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A protester holds their hands up in front of a police car in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 25, 2014.
Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

A history of “wokeness”

Stay woke: How a Black activist watchword got co-opted in the culture war.

Before 2014, the call to “stay woke” was, for many people, unheard of. The idea behind it was common within Black communities at that point — the notion that staying “woke” and alert to the deceptions of other people was a basic survival tactic. But in 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “stay woke” suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics.

In the six years since Brown’s death, “woke” has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of “woke” is bipartisan: It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.

On the left, to be “woke” means to identify as a staunch social justice advocate who’s abreast of contemporary political concerns — or to be perceived that way, whether or not you ever claimed to be “woke” yourself. At times, the defensiveness surrounding wokeness invites ironic blowback. Consider the 2020 Hulu comedy series Woke, which attempted to deconstruct the identity politics behind ideas like “wokeness,” only to garner criticism for having an outdated and too-centrist political viewpoint — that is, for not being woke enough.

On the right, “woke”like its cousin “canceled” — bespeaks “political correctness” gone awry, and the term itself is usually used sarcastically. At the Republican National Convention in August, right-wing Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) scolded “woketopians,” grouping them together with socialists and Biden supporters, as though the definition of a “woketopian” was self-evident.

But as use of the word spreads, what people actually mean by “woke” seems less clear than ever.

After all, none of these recent political concepts has anything to do with the idea of demanding that people “stay woke” against police brutality. Despite renewed activism against police brutality in 2020, the way that terms like “woke” and “wokeness” are used outside of the Black Lives Matter community seems to bear little connection to their original context, on either the right and the left.

Shifting a Black Lives Matter slogan away from its original meaning is arguably the least woke thing ever — yet that seems to be just what happened with, of all things, “woke” itself.

To understand how “woke” came to stand in for an entire political ideology, it’s helpful to trace how the term traveled so far and wide within the American mainstream — and what that journey reveals about a polarized society.

“Stay woke” began as a watchword for Black Americans

The first time many people heard “woke” in its current context was likely during the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, Black citizens took to the streets nightly to protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown. As they did so, they urged each other to “stay woke” against police actions and other threats.

But “woke” and the phrase “stay woke” had already been a part of Black communities for years, long before Black Lives Matter gained prominence. “While renewed (inter)national outcry over anti-Black police violence certainly fueled widespread and mainstream usage of the word in the present, it has a much longer history,” deandre miles-hercules, a doctoral linguistics researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara, told me.

The earliest known examples of wokeness as a concept revolve around the idea of Black consciousness “waking up” to a new reality or activist framework and dates back to the early 20th century. In 1923, a collection of aphorisms and ideas by the Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey included the summons “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” as a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious. A few years later, the phrase “stay woke” turned up as part of a spoken afterword in the 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” a protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly. The song describes the 1931 saga of a group of nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Arkansas, who were accused of raping two white women.

Lead Belly says at the end of an archival recording of the song that he’d met with the Scottsboro defendants’ lawyer, who introduced him to the men themselves. “I made this little song about down there,” Lead Belly says. “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

Lead Belly uses “stay woke” in explicit association with Black Americans’ need to be aware of racially motivated threats and the potential dangers of white America. Lead Belly’s usage has largely stayed the common, consistent one ever since, including during one notable brush with the mainstream in 1962, via the New York Times.

That year, a young Black novelist named William Melvin Kelley wrote a first-person piece for the Times called “If You’re Woke You Dig It; No mickey mouse can be expected to follow today’s Negro idiom without a hip assist.” In the piece, Kelley points out that the origins of the language of then-fashionable beatnik culture — words like “cool” and “dig” — lay not within white America but with Black Americans, predominantly among Black jazz musicians.

