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The Black Lives Matter movement is responsible for the widespread use of the word woke.

Woke (/ˈwk/) as a political term of African-American origin refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice.[1] It is derived from the African-American Vernacular English expression "stay woke", whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues.

By the late 2010s, woke had been adopted as a more generic slang term and has been the subject of memes and ironic usage.[2] Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.[1][3]


Early 20th century

Oxford Dictionaries record[4] early politically conscious usage in 1962 in the article "If You're Woke You Dig It" by William Melvin Kelley in The New York Times[5] and in the 1971 play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham ("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.").[6] Garvey had himself exhorted his early 20th century audiences, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!"[7]

Earlier, J. Saunders Redding recorded a comment from an African American United Mine Workers official in 1940 ("Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we'll stay woke up longer.")[8]

Lead Belly[9] uses the phrase near the end of the recording of his 1938 song "Scottsboro Boys", while explaining about the namesake incident, saying "I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go along through there, stay woke, keep their eyes open".[10][11]


The first modern use of the term "woke" appears in the song "Master Teacher" from the album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008) by soul singer Erykah Badu. Throughout the song, Badu sings the phrase: "I stay woke." Although the phrase did not yet have any connection to justice issues, Badu's song is credited with the later connection to these issues.[1][2]

To "stay woke" in this sense expresses the intensified continuative and habitual grammatical aspect of African American Vernacular English, in essence to always be awake, or to be ever vigilant.[12] David Stovall said: "Erykah brought it alive in popular culture. She means not being placated, not being anesthetized."[13]

In popular culture

Implicit in the concept of being woke is the idea that such awareness must be earned. The rapper Earl Sweatshirt recalls singing "I stay woke" along to the song and his mother turning down the song and responding: "No, you're not."[14]

In 2012, users on Twitter, including Badu, began using "woke" and "stay woke" in connection to social and racial justice issues and #StayWoke emerged as a widely used hashtag.[2] Badu incited this with the first politically charged use of the phrase on Twitter; she tweeted out in support of the Russian feminist group Pussy Riot: "Truth requires no belief. / Stay woke. Watch closely. / #FreePussyRiot."[15]

From social media and activist circles, the word spread to widespread mainstream usage. For example, in 2016, the headline of a Bloomberg Businessweek article asked "Is Wikipedia Woke?", in reference to the largely white contributor base of the online encyclopedia.[16]

Modern usage

By the late 2010s, "woke" had taken to indicate "healthy paranoia, especially about issues of racial and political justice" and has been adopted as a more generic slang term and has been the subject of memes.[2] For example, MTV News identified it as a key teen slang word for 2016.[17] In The New York Times Magazine, Amanda Hess raised concerns that the word has been culturally appropriated, writing, "The conundrum is built in. When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the crosshairs between allyship and appropriation."[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Stay Woke: The new sense of 'woke' is gaining popularity". Words We're Watching. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d Pulliam-Moore, Charles (8 January 2016). "How 'woke' went from black activist watchword to teen internet slang". Splinter News. Retrieved 20 December 2019.
  3. ^ Garofalo, Alex (26 May 2016). "What Does 'Stay Woke' Mean? BET To Air Documentary On Black Lives Matter Movement". International Business Times. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  4. ^ "How 'woke' fell asleep | OxfordWords blog". OxfordWords blog. 16 November 2016. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  5. ^ Kelley, William Melvin (20 May 1962). "If You're Woke You Dig It; No mickey mouse can be expected to follow today's Negro idiom without a hip assist. If You're Woke You Dig It". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  6. ^ * Beckham, Barry (1 January 1972). Garvey Lives!: A Play.
  7. ^ Garvey, Marcus (1923). The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Or, Africa for the Africans. The Majority Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-912469-24-9.
  8. ^ Redding, J. Saunders (March 1943). "A Negro Speaks for His People". The Atlantic Monthly. 171. p. 59.
  9. ^ Scottsboro Boys by Leadbelly - Topic on YouTube
  10. ^ Matheis, Frank (August 2018). "Outrage Channeled in Verse". Living Blues. 49 (4). p. 15.
  11. ^ Lomax, Alan (recordist), and Lead Belly (1938). Scottsboro Boys (song). New York. Event occurs at 4:27. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  12. ^ Finkelman, Paul (2 February 2009). Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century Five-volume Set. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0-19-516779-5.
  13. ^ a b Hess, Amanda (19 April 2016). "Earning the 'Woke' Badge". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  14. ^ Kelley, Frannie (24 March 2015). "Earl Sweatshirt: 'I'm Grown'". National Public Radio. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  15. ^ Badu, Erykah (8 August 2012). "fatbellybella on Twitter". Twitter.
  16. ^ Kessenides, Dimitra; Chafkin, Max (22 December 2016). "Is Wikipedia Woke?". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  17. ^ Trudon, Taylor (5 January 2016). "Say Goodbye To 'On Fleek,' 'Basic' And 'Squad' In 2016 And Learn These 10 Words Instead". MTV News. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
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