“[B]e a little careful ... best stay woke, keep their eyes open” was Lead Belly’s warning to Black folks traveling to the South. They needed to stay alert to avoid running afoul of white vigilantes and lynching. The blues musician said this after he made a recording about the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women.
To fully appreciate the meaning of woke, we must go back decades. The term came to be used in the specific cultural context of the 1930s South and 30 years later crossed over to hipsters after a Black writer, William Melvin Kelley, contributed a piece to The New York Times about slang language in Harlem in 1960. He defined “woke” as being well-informed, but conversationally it is an alert: to avoid the ‘po-po’ [police] be woke.
Long a staple of the Black vernacular, the concept of woke entered general public discourse when it became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, signaling a shift in power, access, and visibility.
Following George Floyd’s torture and murder on May 25, 2020, the right ignored legitimate demands for criminal justice reform, seizing on the slogan “defund the police.” No surprise that gun sales soared in 2020 to 16.7 million and the FBI reported a “surge” of 12 percent in hate crimes. Many of these gun owners view “woke” as a threat to their America and a feature of the scolding nanny state.
After three years of relentless ridicule and resistance by right-wing activists, it now appears that the word “woke” is being restored in the minds of many Americans. According to the March 8 USA Today/Ipsos poll, 56 percent of those surveyed agree with my definition of woke: alert and attending to important facts and issues, especially to social change and injustices. Simply put, woke means “wake up” to what is going on around us. For centuries its meaning was straightforward. Who could imagine that a word could be catapulted so far from its true meaning?
Charged by negative emotions, woke morphed into woke-ism and animated people who fear our fast-approaching 2045 future, when the United States (and indeed the world) will be majority-minority. Many are finding their way to the United States, displaced because of climate change, violence, or economic strife. And with declining birth rates and an aging workforce, US policy makers must recognize the demographic reality: We need workers — their skills, knowledge, and fresh ideas.
The GOP narrative of “woke-ism” is fueled by fear of the “other” — immigrants, Jews, Asians, the LGBTQ community, Black people — and the objectification of these groups is almost dystopian.
The far right object to children’s books describing two mommies or daddies and reject history curriculums that include the truth about slavery or the treatment of indigenous people because such information “makes children uncomfortable.” Institutions that provide a safe harbor for diversity, inclusion, and equity are vilified and punished. Wall Street Journal columnist Andy Kessler recently mused that the Silicon Valley Bank failed because its management was “distracted by diversity.” This kind of rhetoric has consequences. Who could imagine that the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida would cause Disney World to lose its 1967 charter to self-govern?
When Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida wields the word woke, it is a dog whistle meaning “white people are under attack and must fight back now.” And if you are wondering what the plan of attack is, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo instructs his followers that “Woke-ism, multiculturalism, all the -isms — they’re not who America is.” And the list continues to grow as the right wing coins the derogatory term “transgender-ism.”
The bottom line is that almost all of us have experienced being the other. The fear is real, knowing that we could be next, arbitrarily tagged and condemned.
What comes to my mind is Martin Niemöller’s mournful insight, “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
What we say and allow to be said without challenge has consequences. See something, say something. It is time to reclaim the true meaning of woke.
Priscilla H. Douglas is chair of the Boston Public Library Board of Trustees and author of “Woke Leadership: Profit, Prophets and Purpose.”