The Power of Language

How Woke Went From "Black" to "Bad"

By Ishena Robinson

Deputy Editorial Director

“We must fight ‘the woke’ in our schools. We must fight ‘the woke’ in our businesses. We must fight ‘the woke’ in government agencies,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently declared from the stage at a campaign event. “We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology. And I’ll tell you this, the state of Florida is where woke goes to die.”

His boast about Florida isn’t an empty threat. From his powerful pulpit as the state’s governor, DeSantis engineered and recently signed into law the “Stop W.O.K.E.” Act, a title that precisely captures what the bill’s architects aimed to do: stop people in Florida from speaking out in ways that challenge racism and other kinds of discrimination.  

The measure leverages severe penalties, including firing educators and pulling state funding from educational institutions, for violations of its intentionally vague, yet broad, speech and viewpoint limitations — all to brutally chill conversations about racism, gender inequality, and LGBTQ+ people. It also prohibits promoting specific phrases and concepts, like “systemic racism,” that are critical to explaining how discrimination is perpetuated and to understanding the impact of inequality on people’s everyday lives.

The Stop W.O.K.E. Act threatens not only the free speech and livelihood of teachers — especially Black educators, who are more likely to teach subjects that involve the prohibited concepts. It will also undeniably damage the quality of education received by all students attending public institutions in Florida. That’s why the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), along with co-counsel the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU Florida, and Ballad Spahr, filed suit challenging the law and filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking to halt its implementation. The suit argues that the Stop W.O.K.E. Act is unconstitutional and discriminatory.

But don’t just take our word for it. Ask yourself: What exactly is “the woke?” Where did “woke” come from? And how did it become apparently worthy of gag orders instituted by politicians and administered with the might of the government? When did it transform from its roots in Black American vernacular to a supposedly all-encompassing, terrifying force emblazoned across increasingly fear-mongering headlines in the United States and even now in parts of Europe?

Put simpler: How did woke go from meaning “Black” to “Bad?”

“If You’re Woke You Dig It" by William Melvin Kelley, 1962. Source: New York Times

The Black Lineage of Woke

“To be woke is to be Black,” is how Okayplayer Senior News and Culture Reporter Elijah Watson defined the Black American colloquialism, now broadly used derisively, when he embarked on a journey in 2017 to plot its origins. Ironically, his research first turned up a 1962 New York Times essay, “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” by the then Harlem-based writer William Melvin Kelley, who was highlighting the phenomenon of Black American slang being appropriated by white people who often missed or altogether distorted the words’ original meanings, until the idioms were taken over, inevitably transformed, and ultimately abandoned by their original Black creators. 

Kelley was “prophetic,” Watson tells LDF in a recent conversation. We are six decades and several cultural lifetimes past when Kelley’s essay was published, and as we discuss what’s been done to woke in the 21st century, it’s hard to disagree. 

“The language seems to be modified in two ways,” Kelley wrote in the ‘60s. “The first is to give a word, already in use, its opposite meaning. At one time, the connotations of ‘jive’ were all good; now they are bad, or at least questionable.” 

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Michael Harriot, columnist at TheGrio and author of the upcoming book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, explains that this kind of insidious takeover and flipping of Black vernacular to anti-Black pejorative has numerous parallels in America’s past and runs all the way up to present day. 

“When you look at the long arc of history and America’s reaction to the request for Black liberation – every time Black people try to use a phrase or coin a phrase that symbolizes our desire for liberation, it will eventually become a cuss word to white people,” Harriot says in an interview with LDF.

And Black people have never been silent — or at a loss for innovation — when articulating demands for justice. In fact, the use of “woke” as an in-group signal urging Black people to be aware of the systems that harm and otherwise put us at a disadvantage is documented as far back as the 1920s. The Jamaican philosopher Marcus Garvey, exhorting members of the Black diaspora in America, Jamaica, and elsewhere to join the cause of Pan-Africanism, called on them to “Wake Up!” By 1938, the ​​iconic American Blues musician Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter) had recorded the song “Scottsboro Boys.” The ballad tells the true story of four Black youths who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in Scottsboro, Alabama, and subsequently convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death — though they were thankfully freed after several appeals and trials. In the song, Lead Belly says of Alabama, “I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go down there. Stay woke. Keep your eyes open.” 

The use of the word “woke” continued to spread throughout all sectors of Black Americans’ lives. In 1940, after finding out they were being paid less than their white counterparts, the leader of a Black mine workers union in West Virginia that launched a strike against discriminatory pay reportedly said, according to Harriot’s research, “We were asleep. But we will stay woke from now on.” The word, in this Black-specific sense, would continue to show up across the decades, including in Barry Beckham’s 1972 play Garvey Lives!, where one character says, “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.” 

Woke almost certainly also showed up in the everyday conversations of Black people from the South, Midwest, and the East Coast, including in Harlem. The New York City neighborhood has historically been a Black mecca, and it’s where Kelley first heard the word “woke” being used in the context of the Black Power movement, according to what Watson was told by the writer’s surviving family.

“I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go down there. Stay woke. Keep your eyes open.” 

- Lead Belly, "Scottsboro Boys," 1938

The world Discovers Woke

It’s perhaps this very context — Black people’s awareness of their history and their power to resist injustice — that made woke so ripe for the pernicious mutation it has now undergone. Indeed, the forced transformation of the colloquialism echoes how countless other Black ideas and intellectual contributions have been maligned. 

