming like a contest in which there is an effort to be educated around issues of social justice – which is laudable. However, the motivation is to be recognized by others as a woke individual becomes self-serving and misguided. This then sets in motion a scale of “wokeness” with the inevitable outfall that others will be disparaged for lagging behind in their wokeness. And this is all apart from the selection/self-appointment of who decides the hurdles and measures of wokeness. This is a topic all unto itself. Noelle Mering, a conservative Catholic author, holds that the dynamic operates based on who can present the “best” victim credentials. By assertion and by acquiescence, they assume a moral superiority over others which appoints them the task of assessing guilt, awarding wokeness credentials, and in some case banning voices from the conversation. But as I mentioned, this is a topic unto itself.
Woke is part of battle landscape of modern politics. It can be used to describe a progressive agenda of ideas and programs. According to Perry Bacon (FiveThirtyEight.com | March 2021) members of the Republican Party in the U.S. have been increasingly using the term to criticize members of the Democratic Party, while more centrist Democrats use it against more left-leaning members of their own party, who use it as a badge of honor. Is it part of the cancel culture? Is it a judgment on your moral compass? Is it a measure of your patriotism? Is it a word whose time has come and will also pass? What about the moral, social, and political issues underlying it lexiconic movement in history?
Just as William Melvin Kelley’s use of the word “woke” in 1962 predicted (“If You’re Woke You Dig It”), the idea of it being appropriated and reconfigured is encoded into its very lexicological nature. Linguists refers to some words as performative in nature, often true of slang and words that cross-over. Such words rarely carry a specific, narrow meaning. In crossing over they naturally bring room for reinterpretation in their new context.
So… what about woke? What does it mean? Hard to see. It means what you want it to mean but there is no guarantee the one hearing will share your view or context. And in that sense, it does not make for good communications.
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