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When Did “Woke” Lose Its Meaning & How Do We Get It Back?

Unbothered continues its look at the tangled history of Black culture and identity with ROOTS (Un)Banned, a series of stories on book banning for Black History Month. In 2023, we’re exploring efforts to censor Black stories across the country, the roots of what’s happening, those who are being affected, and those who are on the ground fighting to stop it.
The same chilling scene is playing out at school board meetings across the country: an angry mob of mostly white parents circle a podium — one defiantly stands in front of it, spewing rhetoric they likely learned on Fox News and talking points emboldened by YouTube rabbit holes and far-right politicians touting lies as policies. They’re yelling about banning books to protect children from “indoctrination” when they’re the ones trying to brainwash a generation into believing racism doesn’t exist and that history didn’t happen. Inevitably, someone — the podium mouthpiece or a cry from the crowd — will utter the word at the center of the fight for censorship and the push against progress: “woke.” 
In San Francisco, school board members are ousted over “woke politics.” In Loudoun County, Virginia, parents rail against the “woke agenda” of teachers. In Sarasota County, several superintendents are booted for being “too woke.” And in the most absurd, transphobic stunt that could be ripped from the pages of a parody skit about bigots, a mother in Phoenix dressed as a cat in an “anti-woke protest.” The headline emblazoned across this white mom’s ignorant speech on Fox: “wokeness needs to end right meow.” 
You know white people co-opted something when they’ve turned it into a cat pun. The word “woke” is now at the centre of the battle over books – a war against wokeness has turned into a war against Black history and sharing the true stories of the Black experience. Woke may feel like a term that has lost all coherent meaning (see nonsense examples above) or one that has been twisted so much it has bent into a slur, but its roots, undoubtedly, are Black. Woke used to belong to us.
“The word ‘woke’ has long been used, especially among Black folks, to denote that a person should be aware of structural inequality, informed of the nuances of racism, and sensitive to the prevalence of anti-Black violence,” Candis Watts Smith, associate professor of political science at Duke University and co-author of Stay Woke: A People’s Guide To Making All Black Lives Matter, tells Unbothered. “But, as is historically typical, conservative reactions to Black political movements have sought to weaponize the words and concepts illuminated by Black and brown freedom fighters, largely in effort to undermine the efforts of social justice movements. Perhaps, then, the word has not evolved, but instead has been co-opted by people who are interested in maintaining the racial status quo.” 

Woke may feel like a term that has lost all coherent meaning... or one that has been twisted so much it has bent into a slur, but its roots, undoubtedly, are Black.

kathleen newman-bremang
There have been countless pieces in the past couple of years written about the word’s origin. Most of them trace “woke” back to the 1923 works of Marcus Garvey in which he calls on his readers to “Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up, Africa!” — a sentiment aimed to inspire political consciousness and social activism. Then in 1938, a protest song by Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, includes the phrase “stay woke” and “describes the 1931 saga of a group of nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Arkansas, who were accused of raping two white women,” according to Vox. Then the roots of “woke” take us to 1962 when Black novelist William Melvin Kelley defined the word in the New York Times for the first time in print in his piece “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. essentially gave a speech on wokeness at Oberlin College. “The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution,” he said. 
From Kelley and King in the 60s, woke made its way to the 2000s when Erykah Badu re-popularized “stay woke” in her song “Master Teacher.” Black women scholars of course have been using the word in their works for decades. But once pop culture got a hold of woke, it was everywhere. There was the Jesse Williams-led BET special Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement, Childish Gambino’s "Redbone," which got the refrain stuck in all of our heads, the Hulu comedy “Woke,” and from 2016 to 2020, being woke just meant that you were aware of injustices unfolding around you and that you were paying attention. It became synonymous with Black Lives Matter and the fight against police violence but at its core, “woke” is a Black slang term, one used by Black communities to succinctly reference progressive thought and radical intention. It was a word to signify our quest for freedom. The fact that it’s now being used negatively in reference to the existence of band-aids of different skin tones (seriously, some white lady got big mad on Twitter because “woke bandages” dared to be brown), is especially infuriating for scholars and historians who have seen how language can be wielded as a tool of propaganda and oppression. 
“I am always frustrated when words are appropriated,” Khiara M. Bridges, author and professor of law at UC Berkeley School of Law tells Unbothered. “Slang amongst Black people is a love language and I am frustrated when that slang becomes appropriated and used by others and the meaning morphs. There’s something really sinister about this term not only being taken from us but also deployed against us. It’s a double violation.”

