For the majority of English speakers, ‘woke’ will only ever be the past particle of ‘wake’; and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for others, it might be difficult to avoid bumping into ‘woke’ on the Internet.
Anyone who feels like giving their blood pressure a workout just needs to read the Comments section under many a Web posting. Ouch. Usually no time will lapse before the trolling starts. Sneers from the right include ‘bleeding heart’ and relative newcomer ‘snowflake’. Sneers from the left include ‘redneck’ and ‘Nazi’. But for a person on the left to call a fellow leftie ‘woke’ is considered a compliment; in fact it’s becoming a byword for social justice awareness. The term implies ideological sensitivity to the plight of the marginalised, the oppressed, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.
Urban Dictionary.com naughtily defines ‘woke’ as the following: ‘A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.’
But seriously, when and how did ‘woke’ awake?
There is evidence of this term being much older than the current generation. In 1962 The New York Times published an article by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley entitled ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It.’ But the word appears to have entered the wider American vernacular only a handful of years ago in 2008, featured in the song ‘Master Teacher’ by Erykah Badu, which included the lines:
Even though you go through struggle and strife
To keep a healthy life, I stay woke
(I stay woke)
Everybody knows a black or a white there’s creatures in every shape and size
(I stay woke)
While this song may not have started the trend, it widened the audience. ‘Stay woke’ gained currency throughout the African-American community for anyone considering themselves self-aware and reformist. In 2013-2014 the expressions ‘stay woke’ and ‘woke’ entered mainstream media discussion after the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. It soon became a watchword for the Black Lives Matter movement. Any activist was ‘woke’ and called on others to ‘stay woke’.
Since then on social media, especially Twitter, the little word has become shorthand for online activism. ‘Woke’ tweets discuss such topics as police brutality, racism and deaths in custody. #StayWoke is a means of reminding the Twitterati to look beyond mainstream media and to cross-examine their own positions of privilege.
Is this cultural appropriation? In 2016 journalist Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times Magazine: “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.” Another new word, ‘allyship’ refers to the phenomenon of someone from a non-discriminated group supporting those suffering from discrimination.
But is ‘woke’ really cultural appropriation or is it just an aspect of language evolution? After all, this is hardly the first time a word or phrase from Black English has later crossed into the mainstream. English owes a wealth of contributions to this source. We have ‘rock and roll,’ ‘jazz,’ ‘bogus,’ ‘hip,’ ‘dig’ and many more. People might no longer say ‘groovy’ but ‘cool’ has never stopped being cool.
Yet ‘woke’ may not be the new ‘cool’. Writing in The New York Times last month, the ever-perceptive David Brooks observed: “To be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures… Cool was politically detached, but being a social activist is required for being woke. Cool was individualistic, but woke is nationalistic and collectivist.”
So it feels right and proper – maybe even ‘woke’ – to acknowledge the sources of this contemporary term, especially in our post-Obama triTrumphalist era. To paraphrase Australia’s current Prime Minister: there’s never been a more exciting time to be woke.