Thursday, August 18

On Being Woke and What That Might Mean

I’ve read a lot about the disdain of many conservatives about the concept or actuality of being woke. Governors, council members, school board members, and plenty of others eschew the wokeness. And I cannot help but wonder what they mean by that because I think many use it as a synonym for being liberal or a leftist, or something perhaps more ominous.

Because I like words and I like to research stuff, I did some research.

Before I go any further, I’ll note that I am a moderate Republican and I am a believer in the person and work of Jesus Christ though not inclined to call myself an evangelical. If any of that offends or triggers you, well, stop reading and go find something else to do, please.

I started with an article I found on Fox News, which is not a source I would typically use. The author noted the word “woke” was first published in an essay by William Melvin Kelley in The New York Times in 1962, so I had to go find that. I found it and took one glance at the title of Kelley’s essay and knew I had to learn more about him before I could read his essay.

This is what I learned about William Melvin Kelley starting with an article in The New Yorker from which I got the image to the left. The title of the 2018 article reads "The Lost Giant of American Literature" and its subtitle is "A major black novelist made a remarkable debut. How did he disappear?" And in this article, writer Kathryn Schutz referred to the 1962 essay. I also found a lengthy obituary in The New York Times in which Kelley is described as a writer "who brought a fresh, experimental voice to black fiction in novels and stories that used recurring characters to explore race relations and racial identity in the United States." Kelley was 79 when he died in February 2017. I had never heard of him and I feel that gap in my knowledge and know I will soon have to find some of his work to remedy that situation.

Based, however, on Schulz's work, I feel a better sense of Kelley and what he might have been trying to say in the early 1960s, a time of tumultuous social and civil discord and political upheaval. Sound familiar?

https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1962/05/20/140720532.pdf?pdf
The title of the 1962 essay is "If You're Woke You Dig It." A brief aside: I'm no longer surprised by the number of people who have a complete misunderstanding of American English, of the English language and its Latin roots and numerous borrowed words, and how very little of what we think is "American" or specifically of the United States (because there is more to the continents of North and South America than the United States and all of those other places are also "American" is actually of the United States. I mean, everything that is of our United States version of English came first from somewhere else, and then developed or evolved. Everything. And this essay is a delicious reminder of that fact and the cultural signifiers that are found in idioms.

In Kelley's context, being woke seemed to mean being with it or hip and, in today's context, knowing the latest emojis and that "no cap" means "no lie," or did last year. I am reluctantly resisting the digression that is Kelley to return to why a writer for Fox News referred to his work.

Writer Michael Ruiz reports that "for decades, it meant conscious and aware--but the slang word has come to represent an embrace of progressive activism, as well." He does also refer to Merriam-Webster and The Oxford Dictionary, although I had to do a bit more digger to determine if that was the OED, for those of us who can be dictionary snobs. It wasn't although I did find some interesting definitions in OED. I'll come back to those in a moment.

What does Merriam-Webster offer? Herewith in situ (Latin). It is, as you can see, a very modern definition, although Merriam-Webster also notes the word was first used in 1948 and with this very definition. I found it was used in 1942 in Negro Digest when J. Saunders Redding used it in his "article about labor unions." And then I learned that Jay Saunders Redding was an English professor, a visiting professor at Brown University (1949-50), among other things. Another gap in my knowledge that I must rectify.

At the end of his article, Michael Ruiz states "Now it's not so much a racial term as an ideological one." Well, Mr. Ruiz, it was not a racial term. It was an African American cultural term. There is a substantial difference in the understanding of many of the word "racial."

Grazia, a U.K.-based publication, seems to be mostly about fashion, celebrity, and such, yet there was an interesting article about "woke" and what it really means. The writer mentions much of the history I'd already learned referring as well to the 1972 Barry Beckham play Garvey Lives! with its focus on Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.

This article also notes that #staywoke started trending in 2009, but it took a couple of years before the phrase became more noticeably mainstream. The writer states that "[s]taying woke was a way for people of all races to use shorthand in calling out society's racial ills, but also served as a one-word way of encouraging people to pay political attention." I think there is clear pique (from French with a very interesting etymological history) when the writer says

There’s something galling about well-meaning white people and (mosty-white) media organisations using ‘woke’ as a catch-all term to refer to fellow white people, and the word’s widespread use has consequently led to it feeling fairly meaningless. Middle class white people around the world call themselves ‘woke’ because they send out the occasional tweet calling for peace and love, not because they’re trying to make any concrete effort to change the racist status quo. Calling yourself woke simply isn’t enough—you need to act. But a word that’s been diluted to the extent this one has is not necessarily going to get you there.

 My last source is also based in the U.K., National World. Rhona Shennan states that being woke "nowadays refers to being aware or well informed in a political or cultural sense, especially regarding issues surrounding marginalised communities--it describes someone who has 'woken up' to issues of social injustice."