Slang amongst Black people is a love language... There’s something really sinister about this term not only being taken from us but also deployed against us. It’s a double violation.

Khiara M. Bridges, author and law professor
When Bridges described the co-opting of woke as a violation during our call, my breath hitched. There is something especially intrusive about seeing language formed in Black spaces sucked from us and spat back with such vitriol, and it’s always words or phrases that reference the power of Black voices. Take “cancel culture” for example. “Lil Wayne talked about ‘canceling that bitch’,” Bridges laughs. “‘Ya canceled’ was on Love & Hip Hop! It was a term amongst folks in the Black hip-hop community and for the term to be taken out of that community, which might be inevitable, but to deploy it against us and to say it ruins lives and it’s Black people on Twitter doing it, it’s again a double violation,” Bridges reiterates. As journalist Erica Ifill tweeted last year, “Woke is a term of Black movements and I’m not surprised to see this foundation erased from the word even by well-meaning people. Language is such a huge battlefield in the fight against fascism that we must give credit to the communities from where words and expressions originate.”
“Cancel culture,” “woke,” and “critical race theory” are three recent terms (recent in the “discourse” but have all been around for decades) that have sparked the most heated debates. They were all, uncoincidentally, coined by Black folks. And each phrase plays its part in the horrifying resurgence of book banning and censoring curriculums in schools. Banning a book is literally canceling it. You can’t say anything anymore, conservatives will claim while trying to silence teachers from telling the truth. Learning wakes you up. To be woke in its intended meaning is to be aware and informed. And as soon as you know you’re being treated unfairly, you’re going to want change. The right wing strategy seems to be to try to keep kids asleep for as long as possible so they become dormant participants in their oppression. 
And as for critical race theory, I have yet to see a Republican use it in its correct context. The framework was created by Kimberle Crenshaw and asserts that racism isn’t just about individual prejudices but more about its embedded place in the legal system and government policy. It is usually taught at the university level — nobody's teaching it to a kindergartener. But now, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Stop W.O.K.E Act in Florida and relentless misuse by the right across the U.S., CRT seems to have become a stand-in for discussing race at all or teaching Black history at any level. If woke is now a placeholder for “anything not white,” then CRT is the same for “any history that tells racists about themselves.” And they’ve both been canceled.
“It’s about redefining their own hatred,” Tanya Hayles, founder of Black Moms Connection says. “They made something that we used in jest or to describe a certain type of person to now mean everything they don’t like a.k.a anything diverse, anything ethnic, anything inclusive. If it’s not centering them as white people, then it’s ‘woke.’ It’s an effort to shut down anything that allows Black people to feel seen and heard.” Hayles cites the new live action adaptation of The Little Mermaid (starring Halle Bailey) as an example since the right lost their minds when she was cast, but it extends to the books being banned as well. In 2021, the American Library Association reported a “rising number” of banned books dealing with racism and Black American history. Books about LGBTQ experience are also deemed “too woke” to be taught. 
“But I believe in Gen Z and Gen Alpha,” Hayles insists. “They don’t have the same patience for racism as their boomer parents or grandparents. The people freaking out are not young people. We can tell young people to vote and whatever, but the problem is that you can’t fight a system fairly when the system is never going to play fair back.” 
We’re already seeing the pushback from teens like Christina Ellis from York County, Pennsylvania, who, at 17, staged a protest with her peers when their teachers and librarians received a list of books, articles and films that were banned from classrooms. NPR reports that the list included Ibram Kendi's How To Be An Antiracist and coloring books and children's books about history, including I Am Rosa Parks. “Books like Hidden Figures and Rosa Parks [were banned].” Ellis, a Black girl, told NPR. “You know, they're well-known things. And there's nothing controversial about, you know, Black women in science,” she says. “It is very hard as an African American student to sit in class and, you know, hear that, yes, my ancestors… our family history, like, yes, your great uncle, you know, such and such was in Mississippi, and he was lynched. That's hard to hear, but I don't hide away from it. We are better with education. We are better with knowledge.”

