On Being “Woke”

Bruce Janu
10 min readJun 9, 2022

Although I have been accused of being “woke,” it is not a term I have ever used to describe myself — nor have I ever used it to describe anyone, for that matter.

Quite frankly, it is not my term to use.

Yet people from Tucker Carlson on down the food chain have not only appropriated the term but have taken to using this term as a pejorative. It is used regularly in political campaign commercials and by political commentators to describe people and ideas they do not like. It is hurled at school board meetings by people who have no idea what it means and used as a pretext for the banning of books and curriculum.

The term originates exclusively from the African American community. It is by no means a new term. In fact, being “awakened” was a commonality found in spirituals sung by enslaved people and form the cornerstone of gospel music across the spectrum. Pick any hymnal, and you will find songs about “seeing the light” or “opening one’s eyes.” The opposite of being awake is being asleep — so this seems rather strange to be accusing people of being awake and aware, when the opposite is less flattering.

“Wake Me, Shake Me
Don’t let me sleep late
Got to get up early in de mornin’
Going to swing the golden gate”
(“Wake Me” African American Spiritual)

Being awake is one thing, but the spirituals passed on through enslaved people talk of something else — of seeing things that no one else does; of living lives that not everyone knows. Take the famous spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” which predates the Civil War:

“Oh Lord, I have so many trials
So many pains and woes
I’m asking for faith and comfort
Lord, help me to carry this load,

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Well, no, nobody knows but Jesus
No nobody knows, oh the trouble, the trouble I’ve seen
I’m singing glory, glory glory Hallelujah”

This song received a second life during the decades before the Civil Rights Movement, and was recorded by Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson and many others. This song essentially is what “being woke” is all about: it is the the state of knowing things not known by others in the larger society.

W.E.B. Dubois — National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

W.E.B. Dubois, one of America’s greatest intellectuals and a pioneer in sociology, called this unique state of being experienced exclusively by African-Americans as “double consciousness.” In 1903, he published The Souls of Black Folk. In the first chapter, Dubois writes,

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (The Souls of Black Folk, page 3)

In other words, African-Americans inhabit two worlds, and they must effortlessly move between those worlds. In the age of Jim Crow, failure to abide by the rules — both written and unwritten — could have dire consequences. Lynching was an all-too-common occurrence in the United States, and minor social infractions regarding the color-line could be deadly. Dubois calls the division of American society — the racism that exists — as the “Veil of Color” and African-Americans, in particular, must understand its workings as a matter of survival:

From the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and as an American, as swept on by the current of the nineteenth while yet struggling in the eddies of the fifteenth century, — from this must arise a painful self-consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality, and a moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence. The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretense or revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism. (The Souls of Black Folk, page 202)

That is “being woke:” understanding how things work. Understanding survival. Understanding social justice. And, more importantly, looking out for each other.

In 1931, nine African American teens were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in the Scottsboro, Alabama area. The trial was a farce, and crowds gathered at the jail calling for their lynching. All but two of the young men were found guilty by an all-white jury in a trail rife with innuendo and molded by stereotypes and tropes. No evidence was submitted and eight of them were sentenced to death.

From The Huntsville Daily Times, Alabama — March 27, 1931

There is too much to summarize here, but the case was appealed and one of the women recanted and admitted to making up the entire story. The jury found them guilty anyway in the retrial. The judge ordered another trial, and again a guilty verdict was rendered. The Supreme Court stepped in twice and made it clear in Norris v. Alabama that African-Americans being excluded from juries violated the 14th Amendment.

In the end, the charges against four of the Scottsboro Boys were dropped, but the others served some time for a crime they did not commit. The case lives on as an example of the injustice that exists for people of color in the United States.

And no, you won’t find this case in most American History textbooks, in spite of the hysterical accusation of schools “being woke” and teaching “CRT.”

But the term “stay woke” got a new lease on life due to the Scottsboro Case. Blues legend Lead Belly wrote a song called, “Scottsboro Boys:”

“Go to Alabama and ya better watch out
The landlord’ll get ya, gonna jump and shout
Scottsboro Scottsboro Scottsboro boys
Tell ya all about”

In a special interview made in 1938, Lead Belly discusses knowing the Scottsboro Boys, and he ends the interview with: “Stay woke. Keep your eyes open.”

In this interview, Lead Belly sings his song and, at the very end, tells people to “stay woke.”

