How ‘woke’ fell asleep
Hashtags and sayings related to black liberation are having a moment of popularity in 2016, with #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, and #ASeatattheTable, among those that have recently gained traction, though potentially at the expense of their political messages. Aside from those that refer to Black Lives Matter (BLM) itself, one of the most well know hashtags in this genre is #StayWoke. This hashtag frequently appears in tweets like the following, which specifically mention black oppression and/or political consciousness:
Y’all noticed they ended the season of a conscious black show (Atlanta) a week before elections? #StayWoke
— The People’s APE (@_RudeNiceGuy) November 9, 2016
— ANGEEZY (@AngailtheGREAT) November 8, 2016
The origins of woke
But where did this woke, with its pro-black meaning, originate? Woke itself, is much older than #StayWoke, and indeed had a meaning of being conscious of social systems of black oppression, among African Americans as early as the mid 20th century. The earliest example of a figurative meaning of woke that Oxford lexicographers could find is from 1962, when woke was listed in a glossary of African American slang with the definition ‘well informed, up-to-date’. This glossary was part of a 1962 article by the African American novelist William Melvin Kelley in the New York Times entitled “If you’re woke, you dig it’ about (among other things) how white beatniks were appropriating black slang.
By the following decade, we have evidence of it being used in a more explicit political context. In a 1972 play entitled Garvey Lives!, author Barry Beckham writes. “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”. These examples, among others, provide evidence that woke with its pro-black political meaning dates back over 50 years in American usage. There are few examples of woke being used with this meaning in public writings in the late 20th century, but woke seems to have made a comeback in recent years. In her 2008 track ‘Master Teacher’, R&B star Erykah Badu sings “I stay woke”, and helps to bring this meaning of woke back into the public consciousness. However, it seems that the true woke renaissance coincided with the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Indeed, building on the association between woke and Black Lives Matter, black-oriented network BET (Black Entertainment Television) aired a documentary entitled ‘Stay Woke’ about the movement in May 2016.
Like many words and phrases that capture a particular (political) zeitgeist, woke and stay woke have a meaning that is ever evolving and changing. Unfortunately for woke, its political meaning appears to have been removed in at least some contexts. Today, a search on Twitter reveals ‘stay woke’ being used in some tweets with its pro-black political meaning, but also being used in non-political, comical tweets like the following:
Election just a scam by the sticker industry to takeover Instagram #staywoke
— Desus Nice (@desusnice) November 8, 2016
See I know those penguins ain’t loyal , happy feet lied to us #STAYWOKE
— Henny Hardaway ☕️???? (@BoatsNHoes___) November 5, 2016
In the tweets above, it is clear that #StayWoke has a meaning related to being aware of some type of alleged conspiracy, but it has been stripped of its gravitas as well as its call for black folks and allies to remain aware of oppression. Like its lighter predecessors from 2015, on fleek and squad goals, woke has now lost some of its original meaning and ties to black communities. Woke featured prominently on MTV’s News’ list of words to use in 2016, and they define it simply as ‘being aware — specifically in reference to current events and cultural issues’. In MTVs conceptualization, woke simply means being aware, without any connections to black oppression or consciousness that it had when it re-entered wider usage in 2013. In this way, woke has been racially sanitized for a mainstream audience. Woke has been removed from its ties to black communities as well as its reference to black consciousness and political movements. As a result, woke itself can no longer perform the function of promoting and indexing black consciousness and liberation. The appropriation of woke has lulled it into a complacent, apolitical slumber where, ironically, it simply means ‘awake’.