Hiding behind “woke,” the right waged a war against the truth and is attempting to cover up the very thing that proves these tactics never end well: history. 

kathleen newman-bremang
There has been no clearer example of the (albeit brief) betterment that comes with education and knowledge than 2020 when George Floyd was murdered by police. The current “anti-woke” movement was born out of the fear that came from seeing white people finally acknowledge their privilege and complicity in structural racism, and Black folks feeling free to air our frustrations out loud. Change seemed imminent, progress was on the horizon, and then “woke” became the wall conservatives put up to halt the incremental shifts we were seeing. Hiding behind “woke,” the right waged a war against the truth and is attempting to cover up the very thing that proves these tactics never end well: history.
“It’s a sanitizing of American history by purging it of the truth of racial violence and we would be kidding ourselves if we think it’s just going to stop with the cleansing of racial violence against Black people,” Bridges says of the efforts to ban books and curriculum. “Native people are survivors of an attempted genocide. We had the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. We had Operation Wetback in the 1950s where American citizens of Mexican origin were deported. We had the Japanese Internment of World War II. [America has] had all of these spectacular instances of violence against racialized groups and ‘critical race theory’ and ‘wokeness’ are terms that are being used to expunge those lessons about our history…. and if we don’t know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it.”
Since “woke” has been weaponized against progress, the very thing by definition it stood for, is it time to retire it? Hayles says that white people have lost the plot, and “woke” is now loaded with bigotry and hatred. “It’s a slur now,” she insists, and shares that her friends and family no longer use the word. “It’s not a word in my circles that we use in any regards. It’s now seen as a word to avoid. It’s not Black people using this word anymore.” 
Black folks are uniquely positioned to deal with appropriation and co-opted language because we’ve been doing it for a long ass time. Our language has been banned, stolen, stripped, and suppressed, and yet, we continue to reclaim it. Watts Smith, co-author of Stay Woke: A People’s Guide To Making All Black Lives Matter, isn’t sold on giving up “woke” just yet. “Across history, people have co-opted and weaponized words to undermine the mission of those who have coined terms to introduce precision and deepen discussions around society’s greatest challenges,” she said over email. “If we ‘retired’ words that conservatives have weaponized, then we will cede relying on helpful concepts, such as intersectionality and critical race theory. Rather than approaching the matter from a defensive crouch, it will be important for those interested in social justice to speak with clarity on and with their own terms.”
Bridges is more on the fence about whether to reclaim “woke” or leave it in the hands of the racist right. “We will inevitably create new terms that will be a love language for Black people and maybe it’s a cycle and those will be taken too but we’ll create again. We’ve always had to be creative. I think we need to lean on that and keep creating,” Bridges says. “But I’ve faced this question when it comes to critical race theory. You know, should we abandon it to Ron DeSantis? Or should we stake our claim? This term was so intentionally crafted by Kimberle Crenshaw and in that debate I have been sympathetic to the side of nah, this is ours! You’re not going to take it from us.
As someone who uses language for a living and thinks books are the most beautiful tool of freedom and liberation, succumbing to pressure to relinquish a word that was once so powerful to us over to people who only want to use it to harm us feels wrong. It’s heartbreaking, and I don’t want to do it. But we can’t deny that its meaning has shifted, and naming exactly what people mean when they say it now is important for holding up a mirror to their white supremacist intentions. Next time someone uses “woke” in a derogatory manner, or calls a book or TV show “woke,” ask them what they really mean by that term. Make them say the quiet part out loud. Because it might be harder to say “I hate Black people” than “that’s too woke.” 
In those school board meetings in Sarasota County, San Francisco, Phoenix, Loudoun County, and around the country, white parents get to couch their racism in a buzzword that wasn’t built for them but allows them to uphold white supremacy without having to say so. Woke isn’t “bad now,” it’s just always been Black. And it’s terrifying to the transphobic mom in a catsuit that she may now have to live in a world where her freedom isn’t contingent on someone else’s oppression. These parents are scared that their kids are going to learn exactly how anti-Black they are. And what happens to their hatred if wokeness means exactly what it’s supposed to: people are cognizant of the racist rot eroding the core of every system America was constructed on? They can stand at their podiums, scream their co-opted version of “woke” as a slur and try to ban the truth, but we’re still awake. And we’re still here.

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