For Lead Belly, “stay woke” was simply a reminder to keep one’s eyes open; to be vigilant. What happened to the Scottsboro Boys was an all-too-real possibility for Black Americans across the country.

Appropriating language, especially language from the African-American community is nothing new (It happens with music, too. Rock and Roll was pioneered by Black musicians in Black neighborhoods before being taken up by white musicians. Just like jazz before it). Through jazz music, American white teenagers began using the slang spoke by Black jazz musicians and found in jazz vocals. “Jive” handbooks of African American slang became very popular among white teens in the 30s and 40s, some of which used terms such as “wake you.” The beatniks picked up on this, and could be found using jazz terms regularly, such as “groovy” and “dig it.”

In fact, novelist William Melvin Kelly wrote about the use of “Negro idiom” by white people in an editorial for the New York Times in 1961 entitled, “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” In the article, he explains that the language does not originate from beatniks, but from the African American community.

New York Times, 1961

Being “woke” or “awake” became a common theme in the Civil Rights Movement, too. The old spiritual “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind On Jesus” became “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom.” Martin Luther King, Jr. regularly told audiences to “stay awake.” In 1965, he gave a speech entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”

We must face the honest fact that we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved. For while we are quite successful in breaking down the legal barriers to segregation, the Negro is now confronting social and economic barriers which are very real. The Negro is still at the bottom of the economic ladder. He finds himself perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Millions of Negroes are still housed in unendurable slums; millions of Negroes are still forced to attend totally inadequate and substandard schools. And we still see, in certain sections of our country, violence and man’s inhumanity to man in the most tragic way. All of these things remind us that we have a long, long way to go. For in Alabama and Mississippi, violence and murder where civil rights workers are concerned, are popular and favorite pastimes.

The killing of Michael Brown by police in 2014 reignited this call to social justice. “Stay woke” became a call to action and was popularized by the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Marcia Fudge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Language does not exist in a vacuum, but is tethered through the synapses of time. The term “woke” is connected to multiple strands of history going all the way back to the spirituals sung by the enslaved — to the ways in which African-Americans navigated a dangerous social system through the decades — and as a rallying cry for civil rights.

But now, to lessen its power, people have appropriated it once again and have weaponized the word. In 2019, Donald Trump proclaimed in an interview on Fox News that “being woke means you are a loser.” Trump now uses that line regularly at his rallies where similarly phrased statements can be found on all sorts of Trump-branded merchandise.

A person who is not a member of the African American community who appropriates a word such as “woke” as a weapon is, in fact, signaling an antipathy for the very culture that created it. Not only that, using it devoid of its original meaning — and without any desire to actually learn its meaning — not only trivializes the African American experience, but renders any meaningful discourse impossible. Such use by white people, be they politicians, talking heads on tv, or suburban parents at board meetings — displays an ignorance to history, to culture, to education. At best, such use is a culturally insensitive microaggression. At worst, it’s racist.

Moreover, using “woke” as a pejorative also serves as a distraction — the same distraction that has appeared in the past in an attempt to keep the status quo, to derail progress.

Martin Luther King, Jr, recognized this. He was accused in 1963 by white ministers of wanting too much, too fast; of being “unwise and untimely.” In other words, without using the word, they accused him of being “woke.” In response, he wrote “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he articulated, in great detail, the things he had seen:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied the true meaning of “wokeness.” Yet people quote King while in the same breathe use the term to attack the very ideology King publicly advocated. Without a hint of irony, Florida Governor quoted the Civil Rights icon while advocating for the passing of the so-called “Stop Woke Act,” which he would sign into law in April of 2022.

Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a rally for passage of the “Stop Woke Act”

Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that he wanted his kids to “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But he also realized that that dream could not be realized unless people understand how injustice and inequity are embedded within our society. Dismantling that structure he called the “great revolution:”

Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation. Let us remain awake through a great revolution. And we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality. We, in the final analysis, can gain consolation from the fact that at least we’ve made strides in our struggle for peace and in our struggle for justice. We still have a long, long way to go, but at least we’ve made a creative beginning. (“Remaining Awake During the Great Revolution,” Martin Luther King, Jr. 1965)

Appropriating the term “woke”disregards its origin and history. Turning it into a word to disparage and condemn not only trivializes the experience of African Americans in our history, but signals a contempt for actual discussion of history, race and justice. Proclaiming to be “anti-woke” is nothing more than a barrier to creating a more just and more equal society — the very things that Martin Luther King, Jr. and others literally gave their lives for.