What Does 'Woke' Mean? The History, Definition & Cultural Meaning Of Being Woke

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Self

Chances are, you've at least heard someone use the term "woke" as an adjective, used to tell someone to “stay woke.” But you still may not understand the true meaning of the word.

Now, more than ever, you probably have a loose idea of woke’s meaning and definition, but may not understand the specifics or origin of the term you're tossing around. Because, let me tell you, this is more than just your average slang.

What does woke mean?

"Woke," as we traditionally used it in days of yore, usually referred to someone waking up from sleep. But in the last 10 years or so, woke has become a term used to raise awareness of racial injustice and social issues.

The way we define wokeness today isn't actually all that different, only instead of being done with sleep, a person who is "woke" is also done with something — only it's not sleep, it's dealing with social injustice, primarily racism.

The millennial slang term is perfect for use when you want to “wake someone up” from their complacency, and make them active and aware of the problem of injustice in our country.

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It doesn't just apply to race, either; a person who is "woke" is aware of sexism, classism, and other forms of prejudice, and isn't going to turn a blind eye when they see it.

The Urban Dictionary definition of woke is as follows: “A word currently used to describe ‘consciousness’ and being aware of the truth behind things ‘the man’ doesn't want you to know i.e., classism, racism, and any other social injustices.” Other definitions from the website include: “The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue” and “being aware, knowing what’s going on in the community relating to racism and social injustice.”

In 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary added the term “woke” to its database, defining it as: “Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”

The History Of The Term ‘Woke’

Originally called the “Wide Awakes” movement, Republicans used the term “wide awake” in 1860 to support future president Abraham Lincoln.

Their mission in doing so was to gain the support of young voters, appealing to “a generation profoundly shaken by the partisan instability of the 1850s, and [offering] young northerners a much-needed political identity.”

One of the first recorded uses of the term "stay woke" was made by American folk and blues singer Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, during an interview about his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys.”

The song's lyrics retell the true story of nine Black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in 1931 in Scottsboro, Alabama. All but the youngest accused were found guilty and sentenced to death, and the case has since become one of the most "commonly cited as an examples of a miscarriage of justice in the United States legal system."

At about 4:27 in the video below, Lead Belly says, "So I advise everybody be a little careful when they go along through there. Stay woke, keep their eyes open."

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Over the next few decades, the term continued to appear from time to time.

Some notable examples of the term woke being used throughout the 20th century include:

In 1943: An article in The Atlantic quoted J. Saunders Redding's use of the term in an 1942 article Negro Digest, in which he quoted a Black member of the United Mine Workers, "Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we'll stay woke up longer."

In 1962: An article about the popularity of Black slang was published in The New York Times, titled, "If You’re Woke You Dig It.”

In 1972: The term was used by Barry Beckham in his 1972 play "Garvey Lives!," in which he wrote, “I been sleeping all my life. 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.”

The Mr. Garvey referred to by Beckham was Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. ONH, the Jamaican political activist, journalist and publisher who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL, or UNIA). Garvey's ideas, which became known as Garveyism, "focused on the unification and empowerment of African-descended men, women and children under the banner of their collective African descent, and the repatriation of African slave descendants and profits to the African continent."

"Wake up Ethiopia!" Garvey wrote. "Wake up Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed, and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations.”

What sparked the trend of using the word ‘woke’ in recent years?

Singer Erykah Badu used the word in her song “Master Teacher” in 2008, before the term gained increasing popularity in the 2010s.

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Badu repeats the phrase “I stay woke” throughout the song, and has been credited with reviving the use of the term in relation to issues of social justice.

While the word has been used to describe conscious political and social awareness for years, it became most widely popularized in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, and the subsequent advent of the hashtag #staywoke and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Woke" is now frequently incorporated in daily speech and posts on social media, particularly in discussions of police brutality and violence against unarmed Black men, women, and children, an issue which has become all the more pronounced after the massive protests and riots against police brutality that erupted in June 2020 in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25.

The term continues to be used by activists imploring others to “stay woke,” meaning to stay conscious of the issues and injustices still facing the Black community in the United States.

What is the opposite of being woke?

On the flip side, the term has also been used to describe white privileged individuals who flaunt their need for others to see them as an ally to African Americans, when really, they are just trying to score points and gain recognition for their fake or performative activism.

Performative use of the term in this way, as well as its ever-present role in cancel culture, has led some to wonder if the term should be retired, as well as to its being parodied on Saturday Night Live.

If woke means to be aware of the deeply rooted issues in society, being the opposite of woke is willfully turning a blind eye or truly be ignorant of the truth, particularly in relation to issues of racial and social injustice, as well as to the perpetuation of fear-based beliefs.

In language, the antonym of woke is asleep, and the same can be said for people who don’t realize, understand or even care about being woke.

Remember in The Matrix when Neo is asked if he wants to take the blue pill, which would keep him in a reality where he doesn’t know the truth, or the red pill, which would give him the entire picture and reality he was unaware of?

Being woke is similar to this — either you choose to open your mind to the hidden truths and sickness of society, or you remain ignorant in your beliefs, since you’re perfectly fine benefiting from your own privilege or position in the world.

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Examples Of How To Use Woke In A Sentence

While it's easy to read a definition and feel like you understand it, nothing is a better teacher than seeing how a word is used in action.

1. To stay informed about relevant social problems.

“I stay woke by reading the newspaper and learning about social justice issues.”

2. To call others out on fake activism.

“If you have to explain how woke you are, you probably aren’t woke.”

3. To validate the views of others.

“I didn’t expect to hear something woke come from his mouth.”

4. To remind others to be vigilant.

“Take care of yourself out there. Stay woke.”

5. To acknowledge the work you still need to do.

“I’m woke enough to see that white people will never understand the struggle of Black people, but can help the cause by providing space and a platform to speak.”

6. To come to terms with your own lack of awareness.

“At first, I didn’t understand Black Lives Matter, but now that I see how sick society is, I’m woke to the real issues at hand.”

7. To point out inconsistencies and untruths.

“You might think white feminism is woke, but leaving out Black women and Women of Color from the conversation is counterintuitive and distracts from the truth.”

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer, podcaster and former Senior Editor of Pop Culture at Newsweek.