What is woke?
Aside from being the past participle of wake, for decades, it meant conscious and aware – but the slang word has come to represent an embrace of progressive activism, as well.
Merriam-Webster added the word to its dictionary in 2017, defining it as, “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” The Oxford dictionary adopted it the same year, defining it as “originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”
“Woke is a slang term that is easing into the mainstream from some varieties of a dialect called African American Vernacular English (sometimes called AAVE),” according to Merriam-Webster. “In AAVE, awake is often rendered as woke, as in, ‘I was sleeping, but now I’m woke.’”
The meaning appears to have shifted sometime after Erykah Badu repeatedly used the line “I stay woke” in her 2008 song, “Master Teacher,” which begins, “I am known to stay awake.”
Rapper Meek Mill performs "Stay Woke" onstage at the 2018 BET Awards at Microsoft Theater on June 24, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for BET)
After the song came out, “’Stay woke’ became a watch word in parts of the Black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better,” according to Merriam-Webster.
Then in 2013 and 2014, after Florida man George Zimmerman was acquitted in Trayvon Martin’s slaying and the police-involved death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a wave of Black Lives Matter activism emerged around the country. The phrase went from Twitter hashtag to rallying cry.
“The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action,” according to Merriam-Webster. “Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.”
In 2018, the rapper Meek Mill took the phrase as the top single on his album “Legends of the Summer.”
The BLM-themed “Stay Woke” was his first song since getting out of prison in April of that year.
“How can I pledge allegiance to the flag,” he raps in the final verse. “When they killin’ all our sons, all our dads?”
But the meaning of woke evolved again with the rise of “cancel culture” — as the two terms saw increased use, they became intertwined in the public consciousness. Often, someone gets canceled after they say something insensitive – something not woke.
So an addition to meaning aware and progressive, many people now interpret woke to be a way to describe people who would rather silence their critics than listen to them.
That’s entirely different than what the word meant when it first appeared in print.
That was in a 1962 New York Times article about beatniks and pop culture absorbing jazz music and African American slang from Harlem, Oxford revealed in a June 2017 article about new words heading into the dictionary.
That article, written by the Black New York City novelist William Melvin Kelley was titled, “If you’re woke, you dig it” – meaning if you’re in the know, you understand.
As he noted at the time, a lot of jazz-era idioms became mainstream speech, and words like cool and hip. But the slang was already evolving in meaning back then.
“At one time, the connotations of ‘jive’ were all good,” Kelley wrote. “Now they are bad, or at least questionable.”
A decade later, in Barry Beckham’s “Garvey Lives!” play about the Black Nationalist leader and publisher Marcus Garvey, a character named Strong vows that he “won’t go to sleep” but instead will “stay woke.”
“I been sleeping all my life,” he says. “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.”
Now it’s not so much a racial term as an ideological one.