How ‘woke’ became the least woke word in U.S. English (on Marcus Garvey)

An Op-Ed piece by Bijan C. Bayne for The Washington Post.

You want to talk about Black history? Well, here’s a bit of etymology about a word that everyone’s been using but few have gotten quite right. The word is “woke,” which — in an appropriation akin to using the expression “the man” when one is the man — has been mistakenly and purposely misused by everyone from Bill Maher to neo-Nazis.

You’ve probably seen or heard it employed as an adjective — as in, “stay woke.” But what does “woke” mean, exactly, when used to describe a state of being or thinking?

Many who lightly toss around the word today — including people who claim to embody it, or those who wield it as a pejorative for progressives — would be surprised to learn that “woke” originated in the deepest trenches of Black nationalism.

Black leaders have been calling on Black people to wake up for decades. To the first users of the word, it meant recognizing racial subjugation committed by Whites. Thus a White YouTuber or a liberal congressperson cannot, by the literal definition, be woke.

In fact, “wokeness” was originally applied to U.S. Blacks who had been mentally conditioned into philosophical slumber by centuries of oppression, intimidation, miseducation and social frustration.

The earliest common coinage came from the Nation of Islam, which was founded in Detroit in 1930. In the Nation’s cosmology, Black Americans’ state of mental sleep could be remedied by a spiritual awakening reminiscent of Jesus’ physical awakening of Lazarus from the dead. Thus ministers termed “the so-called Negroes” “mentally dead.”

In 1937, Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who advocated that Black Americans physically return to Africa, was a strong proponent of a mental return to the mother continent before physical repatriation could take place. “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery,” Garvey said, “for though others may free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”

In 1938, blues singer Huddie Ledbetter recommended Black people “best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” There was no mention of White allies doing so, since Whites were never put to mental sleep.

Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X later criticized the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for his “I Have a Dream” speech, insisting the civil rights leader could be dreaming only if he were asleep.

Yet even King, in 1965, gave a commencement address at Oberlin College in which he said: “There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. … The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake.”

By 1970, the Black-nationalist proto-rappers the Last Poets recorded their tune “Wake Up N——.” In the 1972 play “Garvey Lives!” playwright Barry Beckham wrote: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke.”

In Spike Lee’s 1988 movie “School Daze,” the final lines feature the campus activist Dap, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, screaming, “Wake up!!!” His admonishment was for Black people to unify rather than be divided along lines of skin complexion. None of this applied to White filmgoers.

In 2016, BET aired a documentary about contemporary activism called “Stay Woke.” “Woke” entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017, 80 years after Garvey’s aforementioned exhortation. People started using the phrase “woke bae” as a term of endearment. And in 2020, Essence magazine named its “Woke 100.”

None of this had anything to do with Whiteness.

Yet “woke” flowed into U.S. parlance, bandied about across ethnic lines despite its origins. David Brooks — the White New York Times columnist — for instance, wrote in 2017: “To be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.”

This happened as police and terrorist shootings of unarmed Black people were making headlines. As protests and movements against the violence grew larger, more opponents adopted “woke” as an insult.

In his final days as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo tweeted, “Woke-ism, multiculturalism, all the -isms — they’re not who America is.” In a diabolical twist, even white supremacists started describing themselves as “woke” — meaning politically aware.

We’re a long way from the days of Malcolm X, who said: “There will come a time when Black people wake up and become intellectually independent enough to think” — the operative word being “Black,” not “wake.”

Keep that in mind the next time you hear “woke” uttered as a slur or a synonym for “politicized.” Or the next time you’re tempted to invoke it yourself.

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