From the Left: What Is Woke?

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What Is Woke?

By Lance Simmens

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” — Albert Einstein

I remember the first time I heard the word “woke” in a political context and wondered how it differed from the more traditional definition of being awake. In researching the historical maturation of this rather awkward-sounding word, I was surprised that while being hip at the current time, it actually has quite an interesting lineage tracing back 100 years.

Elijah Watson, senior news and culture reporter for a hip hop Seattle music station, has defined the Black American colloquialism as follows, “To be woke is to be Black” as he embarked on a journey six years ago to plot its origins. A short timeline traces back to the Roaring ’20s when philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey issued a call to Pan Africanism, calling on Blacks to “wake up.”

In 1938, blues musician Huddle Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, used the phrase “stay woke” in his song about the Scottsboro Boys, which would render two Supreme Court verdicts that would pave the way for the civil rights movement. In 1940, in West Virginia, the Negro United Mine Workers went on strike for equitable pay when a Black union leader intoned “we were asleep. But we will stay woke from now on.”

In 1962 Harlem-based writer William Melvin Kelly wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” while highlighting the phenomenon of Black American slang being appropriated by white people in the Beat generation. In 1972 author Barry Beckham used the word “woke” in his 1972 play “Garvey Lives.” 

In 2012 #staywoke raised awareness about unjustified killings of Black people. In 2014, Black Lives Matter (BLM) used #staywoke as a call to action about police shootings of Blacks. Two years later a BET (Black Entertainment Television) documentary called “Stay Woke” was released and MTV News included “woke” in a list of 10 words teenagers should know.

But what exactly is the definition for those, particularly those in my aging generation, who may be curious or confused? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “woke” as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Cambridge Dictionary defines woke as being “aware, especially of social problems such as racism and social inequality.” Collins English Dictionary offers “someone who is woke is very aware of social and political unfairness.”

The operating principle of the American democratic experiment is to incrementally build upon progress in a social context that allows for growth in our desire to expand freedom, liberty, and human rights. Expanding these rights to all requires the system’s ability to eliminate injustice. We cannot sleepwalk our way through change, rather we must awaken and take action to implement it. 

The quintessential learning curve towards justice is a seminal hallmark of our democratic system. What distinguishes America is its embrace, even if in a gradual and incremental way, of discovering and propagating growth towards a more equitable society. To be woke, then, in this context would be a willingness of our society to grow and learn to accept the need for tolerance and diversity and to come together in a willing acceptance of the melting pot theory, which has been a feature of our societal growth since the 1780s.

Unfortunately, our current political environment is split over this basic proposition. Republican candidate Nikki Haley weighed in at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference by decrying wokeness as “a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.”

Potential Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has let it be known that Florida is “where woke goes to die.” 

Another potential Republican presidential candidate, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, staked his victory on railing against teaching inclusive history in public schools. Can eliminating curricula that encourages our children to think and exercise their skills at argumentation and debate be a good thing for future generations? Banning books refutes such progress; can burning books be far behind?

A recently released USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll found that 56 percent of Americans say that woke means “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices …yet 39 percent of those surveyed agree with the Republican definition which asserts wokeness “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.”

The raging battle over cancel culture, critical race theory, transgender rights, human rights, racism (both actual and systematic), worker’s rights, and other injustices will require opening our collective minds to civil debate and vigorous discussion. 

We shall either teach our children to be empathetic, understanding, and open to change which embraces diversity and differences of opinion, or stoke the fires of hatred that will further divide us to the detriment of not only this nation but the world. Wokeness should not be viewed as dangerous but rather as a healthy appreciation of the need to accept differences among us.

The article was updated on Monday, March 20 to correct headline.