I am a sixty-year-old white woman who lives in a small midwest town. I don’t have any social media accounts. My idea of pop music is the Macarena. I don’t know who is on Hollywood’s A-list, and I couldn’t care less about the latest fashion trends. I don’t try to be cool, but I do try to be woke.
I can hear the collective groans of people who think I shouldn’t be, or can’t be, woke. I am nervous about broaching a subject that is clearly out of my lane, and I am sensitive to the cultural appropriation of a term that is firmly rooted in African-American Vernacular English. However, unless you’ve been asleep, you’ve been hearing this word used and misused more and more in political, cultural, and social conversations.
As a concerned and active citizen, I feel a responsibility to understand the origins of the word and its implicit and explicit meanings. To this retired English teacher, the word woke is the past-tense of wake, as in to wake-up or be awake. It’s easy to see how it could evolve to mean something more metaphorical and important.
According to several sources, the term woke emerged in the United States by at least the 1940s as slang within the black culture. A 1943 article in the Atlantic quoted a black mining official using woke related to social justice. By the 1960s, woke meant to be well-informed and politically aware, especially in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, the term was used in a New York Times article titled If You’re Woke You Dig It. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a commencement address at Oberlin College called Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.
While the term continued to be used, it hit mainstream vocabulary in 2012 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young unarmed black man. The social media hashtag #staywoke appeared in 2014 and became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2017, an additional meaning of woke was officially added to the dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines woke as, “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” Merriam-Webster similarly defines the concept as, “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.” I don’t know about you, but I find ideas of equality and justice the ultimate in elegance.
There are those who may be right in thinking I’m a wide-eyed Pollyanna who is oversimplifying a complicated issue. I will never know what it’s like to be a black person. I’m not in the minority by race, religion, or sexual orientation. However, I know these people as my relatives, my friends, my neighbors, and my brothers and sisters in humanity. How can I possibly close my eyes to injustices they face? Should I stop caring in fear of doing it wrong?
I admit it’s my nature to strip down words and ideas to their simplest, most elegant, terms. By understanding woke’s history and meaning, I am more aware of those who conflate, politicize, and weaponize the word and more attentive to issues of racial and social justice. Unless someone convinces me otherwise, this retired, middle-class white lady will continue to do her best to stay woke. §
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
~ John 15:12, New International Version