Kelly’s piece doesn’t explain what “woke” might mean. But his argument implies that to be “woke” is to be a socially conscious Black American, someone aware of the ephemeral nature of Black vernacular, who might actively be shifting that vernacular away from white people who would exploit it or change its meaning:

The Negro’s pride in this idiom is that of a man who watches someone else do ineptly what he can do well. The Negro laughs at white people who try to use his language. He experiences the same glee when he witnesses a white audience at a jazz concert clapping on the first and third beat. [...]

The American Negro feels he can, on the spur of the moment, create the most exciting language that exists in any English-speaking country today. I asked someone what they felt about white people trying to us “hip” language. He said: “Man, they blew the gig just by being gray.”

“Kelley’s description suggests that to be woke is to have a native relationship to Black language, culture, and knowledge of social issues that arise in our lived experiences,” miles-hercules told me, singling out Kelley’s piece as an example of the connection “woke” had even in the ’60s to its current political connotations.

Given that this oldest-known introduction of “woke” to the mainstream comes in a 1962 opinion piece about how white Americans are always appropriating the Black vernacular, it’s almost as though the word predicts its own fate.

A Black Lives Matter protester in Massachusetts on October 3, 2020.
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Kelley argued that because Black Americans know their language is constantly being appropriated, the language itself is constantly changing. “By the time these terms get into the mainstream,” he observed, “new ones have already appeared. [...] A few Negroes guard the idiom so fervently they will consciously invent a new term as soon as they hear the existing one coming from a white’s lips.”

“[Kelley]’s use of ‘woke’ is linked closely to contemporary definitions of the word as he is writing about Black people’s awareness of the racial dynamics at play in the process of linguistic appropriation,” miles-hercules said. “As a linguist and anthropologist, I highlight this piece specifically because it demonstrates both how language, culture, and power are always connected and, crucially, that this is not news to Black people. We been knew ... we stay woke.”

Indeed, even in a piece largely focused on linguistics, Kelley directly connects “woke” Black culture back to an awareness of systematized white violence against Black people. Writing about the ephemeral nature of this shifting Black vernacular, he noted that many popular idioms among Black Americans have been loaded with coded precautions since the era of slavery — like the use of “ofay,” pig Latin for “foe,” to stand in for a white man. “[T]he language was used primarily for secrecy, exclusion, and protection,” Kelley wrote. “If your master did not know what you were talking about, he could not punish you, and you could maintain your ignorance and innocence.”

This linguistic subterfuge seems to be how “woke” — the concept and the word itself — flew under the mainstream cultural radar for what seems to have been decades. Not until the late aughts, with the rise of social media and a few prominent assists, did wokeness begin its steady, proper push into the broader American consciousness.

From 2008 on, “woke” began to go mainstream — with its original meaning largely intact

Although “woke” as a watchword was the term’s earliest known usage, it took on three primary contexts within Black communities during the 20th century: 1) slang for being literally awake; 2) slang for being suspicious of a cheating romantic partner; and 3) the original, politically charged usage of always being on the lookout for systemic injustice. In a 2017 interview with OkayPlayer, funk singer Georgia Anne Muldrow describes first hearing the term used by ’60s jazz musicians in its most literal context — as in, slang for not falling asleep.

Muldrow carried “stay woke” forward in a crucial way: She wrote and recorded an unreleased version of a song called “Master Teacher” with the refrain “I’d stay woke,” in reference to the ’60s jazz musicians of yore. Muldrow’s usage inadvertently contributed to the term’s political meaning getting a boost when, in 2008, R&B artist Erykah Badu released an updated version of “Master Teacher” on her politically themed album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War).

Badu’s version of the song simplified Muldrow’s “I’d stay woke” to “I stay woke,” used in all three of the aforementioned contexts at once:

Even if yo baby ain’t got no money
To support ya baby, I stay woke
Even when the preacher tell you some lies
And cheatin’ on ya mama, you stay woke
Even though you go through struggle and strife
To keep a healthy life, I stay woke ...
I have longed to stay awake
A beautiful world I’m trying to find

After the release of Badu’s song, “I stay woke” gained increasing use among Black social media users commenting on current events, often harking back to its original political meaning.

