Woke  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Woke is a political term of African American origin that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. It is derived from the African American Vernacular English expression "stay woke", whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Precedents for usage

Oxford Dictionaries records early politically conscious usage in 1962 in the article "If You're Woke You Dig It" by William Melvin Kelley in The New York Times and in the 1971 play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham ("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.")  – Garvey had himself exhorted his early 20th century audiences, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!"

Earlier, J. Saunders Redding recorded a comment from an African American United Mine Workers official in 1940 ("Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we'll stay woke up longer.")

Lead Belly uses the phrase near the end of the recording of his 1938 song, Scottsboro Boys, while explaining about the namesake incident, saying "I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go along through there, stay woke, keep their eyes open".

Erykah Badu and modern activist usage

The first modern use of the term woke appears in the song "Master Teacher" from the album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008) by soul singer Erykah Badu. Throughout the song, Badu sings the phrase: "I stay woke." Although the phrase did not yet have any connection to justice issues, Badu's song is credited with the later connection to these issues.

To "stay woke" in this sense expresses the intensified continuative and habitual grammatical aspect of African American Vernacular English, in essence to always be awake, or to be ever vigilant. David Stovall said: "Erykah brought it alive in popular culture. She means not being placated, not being anesthetized."

Implicit in the concept of being woke is the idea that such awareness must be earned. The rapper Earl Sweatshirt recalls singing "I stay woke" along to the song and his mother turning down the song and responding: "No, you're not."

In 2012, users on Twitter, including Badu, began using woke and stay woke in connection to social and racial justice issues and #StayWoke emerged as a widely-used hashtag. Badu incited this with the first politically charged use of the phrase on Twitter; she tweeted out in support of the Russian feminist group Pussy Riot: "Truth requires no belief. / Stay woke. Watch closely. / #FreePussyRiot."

From social media and activist circles, the word spread to widespread mainstream usage. For example, in 2016, the headline of a Bloomberg Businessweek article asked "Is Wikipedia Woke?", in reference to the largely white contributor base of the online encyclopedia.

Generic usage

By the late 2010s, woke had been adopted as a more generic slang term and has been the subject of memes and ironic usage. For example, MTV News identified it as a key teen slang word for 2016. In The New York Times Magazine, Amanda Hess raised concerns that the word has been culturally appropriated, writing, "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."





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Woke" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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