How did this term from the United States, long exchanged between insiders before going viral on social networks, come to be used in the activist world? And what exactly are we talking about when we label a person, a speech or a progressive movement as ‘woke’?
❶ The first occurrences of the 20th century
In the literal sense, ‘woke’ refers to the past conjugation of the verb ‘to wake’. In a colloquial register linked to the African-American community, the term sometimes replaces the adjective ‘woken’ or ‘awakened’, the opposite of asleep. During the 20th century, the term took on a more colourful dimension, tinged with left-wing claims and militancy.
In an article in Believer magazine about her personal relationship with the word ‘woke’ and its evolution, African-American author Kashana Cauley cites an occurence in the Negro Digest magazine in 1942. According to Wikipedia, the magazine – later renamed Black World – was intended to be the equivalent of the Reader’s Digest, with a selection of ‘positive’ information dedicated to the African-American community. In the year of its creation, in the midst of the Second World War, the author J. Saunders Redding used the term ‘woke’ in an article on unionism. The author, who a few years later became the first African-American professor to teach at an Ivy League university, quotes a black union worker as saying: “Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer”.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides historical references to the term in its activist sense. Ignoring the earlier example of the Negro Digest, the OED estimates the earliest recorded use of the word ‘woke’ to be in 1962, written by the African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley in the New York Times. His article, entitled “If you’re woke, you dig it”, describes “how white beatniks were appropriating black slang”, according to the OED. A cartoon illustration showed a pair of white encyclopaedists trying to understand “the Negro idiom of the moment”, according to the article. In this text, Kelley defines the term as “knowledgeable, up to date (“man, I’m woke”)”.
The OED agrees that finding contextual traces of such a use of the term in the twentieth century is rather difficult. In addition to the example of the article cited earlier, the dictionary points to a metaphor from a 1972 play by the African-American playwright Barry Beckham. In Garvey Lives!, a drama about the black Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who died in 1940 after a lifetime of pioneering commitments to pan-Africanism, Beckham writes this 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”
❷ 2008 I STAY WOKE
In 2008, the term experienced a resurgence thanks to a committed song by American RnB star Erykah Badu, Master Teacher. “I’d stay woke” is chanted by singer Georgia Anne Muldrow in the chorus, which is of her own composition.
Badu fell in love with the song when she happened to hear Muldrow singing it during a visit to the Californian studio of the band Sa-Ra, long-time collaborators of the two singers.
In an article for hip-hop media outlet Okayplayer, Muldrow explains that she became familiar with the term ‘woke’ through her association with the New York jazz scene in the early 2000s, specifically through saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, who frequently used it literally, referring to her state of fatigue. As a nod to the musician, Muldrow even made herself a T-shirt with “Stay woke” written in marker before selling it online.
In the Okayplayer interview, Georgia Anne Muldrow explains the meaning of the word as follows:
“Woke is definitely a black experience (…) understanding what your ancestors went through. Just being in touch with the struggle that our people have gone through here and understanding we’ve been fighting since the very day we touched down here. There was no year where the fight wasn’t going down”.
The Master Teacher hit thus propels ‘woke’ into the 21st century and its “particular nuance of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”, as the OED writes.
Four years later, in 2012, Erykah Badu herself re-used the term in a committed manner, but this time without any racial context. The singer posted a tweet in support of the members of the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, then on trial:
❸ In 2014, the militant turn
The anti-racist movement in the U.S propels the use of the term beyond its initial circle of activists, thanks to – or rather because of – the proliferation of cases of police violence against African-Americans, and the growing indignation that they arouse on social networks. Between 2012 and 2014, the Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner cases followed one another. The first was a 17-year-old teenager shot dead in February 2012 by George Zimmerman, a security guard at the gated community where Martin was walking unarmed. In July 2013, after his trial, Zimmerman was found “not guilty” of homicide. Twitter erupts, as the documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement recalls below.
Broadcast in 2016 on BET (Black Entertainment Television), this documentary by Laurens Grant features Mark Luckie, a journalist at the time employed by Twitter as head of media partnerships. “When the Zimmerman verdict came down [on 13 July 2013], everyone was talking about it [on Twitter], it had almost become the equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial of the new century”.
In 1995, the long-awaited verdict in the trial of the former American football star broke television audience records. In 2013, it was via social networks that Zimmerman’s fate, experienced as an insult by the African-American community, was widely followed and commented on. The wave of indignation generated at the time led to the Black Lives Matter movement the following summer, with the deaths of African-Americans Eric Garner in New York (17 July 2014) and Michael Brown in Ferguson (9 August 2014) occurring within weeks of each other.
An article in Vox (2020) analyses the shift in the use of the term:
“While the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag served as an informational and organisational medium during the Ferguson riots, the #StayWoke hashtag likely served an equally important emotional and spiritual purpose: it allowed black citizens to unite around a shared experience and perception of reality, and to enthuse each other about a very long struggle toward change“.
As the previously quoted Vox article reminds us, “Before 2014, the call to ‘stay woke’ was, for many people, unheard of. The idea behind it was common within Black communities at that point — the notion that staying ‘woke’ and alert to the deceptions of other people was a basic survival tactic”. For Vox, the phrase’s notoriety exploded in the summer of 2014 following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. “‘Stay woke’ suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics”.
