A Brief History of “Woke” and Why We Should Reclaim It
Lead Belly, a legendary African American folk singer from the early 1900s, used a phrase at the end of his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys.” The song recounts the story of nine black teenagers accused of a heinous crime against two white women. This led to historical legal cases that dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial. He said, “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there—best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” This is one of the earliest appearances of the word “woke” used in this way. However, it’s meaning has changed over time and how it currently relates to the Black community. So, what does “being woke” mean and why does how we use this term matter? We have talked a bit about the word’s origin, but now let’s look into its modern resurgence.
“Woke” as Social Consciousness
In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and the movement and protests that followed, the term woke experienced a modern resurgence. The Black Lives Matter movement widely used the term in order to succinctly communicate the need to be aware of the dangers Black people face on a regular basis. The term was used once again widely by BLM just two years later after the shooting of Michael Brown. Its use there to was to make people aware of conscious of injustices caused by police brutality and the abuse of power inflicted on Black communities.
I was in California with friends for a gathering in 2017. Saturday night was approaching and we all knew what was on the itinerary. A new horror film by comedic actor turned writer/director Jordan Peele had arrived in theaters, and the buzz for it seemed to be through the roof. In the opening scene of his critically acclaimed film, “Get Out”, a song by Childish Gambino plays, a cultural touchstone in its own right. The lyrics in Redbone that caught my ear were “now stay woke…” and the lyrics that followed painted scenes of needing to be aware of the dangerous forces that mean to descend upon the listener. The story in the film took this idea quite literally. I won’t get into plot details, but the main character survives the danger he encounters by being aware of or “woke” to the threats he faces as a Black man. This term has clearly endured throughout modern culture because of the effectiveness in which it communicated a simple truth: Black people must be vigilant concerning the racial threats.
“Woke” is Weaponized
However, by 2018 the meaning of term “woke” changed and criticism began to arise. According to The Guardian the term is now being weaponized by right-wing influencers like Laurence Fox and Toby Young. More specifically, the term is actually being used to attack those who choose to stand up for what are considered liberal, left-wing causes. Steve Rose, author of the article writes, “we are more likely to see it being used as a stick with which to beat people who aspire to such values, often wielded by those who don’t recognize how un-woke they are, or are proud of the fact.”
In addition, this new definition of “woke” is used to identify people as “being pretentious” and engaging in “cultural elitism” because they are socially aware. It is surmised that these woke elites then shame and oppress those that do not see the world and its injustices as they do and therefore they may even “cancel” their detractors in the process. Thus, making those that are not woke victims.
In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, the term become widely used again. Suddenly, the two definitions found themselves in a cultural conflict. The criticism increased in its complexity and intentionality. Some critics, such as James Carville a long-term political strategist, said the term “woke” and those associated with it exist in a world of vernacular that is just too foreign and unrelatable. In Carville’s estimation, those who use the term in reference to social consciousness for the purpose of activism are simply using buzzwords as a means of signifying how woke someone is or isn’t.
Pushing back against the idea of being “woke” has also become a new strategy to combat progressive ideas. The supposed vagueness of what “woke” actually means, in particular, subsequently serves as a distraction from the various policies and initiatives that are needed to make substantive change. For example, arguments around defunding the police are quickly brushed aside making the conversation moot when individuals declare that the idea and potential policy is too “woke” and goes too far. What ends up happening is individuals essentially identify what they don’t agree with to be too “woke.”
Clearly, this discussion could become tirelessly circular, but that’s the point. Getting stuck on the details takes time away from the actual work. We need to reclaim woke because it has such an extensive history in black culture. So much of the Black experience is not just about protecting what our community has created but also about reclaiming the language and culture that we have produced. Being “woke” or staying “woke” is to remain vigilant in the pursuit of justice and be ever aware and resistant to the forces bent on silencing Black joy and liberation. Much like being anti-racist, I believe staying “woke” is an active pursuit, a lifestyle, it is not simply a badge we proudly wear to show how progressive we are. It is a phrase that Black people hear and are instantly reminded to remain attentive concerning the particular challenges that our communities face. In so many words, it holds real power, and history.
The advice that Lead Belly gave at the end of his song back in 1938 lives on decades later and we have to continue its purpose. May we be good stewards of these terms, these pieces of history that are a part of our collective experience.