See then that ye walk circumspectly

See then that ye walk circumspectly October 3, 2019

I have a suspicion about the origins of “woke” that I haven’t been able to confirm. My guess is that it started in the black church. The full associated phrase — “Get woke, stay woke” — just sounds preacherly. More specifically, it sounds like somebody got started on a sermon on Ephesians 5 and then got rolling. But I haven’t found any confirmation of that.

Before the term got conscripted and corporatized, overused and appropriated, and just generally beaten beyond recognition, it conveyed something admirable. “Stay woke” or, in more blandly prosaic terms, “Wake up and stay awake” seems like good advice. It’s aspirational. It’s an admonishment to strive for something, not to achieve a static state of wokeness. I think the word lost its bite once it began to lose that sense of striving — once it began to imply that “woke” was something one could be rather than something one should try to be.

Wikimedia Commons photo by Sean McGrath

If someone tells you “I’m woke,” you should be as skeptical of the claim as when anyone says “I’m awake, I’m awake.”

It’s always suspicious when someone says that. In one sense, it’s a self-confirming statement — you can’t say “I’m awake” unless you are, in fact, awake. But it’s also an assertion that’s usually made when it’s only partly true. When someone asserts “I’m awake” it’s often because that wasn’t quite true just before they said it, and probably still isn’t quite wholly true even as they’re saying it. “I’m awake” is usually also an aspirational phrase — more a declaration of the speaker’s intent than an accurate description of their state of being.

Whenever laudably aspirational phrases settle into static claims of achievement, we begin to distrust them. Think of the word “holy.” If someone tells us that “I wish I was holy” or “I am trying to be holy,” we’re inclined to accept such claims as accurate and honest. But if that person says “I am holy,” the warning lights on our BS detectors start flashing red. The claim of attainment is suspect not just because it’s implausible, but because it changes the meaning of the word. It twists “holy” into “holier-than-thou.” The former is praiseworthy, the latter is not. It is, rather, just relative, competitive, generally dickish, and self-refuting (anybody who thinks they’re holier-than-thou, by definition, isn’t).

Something like that shift in meaning, I think, is part of what has caused “woke” to fall into disrepute. That’s why, for example, if you look at the Urban Dictionary entries for “woke,” most of the top-level entries regard it as a “pretentious” claim of “woker-than-thou.” That’s also self-refuting. If you imagine you’re woker-than-thou, then wake up, you’re not.

That shift in meaning accompanied another dynamic — the perpetual strip-mining and appropriating of every underground culture by the dominant culture, until the original thing loses all of its power and currency once its overused, misused and abused by everyone from Madison Avenue to trying-to0-hard-to-be-hip youth ministers. (See, for example, this Dictionary.com entry for the word woke, which suggests, as a synonym, “with it.” I’m unable to read that without imagining the guest speaker at a youth ministry event telling his audience “Young people, I’m ‘down’ with all your ‘rad’ trends, I’m ‘with it,’ and I’m here to tell you that Jesus is ‘the bomb.'” And making awkward air-quotes with each of those words.)

And also there’s that thing where every earnest term embarrasses us into employing it ironically. When a word or idea has something to say to us about what we should be, we shield ourselves from the indictment of it by holding it at an ironic distance equal to the distance it reveals between how we are and how we should be. And then, in an accelerating cycle, the safely ironic usage overtakes the earnest original meaning until both the joke and the word itself have been flogged to death. (Both of those dynamics can be traced in this Splinter piece from almost three years ago: “How ‘woke’ went from black activist watchword to teen internet slang.”)

And also there’s the fact that every vocabulary that opposes injustice will inevitably be deliberately distorted by those determined to maintain that injustice. They’ll always pounce on every term they find threatening and caricature its meaning until it has none in an Orwellian attempt to deprive the oppressed of any language that would allow them to articulate or imagine or even accept any other state of affairs. (See also: “Social justice,” a redundant retronym that arose after TPTB had drained the simpler term “justice” of all of its clarity and power.)

But anyway, based on its biblical resonance and its call-and-response structure, I still suspect that “Get woke, stay woke” probably traces back to the pulpits of the black church. But I haven’t yet found any evidence of that. The earliest citation I’ve seen isn’t from the church, but from the blues — Lead Belly in a 1938 recording of “Scottsboro Boys.” Most discussions of the term’s origins (see here, for example) trace it to William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 essay in The New York Times, “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” It seems, though, that Kelley wasn’t coining the term so much as introducing it to a larger audience, much as Erykah Badu would, again, with her 2008 song “Master Teacher“:

Elijah C. Watson provided a great discussion of that use of “woke” a few years back: “The Origin of Woke: How Erykah Badu and Georgia Anne Muldrow Sparked the ‘Stay Woke’ Era.” He also discusses this in a long interview with KUT radio’s In Black America program, explaining that the phrase was likely something Kelley knew from its currency in Harlem in the 1950s and earlier. (That interview includes a great discussion between Watson and host John L. Hanson Jr. of the way black slang, in Hanson’s words, is constantly invented and re-invented in “retaliation to its appropriation by the majority culture.”)

Watson’s deep dive into the origins of “stay woke” shows us that the phrase was used on the blocks of Harlem in the mid-20th century, and he does a great job of tracing the ebb and flow of its usage since then. But how did it first make its way out there into the community where Kelley first heard it?

We don’t know, but my guess is still that it started in the pulpit. It’s hortatory. It hints at biblical language. Its original, earnest message is congruent with the kind of message one might hear in the black church. It’s a four-word sermon, complete with altar call.

But whether or not that’s where the phrase comes from, and despite all the abuse and appropriation it has suffered recently, I think it still preaches. “Get woke, stay woke” has been beaten into an endlessly mockable and endlessly mocked phrase, but it’s still very good advice. Redeem the time, because the days are evil.

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* I haven’t read that essay because it’s only October 3 and I’m saving up my paywall-free Times articles this month for impeachment news.

 


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