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Happy Black History Month, fellow readers. I sincerely hope you’ve done some good reading and will continue to do so all year round. With that being said let’s skip all the fun formalities and deep dive into what is “wokeness.” These days when I think of an image that encapsulates what “wokeness” has been appropriated and twisted into, it’s often a Brooklyn Hipster criticizing capitalism while drinking Colombian coffee in a gentrified neighborhood and also tweeting about systemic racism (while also living in that gentrified neighborhood). This is completely wrong. There is a difference between being “woke” and plain common sense, and I’ll get into that. 

First a brief history of the term. The term “woke” first originated around 1923 by social activist Marcus Garvey in order to alert Black Americans to be vigilant of the White violence that is around them. It derives from “awake” simply meaning to stay alert. It was a call for Black people to stay conscious and question the systems in place that are unfairly oppressive. The term started also gaining popularity in the 60s in the Beatnik era, however, its appropriation was not as rampant as it is today. It was also used by Jazz musicians as a shorthand to say “don’t fall asleep.”

In 2008, a resurgence came once again from an Erykah Badu’s version of the song “Master Teacher,” on her album entitled New Amerykah drawing inspiration from the original meaning in the jazz era, meaning staying alert and calling out the system. #Staywoke made its resurgence and stayed intact to this meaning. The term woke saw a rising trend when Michael Brown was killed at the hands of police in 2014 in Ferguson. The call to “stay woke” was to recognize police brutality and the unjust treatment of Black people in the U.S. It allowed Black social media users to band together as well. The events in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement not only emphasized #staywoke but continued to grow as a movement today. 

This is all to say the word “woke” is African-American Vernacular English, also known as AAVE, because the Black community championed the term to protect themselves. As with any major inventions that the Black community created, their language which was created as a mechanism to survive in America has been appropriated and misused by both White and Non-Black demographics. Wokeness is a part of that because if you don’t speak English the way Black or African communities in the U.S. do, that means you are appropriating and misusing the term. 

Wokeness has now turned into something that pats people on the back for basic things. Catching up on your Marxist theory? Pretty woke! You claim you don’t “see race”? Wow, fantastic. You believe women have rights? Somebody get this man his Nobel Peace Prize. Those things are not #woke because they don’t consider solutions to the problem or even consider the true extent of the problems. Using woke correctly means active practice to come up with solutions to the systems in place. 

Take for example all those videos of celebrities being branded as a #wokequeen for recognizing there are bad things going on every day in the real world all while raking in more than enough money to possibly stop one-third of the hunger crisis. Or if you’re not a celebrity, perhaps you’re a student at a non-specific liberal arts school in a very big liberal city who engages in discourse by speaking about James Baldwin taught by a non-Black professor (and you forget New York is still part of America). Or you’re the person writing about this wishing the bare minimum isn’t constantly praised in your lecture course. Regardless, it is always essential to criticize the language we use and misuse to take a step toward creating a better future and an inclusive education. 

Wokeness tends to provoke an image that White people themselves appropriated and created to seem “with the times.” While it is great that you recognize injustice and racial inequality you are not “woke” for recognizing Black and Brown people’s humanity if you cannot actively question and breakdown your own privilege. Recognizing there’s a problem and taking steps to fix it are two different things. You are, however, one step closer to being a more empathetic human being which is a step in the right direction. I don’t see #staywoke disappearing from our vocabulary or t-shirts anytime soon but perhaps instead of woke points we can tell ourselves to #stayeducated because taking down systems of White Supremacy, systemic racism and advocacy is lifelong work. 

 

Sources:

https://www.vox.com/culture/21437879/stay-woke-wokeness-history-origin-evolution-controversy 

https://theconversation.com/where-woke-came-from-and-why-marketers-should-think-twice-before-jumping-on-the-social-activism-bandwagon-122713

Pramila Baisya (commonly known as Prim to her friends) is a third year writing student at Lang, trying to figure her life out. She enjoys poetry, photography, films, and comedy to an unhealthy degree and hopes to end up as an answer on the which famous NewSchooler are you quiz. Go Narwhals!
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