“When people during the civil rights movement began saying ‘Black power,’ all of a sudden it became a term that people equated with communism and anti-white sentiment — and then it eventually gave birth to ‘white power,’” Harriot tells LDF. “The ‘1619 Project’ [which centers the ramifications of slavery and the contributions of Black people in American history] has become an insult. ‘Black Lives Matter’ became an ‘anti-white sentiment’ that was banned in school and spawned ‘all lives matter’ and ‘blue lives matter.’” 

And like Black Lives Matter became known to the world through the power of Twitter, so too has social media aided in the rapid spread of woke and other Black cultural creations beyond the radius of the communities in which they were formed. 

Erykah Badu’s 2008 track “Master Teacher” (featuring spoken word by Georgia Anne Muldrow) is widely credited with re-introducing “stay woke” to the modern lexicon. However, Watson believes it was Badu’s use of the phrase on Twitter while advocating for the freedom of Russian feminist protestors that ultimately helped propel woke around the globe. 

“[Kelley] spoke to this — how these words evolve,” says Watson. “We see how quick they evolve, even quicker, with the advent of social media. It just amplifies the speed in which things no longer belong to the creator, and especially as that pertains to Black people. We see this with our dances, with our language — what starts off as ours quickly becomes appropriated.” 

Add in the traditional media outlets that ran articles presenting woke as “trendy new slang” for readers to add to their vocabularies — and the spread, appropriation, and ultimate dilution of woke was practically guaranteed. 

"To some, woke is now a derisive stand-in for diversity, inclusion, empathy and, yes, Blackness. So, when legislators pass a law to “stop woke” in light of the word’s true history as well as its commonly understood meaning, what are they really saying?"

Racial Reckoning and Racial Backlash

But who is culpable for the especially feverish escalation around the word “woke” that has noticeably peaked following 2020’s racial justice reckoning, which at the time inspired a groundswell of interest among Americans seeking to learn more about systemic racism and the history of anti-Blackness in this country? The answer, of course, includes politically-motivated elected officials and other bad actors seeking to fear-monger and hold back racial justice progress. But it also goes beyond that.

Harriot points to the role of mainstream newsrooms, in which Black people are still shockingly marginalized. “When you see Black journalists at a news organization or in a media corporation, they seldom have any decision-making power. What we’re talking about is white people concocting the way we understand language and the way we understand the current world. Very seldom is there any Black input.” 

And well-meaning progressives who took on the “woke” label with gusto perhaps weren’t fully embodying its true meaning in their casual embrace of the word.

“It’s a very surface-level descriptor of trying to claim that you’re progressive,” says Watson. “It’s much more complex than just saying, ‘I’m a liberal.’ If you’re not trying to envision and make a better world for people, you’re not as woke as you think you are.” 

What it Means to "Stop Woke"

To some, woke is now a derisive stand-in for diversity, inclusion, empathy and, yes, Blackness. So, when legislators pass a law to “stop woke” in light of the word’s true history as well as its commonly understood meaning, what are they really saying? 

“Governor DeSantis’ nefarious attack on truth, history, and public education cannot be masked by a fatuous acronym mocking a Black colloquialism,” Janai S. Nelson, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel, emphasized in a press release announcing the organization’s lawsuit challenging the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. “[This law] seeks to deprive future generations of knowledge, information, and the ability to appreciate the humanity of their fellow citizens. It is also a direct and unlawful assault on the bedrock principle of free speech in a democracy.” 

The details of the law and the story behind its passage bear out this conclusion. It was passed against the will of a broad cross-section of Florida residents and students who testified to legislators about the harm it would cause in the state and to their community’s efforts to challenge injustice. Notably, many of these initiatives were launched in the wake of the horrific deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and far too many other Black people due to police violence. 

​​Under the Stop W.O.K.E. law, educators and institutions in Florida are already being restricted, or restricting themselves out of fear, from freely teaching students about many of the events and people that make up the history of this country. Indeed, even the stories of American icons like Martin Luther King Jr. are allegedly being banned from Florida K-12 classrooms under this law.  

In Harriot’s view, the manipulation of woke has been key to effecting policies that, when looked at plainly, reveal a foundational hostility to values most Americans share. This includes recognizing and honoring icons who toiled to bring our nation closer to living up to its ideals of justice and fairness, where everyone can thrive and live without fear of being targeted for who they are.

“It’s hard to get people to demonize human beings and lives and history. But it’s easy to get them to demonize a word. And if you can use that word as a placeholder for those people, for caring about those people, then it’s easy to demonize instead of saying, ‘We’re just gonna stop caring about people,’” Harriot concludes.

Watson agrees, “When I think of political figures like DeSantis and the rampant fight against critical race theory — you are really trying to erase history and trying to erase knowledge that we need to grow better as a people. The fact that you are trying to hide these experiences all for the comfort of your white fragility is troubling, harmful, and, most importantly, dangerous. And that’s literally everything that woke goes against.”

Published: August 26, 2022

LDF Original Content Series

The War on Truth:

Examining the Recent Rise of Anti-truth Laws

The first installment of LDF’s original content series examines the attacks on ‘Critical Race Theory’ and efforts to ban books as the latest tactics to halt racial justice.

The second installment takes a broader historical view of today’s attacks on truth, efforts to silence conversations about our nation’s history, and virulent backlash to racial justice and educational equity.

The third installment explains why truthful, inclusive education benefits all students and how to make it happen.

LDF has compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions about Critical Race Theory. Learn more about CRT, laws banning racial justice discourse, and how these fit into a larger effort to suppress the voices, history, and political participation of Black Americans.

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