I find the adjective “woke” to be very clumsy. It really doesn’t roll off the tongue. I avoid its use, but I am intrigued with how it became an insult. Surely, most of us aspire to be alert to social injustice and discrimination.
The phrase “Stay Woke” emerged in 1930’s African-American Vernacular English (“AAVE”) . It can be heard in the Lead Belly video below. In the song “Scotsboro Boys”, Lead Belly sings about nine black men jailed in 1931 on the trumped-up charges of rape of two white women. Subsequently, after many trials and appeals, all nine were granted full pardons. However, three of them only received their pardons posthumously. Lead Belly uses “Scottsboro Boys” to warn “Black Americans” to be aware of racially motivated threats, particularly in the deep south of the US. Again, pretty good usage of this African American vernacular, I think!
Barry Beckham’s 1971 play Garvey Lives! includes 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.” The interpretation: A call to global black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious. Good so far? I am!
Around 2010, The Economist noticed the term and the hashtag #staywoke had begun to spread on-line. Erykah Badu, in support of the anti-Putin Russian punk group Pussy Riot, wrote: “Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot”. Great usage, particularly in the current context of the Russian war in the Ukraine.
On August 9, 2014 a police officer shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Almost immediately, Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) popularized the phrase to urge awareness of police abuses. Without entering into a debate of the BLM movement, “stay woke” remained a warning to be aware of visible minority vulnerability to police brutality.
Then in May 2016, the Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement documentary aired on BET+. Multiple movements latched onto the catch phrase that had its origins in the 1930s. The Lead Belly AAVE expression went from:
The Oxford English Dictionary added woke, the adjective, in June 2017. Merriam-Webster followed suit in September 2017. This led to Saturday Night Live harpooning its usage.
From Scottsboro and Lead Belly to Ferguson and BLM, “woke” was about racism and its consequential violence. This delayed the weaponization of the term. No political or social group wanted to be labeled anti-antiracist.
However, with BLM’s emergence the term and its inclusion in Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, usage exploded. Various “progressive” causes urged people to “be woke” to numerous issues plus real and perceived injustices. This completed the appropriation of a term that had originated in the African-American Vernacular to raise awareness of the impact and violence of racial injustices.
Progressives built a bigger and bigger tent for “woke” issues. The right happily piled on by linking any cause it opposed to being “Woke” making it easier to use the term as an insult. Just some examples:
So, woke at its best:
But with its link to every “progressive cause”, real or imagined,
“I want to live long enough to see the younger generation not be woke enough for the next generation. It’s going to happen. Don’t they realize that it’s like, they’re next? That’s what’s funny.”Ricky Gervais
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