What is it to be “Woke”?

Not long ago, I read a piece in Forbes advising white people to stop using the word “woke”, since to do so is an act of cultural appropriation. I could hardly have been more amazed. To think that a concept espoused by Diogenes and Socrates, the Golden Dawn, and the whole school of the Stoics could become the sole property of members of the unwilling African diaspora beggars belief. And yet, the writer, evidently well-educated, seemed completely sincere.

And so the question naturally arises: What is it to be “Woke”?

Let me preface the rest by saying that never once have I asserted myself to be white, nor do I choose that identifier. My ancestry is my own, but it’s far too rich and varied to fit neatly beneath such a simple label even were it accurate. Neither am I black (or Black), brown, multiracial, or any other color known to man. I am me; that is enough. If you wish to know me by a category, that’s your own limitation and I’ll have no part of it. If you can’t think about people without resort to race, I find that a piteous thing. Judge me by my actions, or by my writing, and– well, you can’t, can you? Racism, along with its affiliated prejudice, isn’t a choice but a blindness, a habit of thought that requires a lifetime of effort to purge.

Curiously enough, it is the use of “woke” as a pejorative by many who are themselves broadly considered racists to which the writer of the article objects. It is commonly employed by them in a derisory sense to describe the often performative behaviors of those who would be seen as conscientiously anti-racist, and who would set themselves up as moral arbiters based on the virtue that any person who acts thus must perforce have attained. It is in this sense a well-deserved term of ridicule for such modern Pharisees; nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that we do already have words that serve this purpose, and we must be wary of corrupting one with nobler meaning.

And so we must ask, whence comes the term? What is the origin of “woke”, in its modern sense?

In spoken idiom it is first recorded in Lead Belly’s “Scottsboro Boys” commentary from the 1930s, in which it is used unaffectedly; it is quite evidently extant and indeed long-established in the vernacular. “I advise anybody to be careful when they go ‘long through there (Alabama); stay woke; keep they eyes open.” Here, he’s plainly not referring to any moral sensibility but rather as an admonition of caution similar in meaning to “Be alert.”

“Wake up Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation… Let Africa be a bright star, No one knows when the hour of Africa’s Redemption cometh, it is in the wind, it is coming. One day, like a storm it will be here. When that day comes all Africa will stand together!”

– Marcus Garvey, speech, 1919

Predating Garvey’s movement by sixty-five years was the Wide Awake movement among young Republicans eager to begin a war to free slaves, and who marched under the banner of an open eye. Their name itself was inspired by a passage from Thoreau’s “Walden”, neighbors of whom began the movement; the passage follows:

“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

from “Walden”, by Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau himself was a well-educated man, well-read in the classics, and he must surely have been aware of other thinkers long dead at the time of his own writing who espoused similar ideas. Like many other concepts, this has its origins in dim history and has been adopted by many successive generations in turn, and for each of whom the idea was to be of great service. Their very worlds were startlingly different one from the next, and yet the thought that drove them all was fundamentally the same.

It may be said that modern usage rather “stretches the seams” of the old Woke, but then, Thoreau could hardly have understood the world that now is.

To me, “woke” is a beautiful concept that’s been seriously abused by an awful lot of people. There’s something delightful about “an infinite expectation of the dawn” that is not a part of the Civil Rights movement, space aliens, or Critical Race Theory, but rather of the individual in pursuit of enlightenment. Which, as observed, isn’t something we are or can be; rather, it’s a process we each as individuals either pursue or avoid.

It’s not the fault of the reader (or the hearer) for misunderstanding a term, nor even of those who abuse the term by changing a compliment into a hyperbolic pejorative, thereby altering its definition. If I call someone a Nimrod, am I insulting them or describing them as a mighty hunter? Could be either. That’s how language works. It’s a consensus, and it changes over time. My definition, while valid, has been superseded; whether the new meaning sticks or is itself replaced is at best a matter of conjecture.

Conservatives think it’s unfair to be judged for not keeping up with the cutting edge of ideologies that they don’t share, and I can’t fault them for their resentment. Social progressives think it’s morally wrong for their critics to subvert their code word meaning “ideologically correct” and turn it into a term of mockery; there, my sympathy is a bit wan. Mockery is a legitimate tool in public debate, and ridicule only sticks where it strikes weakness.

This is one reason why, in academic discussions, it’s wise to avoid hyperbole. Insults as well, of course, but definitely hyperbole. For what it’s worth, I’ve never felt that debate aids discussion at all. It’s an excellent exercise for the entertainment and, often, edification of the audience, but it’s rare that those sincerely engaged in an argument ever hear the other side as anything other than “to be contradicted”. A habit of insulting the opposition can only further decrease the likelihood of being heard.

And so it is without any disrespect for Lead Belly or Marcus Garvey that I can admonish you in turn to “stay woke”: Remain constantly on the alert for anyone who would weaponize honest discussion, attempting to reduce it into a competition of relative virtue by weighing the ideological merits of word selection. Whenever such an accusation is levied, reject the terms of the argument; demand that it be framed honestly with respect to the ideas represented. Above all, beware of self-aggrandizing virtue signalling masquerading as debate — whether in others or in yourself.

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