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What’s Woke?

These days, social activism doesn’t exactly fit within its traditional, “dictionaried” definition boundaries. With social media, social activism has taken on a new form; it travels across the world in mere seconds and it is 140 “character-concise”. Given the ease at which you can now send and receive word, there has been a surge in social justice activism. But apart from that, there has been an interesting (and probably unintentional) by-product of this phenomenon – the array of new slang terms that have arisen to fill the gaps where standard English seems to fail.

One of these by-products is (and you’ve guessed it) Woke or Stay Woke. Woke is traditionally defined as the past tense form of wake which means to cause (a person or animal) to be awake after sleeping. However, according to Urban Dictionary, Being Woke means being aware, knowing what’s going on in the community.

Many people understand the essence of Stay Woke but there is significant confusion over what it means. It doesn’t help that over the years and depending on the context in which the phrase is used, it has taken on different meanings. The best way to understand it is to explore the genesis of it all and its one that might surprise you.

The earliest traces of the phrase actually date back to 1938, in American folk singer and songwriter, Lead Belly’s song Scottsboro Boys. The song commemorates the event it takes its name after; the Scottsboro boys were nine African American teenagers, ages 13 to 20, who were falsely accused in Alabama of the rape of two white women on a train in 1931. Belly uses the phrase near the end of the song saying, “I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go along through there, stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

The phrase pops here and there over the decades following Belly’s song but if you want to pinpoint when in contemporary popular culture the phrase re-entered the public consciousness, then you can look to 2008 and thank American singer-songwriter, Erykah Badu. In her song, Master Teacher, she sings of dreams of racial equality but recognises that, although it would be nice, their dream of equality is far from reality; as she sings “I stay woke”.

But once again the phrase became dormant, with few years of little to no usage until the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, #StayWoke has become a rallying cry for public outrage at anything from government scandals to institutional racism (and has even used by conspiracy theorists).

The very importance of Stay Woke lies here; it is the continued state of awareness on these issues. It isn’t just the perfect catchphrase for a rally or an Instagram post, but a reminder of how far we are from a perfect society – where everyone, irrespective of their race, gender or creed, has the opportunity to succeed and the freedom to live how they choose to live.

That being said, an important but often overlooked aspect of Woke, is the same, rich African-American heritage of the phrase that you read above; how it was created by the African-American community, as a strong reminder of all the injustice that it has faced and continues to face. Thus, there is an implicit belief that such awareness of these issues must be earned and so usage of the phrase itself, mustn’t be taken lightly. However, #woke has been co-opted (read; or culturally appropriated) as more of a generic slang term by mainstream media and has become the subject of ironic usage or memes.

As a result, the importance of acknowledging and understanding the history and weight of Stay Woke is more prevalent today than ever before.We need to understand it, if we are to apply it to other communities and their social justice issues. We need it to help further the conversation of the concept of social justice. But most of all, we need it to inspire the excruciatingly slow process to achieve this dream of equality for all.

So, are you #woke, #awakebutnotwoke or #asleep?

For more detailed information on the history of #woke, check out these links below:


Related ItemsErykah BadufeaturedLead BellyMovementScottsboro BoysStay WokeWoke

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