Opinion: It's Time To Put 'Woke' To Sleep

Dec 30, 2018
Originally published on December 31, 2018 10:38 am

As each year comes to a close, many of us look forward to what we'll take on in the coming 12 months: new exercise routines, new plans to save, a better diet. But some of the most effective resolutions can be made by pledging to leave certain things behind, banishing bad habits to the year one is about to exit: swearing off alcohol, cigarettes or that awful ex.

In that spirit, I'd like to ask all of us to promise ourselves to leave one word behind in 2018, promise to never utter it again in the new year, promise to perhaps forget we ever said it at all.

I'm talking about the word "woke." Now several years into its 2010s revival, the word is done. It is dead. It is over.

Don't just take my word for it. MTV told people to stop using it as far back as 2016. SNL gave it a parody of death in 2017.

The argument I am making is not new, or revolutionary, or profound. Instead, it's a cleanup. The last street sweeping at the end of a long parade, that final reminder that the party is really over.

In order to make this argument, it's important to define the word as accurately as possible, because the muddling of the definition of woke is really what killed it.

According to Merriam-Webster, woke means, "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)."

Its resurgence in this decade can be most closely linked to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM activists have been striving, for years now, to convince people of all races to value and respect blackness, to take issues like the deaths of black people at the hands of police seriously. Woke became shorthand for a mindset and a worldview that values black lives.

But the word goes further back than that. It's most famously traced to an essay published in the New York Times in 1962 called "If You're Woke You Dig It," by William Melvin Kelley, though some have traced its use as far back as the 1940s.

One of the arguments Kelley presented in the piece was that once black words, like "cats" or "dig it," used to define certain aspects of blackness, became adopted by a white mainstream, they were officially done.

His words ring true in 2018 as well. No matter how well-intentioned, when Jill Stein and the cast of Will & Grace are name-checking the term, ironically or not, it's no longer anything new.

Nicole Holliday, a linguist at Pomona College who researches sociolinguistics and racial and ethnic boundaries in language, argues that the Internet may have sped up the life cycle of a word like woke, sending it from new to played-out in record time.

"So many more people are being exposed to so much more language by people that they wouldn't normally interact with," Holliday says. "The people you follow on Twitter aren't necessarily people that you talk to in real life."

"Some group of young people — usually young people of color — start popularizing a word," Holliday says. "They interact with other young people and people a little older than them."

And then, Holliday says, people in their 20s grab hold of it, as do white liberals, and so on and so forth. Their parents hear it, and before you know it, a buzzword ends up in a corporate board meeting. By then, Holliday argues, that word is done.

Of course, this way in which words cycle through the culture is nothing new. Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster sees parallels with the phrase "politically correct," which is defined as "conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated," but at this point usually means something pretty different.

"At its most sincere," Brewster says, "[the phrase politically correct] is a kind of caretaking of the people around you. You are going to think about how the words impact an audience that is maybe, maybe not the audience that you first imagined when you are saying something or creating something."

But now, argues Brewster, it's become a cudgel, a mockery. Words that begin with a very specific meaning, used by a very specific group of people, over time become shorthand for our politics, and eventually move from shorthand to linguistic weapon. Or in the case of woke, a linguistic eye-roll.

But yet, here we are, still using the word.

Perhaps the most convincing reason to stop doing so may lie in a misconception that's traveled with woke even before its Black Lives Matter resurgence. In 2008, Erykah Badu released the song "Master Teacher," which began to reintroduce the word woke to the culture before BLM did more of the heavy lifting.

In that song, Badu and others repeat the refrain, "I stay woke," over and over again. But, in a recent interview with OKPlayer, songwriter Georgia Anne Muldrow told Elijah Watson, news and culture editor for the site, that we all heard it wrong.

"She was saying 'I'd,' like I would stay woke," Watson says, "but it sounds like it's a declarative 'I stay woke.' "

A word meant to imply a constant state of striving, course-correcting and growth has been heard now, for almost a decade, as a static and performative state of being.

