Where Did “Woke” Come From?

OPINION | This article contains political commentary which reflects the author's opinion.

One thing that really drives me up the wall is the leftist catchphrase, “Stay woke.” It’s not simply the left’s aversion to grammar that bothers me (but staying woke, referring to a singular person as “they”, seriously where did these people go to school?). What bothers me most is that I remember hearing the word “woke” back when I was a teenager.

I had friends who were African, as in from various African nations, and I had friends who were Black Americans that wanted to embrace their African roots. These Black friends were considering to be “woke” Blacks of America. This was a self-proclaimed title, of course. To be more precise about the relationship these were people I worked with, and though we became friends over time, they were all older than me so they were mentors more than friends. It’s fair to say they were slightly annoyed by me not charging head-first into wokeness once I was introduced to it, but I was young and excused for my ignorance. Pat the poor confused puppy on the head.

Unfortunately for them, I maintain the same skepticism today that I did then.

I understand embracing cultural traditions from Uganda or Sudan when you or your family members were born there, that’s natural. What I don’t understand is trying to adopt a whole ass continent. There is no universal African cultural any more than there is a universal European culture or a general South American culture. That’s like saying Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Philippino and Taiwanese people are the same. That’s raaaaacist! These are areas made up of individual sovereign nations that sometimes vehemently clash with their closest neighbors. They aren’t interchangeable.

Culture can be described as the way of life and the general customs and beliefs of a particular groups of people at a particular time. The odds are that your family unit has its own cultural traditions, whether you enjoy them or not, based on history and experience. Your neighborhood may even have its own traditions. Colleges do, cities do. And things can change when you move from one place to another. You can move to Atlanta and become a Braves fan or you can live in Georgia while maintaining your allegiance to the Boston Red Sox you grew up with, if major league baseball is one of the cultural traditions you participate in.

Unless you’ve participated in some sort of DNA test that tells you your ancestors hailed from Ethiopia, adopting “African culture” is a bit like being born in France but wearing San Francisco Giants paraphernalia everyday because you had a family member from North America five generations ago. Do you and everything, but you’re probably only confusing the people who know you personally.

Likewise, Greece today and Greece a few hundred years ago are two very different things. One thing that makes cultural important is its place in time. Some people like to judge history by today’s standards, but the world changes greatly from generation to generation. Some changes are much more drastic than others.

Cultural norms change, dominant religions change, borders even change. Adopting a culture that was not passed on to you directly is like throwing a dart in a tornado, blindfolded.

Some people are drawn to strong cultural traditions, either because they don’t have any of their own or simply because they enjoy culture. I don’t begrudge any black Americans who feel fulfilled by embracing the African traditions of long lost ancestors, but it can be a shot in the dark. Don’t be surprised when other people don’t want to jump on board. And don’t be surprised if some Africans are offended by your misuse of their culture or the elements you are appropriating.

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Oop. I said appropriating.

Let’s be honest, if it’s not your culture, your parent’s culture, or your spouse’s culture, you ARE appropriating a culture that isn’t yours. And it can be cringeworthy, like Justin Trudeau appearing in clothing that resembles clearance rack Halloween costumes or Nancy Pelosi’s old ass trying to kneel in a Kmart dashiki, or your friends could appreciate you trying to embrace their culture as your own. But either way, it meets the left’s definition of appropriation. No worries if you’re suddenly wondering if you’re guilty of the heinous crime, I don’t cancel people over such things…

If you want to follow “woke” back in time, before it was appropriated by social justice warriors as a catch all phrase, some might be interested to know that it’s been used to describe a number of situations, and at some times it was used because of people who simply had poor grammar. In the 2000’s and 2010’s it was used as slang to describe suspicions of a cheating partner. In 2008 an Erykah Badu song described being self-aware and questioning what you think you know, with chorus that stated, “I stay woke”. This is occasionally tied to the modern “Woke” cultural boom.

In the 1970’s the phrase appeared liberally in a play called Garvey Lives! Marcus Garvey was a black national who thought blacks around the world needed to unify and be more involved in political and social issues. One line from the play reads, “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.” Garvey was famous for telling blacks to “Wake up!”, and the coworkers who wanted me to be woke were people who followed his teachings.

In the 60’s a New York Times Magazine article by a black novelist titled “If You’re Woke You Dig It” detailed how pseudo-intellectual whites in the 40’s and 50’s appropriated black culture in media when trying to portray the stereotypical white hustlers and anti-conformists as more interesting characters.

Shut up, more appropriation you say? I do say, as I scoff.

Before it became a hot topic for journalists, a Black folk singer-songwriter, Huddie Ledbetter, told the story of the Scottsboro Boys. The boys were a group of black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women. At the end of his song about the event, “Lead Belly” Ledbetter said “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there—best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

This is one of the earliest versions of wake/woke I can find in popular culture, but the phrase has been tied to an even earlier, lesser known movement. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the first to use to term “Wide Awake” in political ads to describe the cultural movement of the Republican Party to stop the spread of slavery. Damn. That’s awkward for liberals. Awwwkward.

It’s up to you to decide if your friends who claim to be woke even know what they’re talking about or what kind of ideology they’re subscribing to, but I will FOREVER remind them of where this movement started first and why. *laughs in Republican*