Despite its increasing popularity as a call for sociopolitical awareness, the use of “woke” on social media rarely drew much notice, and throughout the 2000s and early 2010s typically remained within less polarized context.

First, as vernacular for literally staying awake:

And second, as a term for being suspicious of a cheating partner. (This meaning did bear a cursory connection to the word’s political sense, in that it still carried the original meaning of being alert to suspicious or threatening behavior.)

All of this seemed to change during the 2014 Ferguson protests. Protesters began to popularize the phrase online through the #StayWoke hashtag as well as through street signs and related merchandise.

Ferguson was a true social awakening for many activists and progressives — and as part of this moment, the idea of staying aware of or “woke” to the inequities of the American justice system was a heady one. While the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag served as a locus of information and organization during the Ferguson protests, the #StayWoke hashtag arguably served an equally important emotional and spiritual purpose: It allowed Black citizens to unite around a shared perception and experience of reality — and to galvanize themselves and each other for a very long fight for change.

The link between “woke” and the Ferguson protests began to gain attention in mainstream media, including in a 2016 documentary, Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.

After Ferguson, “stay woke” increasingly took on the meaning of heightened awareness and alertness and began to carry an overtly political context.

Childish Gambino’s popular 2016 single “Redbone” was built around the refrain “stay woke.”

Gambino, a.k.a. Donald Glover, warned the listener to stay woke about a cheating partner. But the song also contained an element of anxiety that resonated with the phrase’s wary sociopolitical usage. Gambino’s song might have fueled the continued slightly different meanings of “woke” in common usage. But then 2017 brought the release of Jordan Peele’s landmark horror film Get Out, which opens with a prominent use of “Redbone” and its “stay woke” refrain. The film, about a Black man who must literally stay awake and alert to horrible racism in white suburbia, essentially reframes Glover’s song to map fully onto the phrase’s political definition.

In a 2018 interview, Peele told Hip Hop DX that he had chosen the song as the film’s opener specifically because of the “stay woke” hook. “I wanted to make sure that this movie satisfied the Black horror movie audience’s need for characters to be smart and do things that intelligent and observant people would do,” he said. “‘Stay woke’ — that’s what this movie is about.”

By the time Get Out arrived in theaters in February 2017, the idea of being “woke” was taking off within the broader American mainstream — and it had already begun to show up in other political contexts, like at the 2017 Women’s March.

From there, as awareness of its political usage spread, the term simultaneously began to draw backlash from critics who argued the idea was superficially performative. In May 2017, for example, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beams snarkily condemned the performative progressive nature of the term. “Do you use the word ‘intersectionality’ a lot, even if you aren’t exactly sure what it means?” he wrote. “If yes, you are progressing well along your journey to wokefulness.”

“The real purpose of ‘woke’ is to divide the world into hyper-socially aware, self-appointed gatekeepers of language and behavior, and the rest of humanity,” Beams added.

That same year, “woke” got the Saturday Night Live treatment, parodying the modern progressive movement as being label-driven and superficial.

By 2018, the cultural reception of “woke” had turned chilly: An NPR commentator begged leftists to retire the term, and the connotation of “woke” as a phony show of progressive activism had taken hold on the right.

“In my conservative Southern Baptist community, the term has become an insult that is used against anyone who is concerned about justice and racism,” Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me in a phone interview. “They use the word like a weapon.”

That’s where things get really complicated — and where white culture’s appropriation of “woke” begins to dominate the conversation.

“Wokeness” may be a religion, a cause for weary exhaustion, or both

Despite critics’ attempts to turn “woke” into a laughable or problematic concept, many people continue to use “woke” unironically. Chloé S. Valdary, founder of the “compassionate anti-racism” program Theory of Enchantment, told me she still sees Black communities primarily using the phrase to mean staying alert to systemic injustice “all the time, especially on Instagram.”

“In some posts they’ve used it to mean staying alert against police brutality,” she said. “In others, they use it as a catchall term to signal their objection to ‘whiteness,’ broadly defined.”

