Written by Classical Liberal



‘Woke’ can be used as a verb, as the past tense of ‘wake’: meaning ‘to emerge or cause to emerge from sleep’.

 ‘Woke’ can also be used as an adjective: meaning ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism’. 

The word ‘woke’ seemed to come out of nowhere in 2014 and was soon all over social media. This week, the British mainstream media has been dominated by Me-Gain Markle’s interview with Oprah. As I expected, Me-Gain turned on the crocodile tears and played the racism card. For someone who claims to have suffered so much, she certainly appeared very calm and collected. Of course, she is a successful actress. Despite Me-Gain’s obvious insincerity, her allies rushed to social media to defend her precisely because they perceive her as ‘woke’. Clearly, as soon as someone self-identifies as ‘woke’ they gain the unconditional and uncritical support of the radical left. This intrigued me. Why does being perceived as ‘woke’ enable Me-Gain to make such extreme claims without the need to back them up with any credible evidence whatsoever? In search of an answer to this question, I decided to begin by examining the origins of ‘woke’.  

Despite the recent spike in its usage, ‘woke’ is not a new word. It was first used in the 1940s as a political term by black Americans. The term has resurfaced in recent years as a concept that symbolises perceived awareness of social issues. The widespread use of ‘woke’ since 2014 is a result of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. By the late-2010s, ‘woke’ had been adopted as a more generic slang term associated with left-wing politics, and progressive or socially liberal causes, such as anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, and environmentalism. It means to be awake to issues of social justice and racial justice. It has also been the subject of memes, ironic usage, and criticism for its methods and consequences.

‘Woke’ was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2017. Defined as:

Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.

‘Woke’ is a slang term that is easing into the mainstream from some varieties of a dialect called African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). In some varieties of AAVE, ‘woke’ is used in place of ‘woken’, the usual past participle form of ‘wake’. Thus, in AAVE, ‘awake’ is often rendered as ‘woke’; as in, ‘I was sleeping, but now I’m woke’. This has led to the usage of ‘woke’ as an adjective equivalent to ‘awake’, which has become mainstream in the USA. Contemporary political usage of ‘woke’ derives from the AAVE expression ‘stay woke’, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. 

The term ‘wide awake’ first appeared in political culture and political advertisements during the 1860 presidential election in support of Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party cultivated the Wide Awakes movement primarily to oppose the spread of slavery. 

Black American folk singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter uses the phrase near the end of his 1938 song ‘Scottsboro Boys’, which tells the story of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women, saying ‘ I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open’. Aja Romano wrote that this represents ‘Black Americans’ need to be aware of racially motivated threats and the potential dangers of white America’. 

By the mid-twentieth century, ‘woke’ had come to mean ‘well-informed’ or ‘aware’, especially in a political or cultural sense. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the earliest such usage to a 1962 New York Times Magazine article titled ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’, by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley, describing the appropriation of African-American slang by white beatniks. 

‘Woke’ had gained more political connotations by 1971, when the play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham included the 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’. Marcus Mosiah Garvey Sr., was a Jamaican political activist, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator. Ideologically a black nationalist and pan-Africanist, his ideas came to be known as Garveyism. Garvey had himself exhorted his early-twentieth century audiences, ‘Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!‘ Romano describes this as ‘a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious’. 

The twenty-first century usage of ‘woke’ encompasses the earlier meaning of ‘socially or politically conscious’ with an added sense of being ‘alert to social and/or racial discrimination and injustice’. This usage was popularised by soul singer Erykah Badu’s 2008 song ‘Master Teacher’, via the song’s refrain, ‘I stay woke’. Merriam-Webster.com defines the expression ‘stay woke’ in Badu’s song as meaning ‘[continue to be] self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better’. And, although, within the context of the song it did not yet have a specific connection to justice issues, Merriam-Webster credit’s the phrases use in the song with its later connection to these issues. Mainstream usage of ‘woke’ in this expanded sense was also spurred on by its association with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, with the meaning of ‘keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics’. 

[To be continued tomorrow with Part 2]


Print Friendly, PDF & Email