woke (adjective): aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)

– Merriam-Webster


When my editor here changed the title of my column on ossuaries (bone-chapels) from “Dem Dry Bones” to “Them Dry Bones,” I shot back with a snide, “You going woke on me, Hank?” I should have known better. The way “woke” is used these days — as a taunt to over-the-top liberal sensibilities — is a far cry from its black origins, and especially from its use during the 2014 Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer.

(To be fair, I’ve been writing regularly for Hank Sims since 2008, and I’m pretty sure this was the first time he ever played his editor card. FWIW, the song “Dem Dry Bones” dates to 1928, written by brothers James and Rosamond Johnson, both Black.)

“Stay woke” may have originated with Lead Belly* (Huddie Ledbetter), whose recordings led me long ago to my love of the blues. His “Scottsboro Boys” song (about black teenagers accused of raping two white women in 1931) has the lines, “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there/Best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

* “If there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles” – George Harrison

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge in 2018. Photo: US Congress, via Wikimedia. Public Domain.

The phrase was still in use, non-ironically, in 2017 when columnist David Brooks wrote, “To be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.” (He should know.) In the same year, “woke” was voted the slang word of the year by the American Dialect Society.

“Woke” was soon co-opted by the right as a derogatory term for anyone on the liberal side of politics: “political correctness gone awry,” “over-righteous liberalism,” “an insincere form of performative activism,” etcetera. And — of course — there’s money to be made from woke! Under the guise of green policies, corporations have been cashing in on wokeness, where “woke capitalism” is used for “inexpensive messaging as a substitute for genuine reform,” according to NYT conservative columnist Ross Douthat.

Consider Exxon (“Protect Tomorrow. Today.”), one of the worst polluters on the planet. Prince William Sound in Alaska will probably never fully recover from the Exxon Valdez grounding, in which some 10 millions gallons of crude was spilled. Doesn’t their claim to “continuously work to manage environmental impacts” sound woke to you, with of three of their refineries topping the list of US polluters, according to Reuters?

I was reminded of all this last week, December 30 to be exact. The clue for 37 Down of the New York Times crossword puzzle was, “Social justice catchphrase,” 8 letters = STAYWOKE. Crossword commentator Michael Sharp (aka Rex Parker) wrote, “‘Woke’ is a word that came out of Black political activism and then got appropriated by white people (surprise) in all kinds of ironic and / or openly hostile ways to the point where now all I hear when I hear the word is a kind of mockery, a cheapening and debasing of everything ‘social justice’ is supposed to stand for…clue it as ‘Black’ or don’t use it, thank you.”

I don’t always agree with this guy, who frequently complains about a trendy clue he hasn’t heard of, but this time he nailed it. Now, of course, I worry: Am I being woke to write this?