“I associate it with much more than Black Lives Matter and police injustice,” Prior told me. Like many people, she said, her earliest awareness of the term coincided with the activism surrounding the Ferguson protests. But she added that she now sees “stay woke” as a cry against systemic racism in general.

Both Valdary and Prior also acknowledged that across the political spectrum in 2020, “woke” seems to represent a consciously progressive mindset — but that concept is loaded with irony and cynicism. Even on the left, the idea of being “woke” can be a double-edged sword, often used to suggest an aggressive, performative take on progressive politics that only makes things worse.

For instance, consider how the phrase “woke discourse” gets used on social media: The “discourse” can be about a zillion different things, but attaching “woke” to it usually denotes a perception of embittered exhaustion at progressive semantics and arguments.

What’s telling is that the exhaustion seems to come from moderates and leftists themselves as often as from conservatives — as if there’s a shared agreement that embodying wokeness is a kind of trap, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on.

Many people across the ideological spectrum seem wary of the performative semantics associated with “wokeness,” and the way that performance can undermine the sincerity of arguments being made in support of equality. “I always saw it as a tad performative,” Valdary told me, decrying what she described as “the unwieldy jargon of self-identifying as ‘woke.’”

“I think it’s mostly performative, and at best, tells me nothing about a person’s ideas re: racial justice,” she said. “It feels like a status-seeking label as opposed to a mode of being [that is] seeking positive change.”

Prior told me she likewise was leery of the ostentatious behavior associated with “woke” — but was more distressed by the increasing tendency of conservatives to use “woke” as an insult. “I have had private conversations with pastors who have used it as a term of insult,” she said, “because it’s hard — it is hurtful to use a term that is so meaningful to people and to use it in an entirely different way, it’s just simply wrong.”

“On the one hand,” miles-hercules said, the term “has been commodified in marketing to connote a host of associations to things like diversity, inclusion, and so on, in order to turn a profit by appealing to progressive sensibilities. Additionally, it has been plundered into conservative and right-wing discourse as a means of mocking and satirizing the politics of those on the other side of the proverbial aisle.”

Yet across a broad range of political beliefs, one recurring theme is that “wokeness” has demonstrable social, even quasi-religious, power. The writer James Lindsay has argued exhaustively that “wokeness” is essentially a religion where faith in social justice ideology stands in for belief in a deity, and that regular attendance at social justice protests has replaced the role of religious rituals for many progressives.

Valdary likewise spoke of being “woke” in a figurative sense — as an awakening akin to the Enlightenment.

“My sense is that by ‘woke,’ what people mean is a new form of being ‘enlightened,’ repackaged for our modern era,” she said. “The Enlightenment was meant to be an era of new progressive ideas, and folks fancied themselves awakened by new ideas and knowledge.” Similarly, “people today who identify as woke also see themselves as having been awakened to a new set of ideas, value systems, and knowledge. The mode and the values are different, but the sensibility — the idea that previously you were blind, and now you can see — is the same.”

Protests break out in Minneapolis after George Floyd suspect Derek Chauvin releasing on bail
Minneapolis protesters take to the streets after former officer Derek Chauvin was released on bail on October 7, 2020.
Chris Juhn/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As Valdary’s biblical reference implies, the idea of wokeness as a spiritual awakening has a potent appeal, and some people are actively energized by it. Historian and Christian theorist Jemar Tisby told me he found the idea of a religious awakening to be powerful — even as he noted that “woke,” like so many appropriated Black words and ideas, had “hit the mainstream and then [been] voided of some of its meaning and potency in the process.”

“If you really delve into the metaphor of being woke,” he said, “it implies that in some sense you were asleep to particular kinds of injustices and oppressions in the world, and now you’ve been awakened to it.” Indeed, many conservative evangelicals have fully embraced “woke Christianity” as a way of fighting racism, using it in precisely this quasi-religious sense: awakening to the harm of racism in society and prioritizing the fight for social justice.

