The term “woke” became prominent in 2014 with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists after police had killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a voice aiming at raising awareness about police shootings of unarmed Black Americans. However, the term carried a different connotation the first time it appeared and evolved before 2014. And even since the death of Michael Brown, it has undergone a significant modification. Let’s dig into historic examples to understand what “woke culture” means.
Woke in Historic Context
“Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up, Africa”
If you had lived in Jamaica in 1923, you would have heard “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa” pretty often – a cry from a Harlem leader and philosopher in Jamaica, Marcus Garvey. Back then, it was a call addressing Black people to shift from passive social and political life to active involvement in society’s public and political layers. Thus, they could effectively resist racial subjugation.
In 1938, a blues musician known as Lead Belly spoke after his song “Scottsboro Boys,” advising everybody to “stay awake.” His speech was connected to a 1931 trial against Black teenagers charged with attacking and raping two white women.
“If You’re Awake, You Dig It”
In 1962, the article “If You’re Awake You Dig It,” penned by a New York Times Magazine Afro-American author William Melon Kelley, talked about the appropriation of African-American dialect English by white beatniks. According to Kelley, the phrase meant awareness against white people “stealing” Black slang words to incorporate them into their everyday speech as though they came from whites. In a broader sense, the idea was promoting Black language and culture while pointing out how white Americans are always trying to appropriate the Black slang and the plea to fight against it.
Staying Awake After Graduation
When Martin Luther King addressed students at the Oberlin College commencement ceremony in 1965, he said there’s a tragedy in sleeping through revolution, urging graduating students to “remain awake.”
“Mr. Garvey woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke.”
In 1972, Barry Beckham, playwright, wrote in “Garvey Lives!” that he was asleep all his life, and Mr. Garvey woke him up.
“Stay Woke. Watch Closely”
In 2008, Erykah Badu, a singer, changed the chorus in one of Muldrow’s songs intended for her recording disc. She sang, “I’d stay woke” instead of “I stay awake.” This way, she encouraged Russian rock band members of Pussy Riot, who were jailed for their feminist protest.
In 2012, George Zimmerman fatally shot a 17-old student Trayvon Martin and hashtags #staywoke and #blacklivesmatter spread out quickly.
“Woke Brigade” and Oscar Awards
From 2015 to 2016, we heard an accusation against the Academy for nominating exclusively white actors. So Aprils Reign’s hashtag #OscarsSoWhite started trending. And last year, former Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan said about the 2021 Oscars that the “woke brigade” destroyed the demand for the award ceremony. Many retorted that it had nothing to do with the “woke” movement but with the pandemic. Besides, the 2021 Oscar was the most diverse in history.
“Stay Woke” Outside Racial Issues
“Stay woke” became widespread among Black social media users, denoting staying awake to expose a cheating partner.
What Does “Woke” Mean Now?
The reality is that different people mean different things by “woke.” When coming from conservative commentators and Republican Party representatives, they often mean “cancel culture” and CRT (critical race theory).
CNN once stated that “wokeness” could significantly jeopardize Democrats in the 2022 election.
After penetrating pop culture, the term morphed even at a larger pace. Saturday Night Live presented “Levi Wokes” in 2017. Facebook was stuffed with quizzes like “How Woke Are You?”
Some Black activists think that “woke” has been distorted and now is used as a weapon against them. For example, they say that white people may use it to express pride or progression many years later. So it has nothing to do with the term’s origin. In fact, today, it may mean a zillion of other things, while it should mean discussion about race.
But the problem is that the Blacks are directly accused of being extremists when this happens. Even for some leftists, being “woke” is often associated with an aggressive active take on progressive politics that only complicates things. The term is often seen as an insult rather than a compliment.
People who say they belong to a “woke culture” seem to have been awakened to a new set of ideas, value systems, and knowledge. Something that you have been blind to and now can see clearly.