Shennan quotes Afua Hirsch, so I went directly to Hirsch's 2019 article in which she wrote:

Today, the person using the word is likely to be a rightwing culture warrior angry at a phenonemenon that lives mainly in their imagination. . . .In reality, the only thing that unites the woke is an intellectual curiosity about identity and how complex, how nuances, how rooted in disparate histories it can be. The real groupthink, the genuinely cohesive crowd. . .is that of the anti-woke, the most weaponised identity of all.

The explanatory subtitle of Hirsch's article reads: "How ironic that the rightwing culture warriors claim to support free speech. They seem to want minorities to shut up and stop complaining." Given the state of things today in the United States, I would say they seem to want anyone who disagrees with their ideological viewpoint--when they can agree on that--to shut up. That's it; just shut up.

That was a lot of time perusing British publications, so I went back to my search to see what else might be published on this side of the pond. So to an article published by KPBS in San Diego (I saw that eye roll). The article was written by Cristina Kim, Racial Justice and Social Equity Reporter, and is an edited transcript of an interview. You can watch/hear the interview here. The first question for her series "Let's Talk About It" was posed by Mike Milton who asked for a definition of "woke" or "wokeness." Kim talked with Dr. Damariyé Smith, Assistant Professor of Contemporary Black/African American Rhetoric and Media Studies at San Diego State University.

There is some reiteration of the history of the word, of course, and some other social observations regarding the evolution of the word and how it became appropriated by white people, how it reflected and reflects increasing racial awareness through Obama's administration and the Black Lives Matter movement, and how it has become weaponized.

Then to The Palm Beach Post with its fittingly titled April 2022 article, "What does it mean to be 'woke,' and why does Florida Governor Ron DeSantis want to stop it?" Writer C.A. Bridges notes early in his piece that "[s]ome conservatives fight against wokeness because they see it as performative and liberal indoctrination." Florida's HB7, often called the Stop WOKE Act, states

Provides that subjecting individuals to specified concepts under certain circumstances constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin; revising requirements for required instruction on the history of African Americans; requiring the department to prepare and offer certain standards and curriculum; authorizing the department to seek input from a specified organization for certain purposes; prohibits instructional materials reviewers from recommending instructional materials that contain any matter that contradicts certain principles; requires DOE to review school district professional development systems for compliance with certain provisions of law.
Or, as restated in The Palm Beach Post, the bill "prohibits any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility for historic wrongs for their race, color, sex or national origin."

Bridges does an excellent job of recounting a thorough history of the word "woke" including a wide range of politicians and their, mmm, "observations" of what it means to be woke. Interestingly, Bridges quoted Michael Ruiz of Fox News: "So in addition to meaning aware and progressive, many people now interpret woke to be a way to describe people who would rather silence their critics than listen to them," which seemed to be what Hirsch said of conservatives.

And so, at the end of the day, as it were, I explored what Slate's Rachelle Hampton had to say; she was cited by Bridges. Hampton points out how social media and others have made the term essentially meaningless, although I think it remains a dog whistle for many conservatives. Hampton states
. . .What you get from this constant divorcing and decontextualizing of the word woke is this idea that wokeness is a thing that you can aspire towards. Not only aspire towards, but achieve.
You get this kind of gross performance of racial consciousness that’s all posture. In this way, wokebasically becomes empty on both sides of the white people aisle: You get white Liberals who think by doing a Pepsi commercial that appropriates protest imagery that they are “woke,” and that there’s this way to acquire woke points. This side is annoying and actively harmful in a few different ways, but the other side smells a little bit like fascism. Around 2017 or 2018, this is when we start to get white people turning against the word. And not just turning against it, but turning against the idea of it. Because, again, there is no coherent political ideology behind the word woke and there never has been.
But also, the people who are using “wokeness” to capture all these disparate political things happening are mostly writers who should have the ability to tease out what exactly they’re talking about. But it is extremely convenient from a culture-war perspective, to be able to use a word like woke to signal at approximately seven different things. Then, there’s also just the disingenuousness of it all. When you say that “wokeness” is a political ideology, you’re not talking about anything. You’re talking about people who talk about race. And that just immediately brands them as a member of the wokerati.

I had only one more source to explore and that was the online urban dictionary, which is crowd-sourced, and then I didn't know anything any more and that sent me scurrying back to my beloved OED and this definition:

"To bring into being, raise, stir up (war, strife, woe, etc.); to arouse, excite (an activity, feeling, emotion): to evoke (a sound, echo, etc.). A 1793 instance of the word refers to the awakening of "dormant passion." An 1862 reference is to a controversy awakened by a publication. A 1655 entry refers to the awakening of someone's curiosity. Other entries refer to the awakening of rivalry, dissent, ambition, and despair. In other words, being woke meant that emotions, feelings, passions, and interests were awakened. That seems a bit obvious. 

If that awakening means being more aware of and informed about the world in which I live and to which I hope to contribute, I'm all in. But my hope is that conscious awakening brings with it conscientiousness and civility to also learn about why I'm experiencing those emotions, feelings, passions, and interests and to be aware of the existence and reason for the emotionas, feelings, passions, and interests of others. Even if we don't agree. I think we used to call that civility.

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