Tisby pointed out that this sort of ideological awakening is a documented phenomenon. “Social psychologists talk about racial identity development, and there is always a moment or a series of events that make one aware not just that race exists but that it matters,” he said. He described them as “landmark moments,” often born from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, that “can be sort of existential awakenings to a whole different reality.”

That powerful concept, however, “now has become either sort of kitschy or actually almost an epithet — as if there’s this sort of superficial, performative effort at justice,” Tisby said.

“Wokeness is costly,” he continued. “When people claim the label without enduring the difficulties that go along with truly anti-racist actions, then it’s in a vacuum.”

In other words, while many people on the right may be disenchanted with wokeness because they see it as an upgraded form of “political correctness,” many people on the left may be just as frustrated with it. That’s because claiming wokeness is often about maintaining the superficial trappings of progressive idealism without doing the real work to understand and change systems of oppression.

Tisby told me he was disappointed by the word’s current context and stigma, but not really surprised. “Jesus said, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven,’” he said. “Not everyone who says, ‘Woke, woke,’ is actually committed to racial justice.”

Weariness over “wokeness” may ultimately be about larger semantic issues — or it may signal a longing to connect to other people

Just as Kelley’s use of the word “woke” in 1962 predicted, the idea of it being appropriated and reconfigured is encoded into its very lexicological nature. Prior pointed out that the word, just by virtue of being nonstandard English, is inherently performative and thus “reflects a larger way in which so much of our discourse is ironic or performative.” She also referenced woke’s presence on social media, where there’s a predilection for declaring everything and everyone “canceled.”

Valdary advanced this idea even further, noting that the semantic and ideological conflicts embedded in “woke” reflect a larger cultural epistemological breakdown. In a post-industrial age, she argued, “our sense of selfhood has become undone and unmoored.” As individuals, we’re more isolated from family, friends, and social tethers than ever — a state that’s been exacerbated by Covid-19 and the chaotic state of modern social media. All of this, Valdary argued, has led to “a profound crisis of meaning in the zeitgeist.”

“Our relationship with our lives is all too often filtered through the prism of social media and that’s no way to be fully in relationship with one’s self (or with others),” Valdary said. In that context, the lure of being “woke” is very similar to the lure of religion, in that it can offer what seems to be a profound sense of purpose and belonging. But echoing Tisby, Valdary cautioned that true anti-racist work isn’t about superficial change.

Wokeness offers “a feeling of belonging and purpose, which is something that human beings need to survive,” she said. “But meanwhile, you haven’t necessarily done the self-work to be in a healthy relationship with yourself (and others) — something akin to developing a sense of inner peace and contentment with yourself so that you don’t contribute to the conditions that make racism possible in the first place.”

It seems, then, that the evolution of “woke” since 2014 is almost a direct reflection of a larger cultural evolution during the same period. Since Ferguson, the ideas and idealism behind various social justice movements have frequently been co-opted and distorted. In the case of the Black Lives Matter movement, conservatives have even reframed the protests as being a contributor to — even the cause of — the violent system they inherently oppose. This has typically been done through petty, disingenuous, exhausting semantic arguments, assisted by bad actors, bots, and trolls, and all of it has been done through and around the word “woke.”

Is it even possible to overcome such isolation and bridge communication gaps between the “woke,” the anti-“woke,” and the conscientiously non-“woke”? Prior thinks so, with some trepidation. “The solution [I’ve] arrived at, when someone does use a term like that as an insult, [is] to ignore the insult [and] respond to what might underlie the insult ... the bigger concern. Because the polarization is only going to be defeated by transcending the binary categories of the argument.”

Still, she cautioned, because there are so many issues of communication and meaning at play, “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I think those of us who see how bad it is and want something better just have to be in it for the long term.”

Tisby echoed this idea. “The dedication and commitment of the [people] who have been awakened in this moment,” he said, “[and] who will remain in the struggle, however costly it might be — those are the folks who give me hope.”

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