❹ 2015-2016, the media breakthrough
As the use of ‘woke’ is democratized thanks to Twitter, it is gradually moving out of the African-American vernacular and into publications aimed at a younger readership. One example is this Buzzfeed article published in late 2015, entitled “Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry Was In 2015?”. In it, the journalist praises this American actor, seen in the series Orange is the New Black, who was 29 years old at the time: “Matt acknowledges his privilege as a white heterosexual male and uses his platform as a celebrity to speak on a multitude of social issues”. And Buzzfeed notes, backed by statements from the person concerned: “This year, Matt has made a point to show how compassionate he is for his fellow human. He’s a vocal feminist and he weighed in on the Black Lives Matter movement frequently”.
Seemingly anecdotal, this Buzzfeed article illustrates one of the characteristics with which the term ‘woke’ will gradually become adorned. The flagship medium of millennial culture, then at the height of its influence, believes that it is beneficial to share publicly and frequently one’s commitments, indignities and progressive struggles via social networks in order to “earn the woke badge” – to quote the title of a New YorkTimes article published in April 2016. In English, this is called virtue signalling, which an article in Slate also describes as “moral grandiosity”, defined as “adopting very strong moral positions, especially on social networks, and trying to outdo each other by trying to appear more virtuous than your neighbour (or the person who wrote the previous comment on Facebook)”.
In early 2016, ‘woke’ was named by MTV as one of the ten new ‘teen language’ terms to master, with the following example of usage: “You need to read some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Or listen to some Beyoncé. Stay woke, dude”.
In the wake of the youth media, the female media (which does not necessarily mean feminist) are taking up the issue, like the site of the American version of Elle, which offers this clarification:
“‘Being woke’ is not just about being aware of societal norms and injustices. It encompasses the need to search for more knowledge, understanding and truth in order to engage and challenge the negative progression or evolution of society”.
The New York Times article quoted earlier does not say otherwise in attempting to make the term explicit:
“Think of ‘woke’ as the inverse of ‘politically correct’. If ‘P.C.’ is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then ‘woke’ is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive. It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are”.
❺ 2017: The entry into the dictionary & the explosion of the term
The growing use of the term on social networks and in the media (the two feeding off each other) has propelled ‘woke’ into everyday language in the U.S. The recognition is even institutional with the arrival in June 2017 of the word ‘woke’ (in the activist sense) in the Oxford English Dictionary, with this definition:
“Woke: adjective. Aware of social and political issues, especially racism. Example: We must stay woke and continue to fight for what is right”.
Pop culture is not left out. Eight years after the one signed by Erykah Badu, another song sung by an African-American man in turn summons the slogan ‘stay woke’ in its chorus. Released at the end of 2016, Childish Gambino’s Redbone would go on to become the first single by the rapper to reach number one on the Adult R&B chart in 2017.
If it is initially used here to evoke “paranoia and infidelity in relationships”, according to the Genius website, the injunction to ‘stay woke’ takes on a different meaning when, a few months after its release, the hit is used as the opening track of the horrific satire Get Out.
This chilling metaphor for racism in the U.S, a box-office hit in 2017, is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, who justified his choice of the piece thus:
”I love the ‘Stay Woke’ [lyric] – that’s what this movie is about. I wanted to make sure that this movie satisfied the black horror movie audience’s need for characters to be smart and do things that intelligent and observant people would do”.
Get Out is released in US cinemas on 24 February 2017. A month earlier, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration to the White House, a large demonstration was organised on 21 January. As the billionaire courting white supremacists and accused by many women of sexual violence succeeded Barack Obama, this “Women’s March on Washington” intended to promote “women’s rights, immigration reform, and the issue of LGBT rights (…)”, recalls Wikipedia. Staying ‘woke’ is one of the stated objectives of the demonstrators, whether consciously or not, and sometimes in an offbeat way:
Among the organisers of the Women’s March are activists Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez. A few months later, in May 2017, they appear on the cover of Essence, a magazine founded in 1970 and aimed at African-American women. Aware of the resurgence of the term, this special issue focuses on “100 woke women”. “How we rise up, speak out and push the movement forward”, announces the monthly’s subtitle:
To accompany the magazine’s release, Essence publishes a video on YouTube in which several of the selected women are invited to share ‘their’ definition of the word ‘woke’:
Linda Sarsour, an American-Palestinian and Muslim rights activist, replies: “For me, woke means being permanently outraged all the time, being able to stay human and feel outraged about the injustice that happens around me”. As for Carmen Perez, president of an NGO fighting against discrimination in the American justice system, ‘woke’ means for her “to be uncomfortable all the time, and making sure that I can speak on behalf of those who can’t speak out for themselves”. These two answers thus announce the main criticisms that would gradually be associated with the term ‘woke’: permanent indignation and speaking in place of those concerned.
2017 saw the consecration of the term with its addition to English dictionaries, as mentioned above. The year began with the cries of revolt from feminists in the face of Trump’s arrival in power, and ended with an even bigger explosion: the Weinstein affair and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, which marked once and for all the removal of the term ‘woke’ from its initial community roots. To be continued.
[SERIES] WHAT IS WOKE? → 1. Editorial → 2. The origins (XXth - 2017) → 3. The cultural appropriation of a polysemous word → 4. The decline (2018 - 2021)