Woke

Awaken, My Love

BLM

Woke is a slang word from African American vernacular which refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social and racial justice. The related phrase ‘stay woke’ refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, a decentralized campaign against violence and systemic racism toward black people.

‘Oxford Dictionaries’ records early politically conscious usage in 1962 in the article ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’ by William Melvin Kelley in ‘The New York Times’ and in the 1971 play ‘Garvey Lives!’ by Barry Beckham (‘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 first modern use of the term woke appears in the song ‘Master Teacher’ from the 2008 album ‘New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)’ by soul singer Erykah Badu. Throughout the song, Badu sings the phrase ‘I stay woke,’ though the phrase did not yet have its current connection to justice issues. Nevertheless, Badu’s song is credited with the later connection to these issues. To ‘stay woke’ in this sense expresses the intensified continuative and habitual grammatical aspect of African American Vernacular English, i.e. to always be awake, or to be ever vigilant. Professor David Stovall of the University of Illinois Chicago said ‘Erykah brought it alive in popular culture. She means not being placated, not being anesthetized.’ Implicit in the concept of being woke is the idea that such awareness must be earned. The rapper Earl Sweatshirt recalls singing ‘I stay woke’ along to the song and his mother turning down the song and responding ‘No, you’re not.’

In 2012, users on Twitter, including Badu, began using ‘woke’ and ‘stay woke’ in connection to social and racial justice issues and #StayWoke emerged as a widely-used hashtag. Badu incited this with the first politically charged use of the phrase on Twitter. When she tweeted out in support of the Russian feminist group Pussy Riot, ‘Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely.#FreePussyRiot.’ From social media and activist circles, the word spread to widespread mainstream usage. For example, in 2016, the headline of a ‘Bloomberg Businessweek’ article asked ‘Is Wikipedia Woke?,’ in reference to the largely white contributor base of the online encyclopedia.

More recently, woke has been adopted as a more generic slang term and has been the subject of memes and ironic usage. For example, ‘MTV News’ identified it as a key teen slang word for 2016. This has raised concerns that the word has been culturally appropriated. In ‘The New York Times Magazine,’ Amanda Hess writes ‘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.’

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