"[The word woke] was something that we were taking seriously and then it kind of transformed into something ironic and then it became a meme and then it became a trademark," Watson says.

After writing a definitive history of the word for OKPlayer, Watson says he no longer uses the word woke. He compares the co-opting of woke to the way music steeped in black tradition moves through mainstream culture.

"We made jazz, we made rap, we made all these different things," Watson said. "It's sad to say but we're used to being taken advantage of and to have things stolen from us. But at the same time we're quick to evolve and adapt because we need to in order to survive."

Here's to evolution and adaptation. Let's promise to leave a word that's past its prime in 2018. It's time to put woke to sleep.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's the end of the year, which means it's time to think about all of the things we don't want to take into the next one. NPR's Sam Sanders is hoping one word doesn't make it to 2019 - woke. We'll let him explain why.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: You've heard the word a lot by this point.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Woke.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Woke.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1 AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

SANDERS: Woke - your annoying friend probably uses it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You are so woke.

SANDERS: Politicians and celebrities use it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: To me, being woke means that you recognize.

SANDERS: Everybody uses it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Are you even woke?

SANDERS: I want us to stop. First, what exactly does woke mean?

EMILY BREWSTER: It's defined as aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.

SANDERS: That's Emily Brewster. She's an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary. The Black Lives Matter movement is largely responsible for the rise of woke this century. The word is tied to this idea of valuing and respecting blackness. Activists used it to urge people to take issues, like the deaths of black people at the hands of police, seriously. Nicole Holliday is a linguist at Pomona College. She says before that, the word woke appeared in an essay decades ago.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY: "If You're Woke You Dig It" by William Melvin Kelley - and that was in 1962.

SANDERS: Kelley argued that once black words used to define certain aspects of blackness, like cats or dig it - once they got to white people, they were kind of over. Nicole Holliday thinks that has happened to woke this decade. It went from black, almost fringe to white and mainstream. The Internet may have sped up that process because it connects strangers with new language every day. It speeds up the lifecycle of a word.

HOLLIDAY: Some group of young people, usually young people of color, start popularizing a word. They talk to their friends who are older and their parents, whatever. So then 40-year-old, you know, executives have it. And then somebody goes to a marketing meeting. And by the time that person in the marketing meeting says that, the kids haven't said that for months or years.

SANDERS: So then you end up with MTV saying the word woke is off-limits in 2016 and an SNL skit bashing the word in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CECILY STRONG: Introducing Levi Wokes - sizeless, style neutral, gender nonconforming denim for a generation that defies labels.

SANDERS: It resembles the trajectory of the phrase politically correct.

BREWSTER: Political correctness introduces this idea that we should consider all the many people in the audience and how our words might affect them.

SANDERS: That's Emily Brewster again from Merriam-Webster.

BREWSTER: Eventually, the term was turned into this kind of - a kind of a cudgel and certainly mockery.

SANDERS: Another word once embraced by a subgroup enters the mainstream and then becomes something negative - an insult or for woke, an eye roll. There's another reason to end the word woke. When it popped up again this century, we misunderstood the entire point. Before the Black Lives Matter movement in 2008, Erykah Badu released a song called "Master Teacher."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER TEACHER")

ERYKAH BADU: (Singing) I stay woke.

SANDERS: One of the songwriters, Georgia Anne Muldrow - she said in a recent interview that we misheard the lyrics.

ELIJAH WATSON: She was saying, I'd, like, I would stay woke. But it sounds like it's a declarative I stay woke.

SANDERS: Elijah Watson interviewed her for Okayplayer. She told Watson that woke is a work in progress not the final destination.

WATSON: It implies, I'm trying my best. I'm not definitively there. And I know I'm not there yet, but I'm trying.

SANDERS: This is the problem. We've made woke a rigid state of being instead of a process of continual growth. For that reason, in 2019, let's put woke to sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER TEACHER")

BADU: (Singing) I stay woke.

SANDERS: Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER TEACHER")

BADU: (Singing) I stay woke. I stay woke.

FADEL: Sam Sanders hosts the NPR podcast It's Been A Minute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.