The Real Origins of ‘Woke’

Richard C. Gross
4 min readMar 31, 2023

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BY RICHARD C. GROSS

“Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.”

— Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist, essayist, 1817–1862, Walden

If you think you’re woke, not to fret. It’s not something bad. The right-wing appropriated the leftist word just to mouth it against the liberals — the “libs” — like a curse word.

The rightists do that. They’re adept at interpreting good as bad, right as wrong, converting a compliment into a curse, a principle about political awareness into criticism and scorn. And probably most conservatives don’t even know what woke means. Because they’re the opposite of woke.

Here’s an example: Conservative columnist Bethany Mandel of the Deseret News of Salt Lake City and co-author of “Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation.”

Briahna Joy Gray of the online interview program Rising (aired by The Hill newspaper), asked Mandel how she defines woke in her book.

“So, I mean, woke is — w — sort of — the idea that — um. I mean, woke is something that’s very hard to define, and we’ve spent an entire chapter defining it. It is sort of the understanding that we need to totally reimagine and reduce society in order to create hierarchies of oppression. Um, sorry, I — it’s hard to explain in a 15-second soundbite.”

No, it’s not. It merely means to be aware of what’s happening in the world around you, though that’s shorthand, way oversimplified. I’ll hone it further.

Trump, of course, gave woke a derogatory twist: “You know what woke means, it means you’re a loser . . . Everything woke turns to sh — .” Typical Trump, who imparts to others all of his own faults.

The origin of “woke” apparently appeared first with the phrase “stay woke.” It surfaced among Blacks in the 1930s. It meant in part to caution Blacks to be alert to political issues affecting African Americans.

Huddie Ledbetter, a Black blues and folk singer more famously known as Lead Belly, picked up on “stay woke” in recording a song he wrote called “Scottsboro Boys.” It referred to nine Black teens falsely accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Ala. in 1931. Both women recanted their accusations during testimony at the boys’ trial. One admitted they accused the teens to avoid being arrested for vagrancy.

Nevertheless, eight were convicted and sentenced to death. None were executed. Gov. George Wallace pardoned the ninth in 1976. Gov. Robert Bentley pardoned the remaining eight posthumously in 2013.

“I made this little song about down there. I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there (Scottsboro) — best stay woke, keep their eyes open,” Lead Belly said in his 1938 recording, after the song had been sung.

But, Andre Henry, a Black musician and columnist for Religion News Service, defined “woke” in a captivating piece as a Black “code word” that leaked “into popular discourse.” That’s when demonstrations erupted after a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

Until then, he wrote, “the meaning of ‘woke’ had remained safe within the confines of Black barbershops, pulpits, patio tables where wrinkled brown fingers slam down dominoes, and other safe places where Black people congregate and talk about life in this anti-Black world.

“It was virtually uncontested as shorthand for political and social awareness.”

So, are white racists, whom Henry equated with fascists, using “woke” as a slur against Blacks if, as Gov. Ron DeSantis says, “Florida is where woke goes to die?” What does that mean for the nearly four million Blacks in the Sunshine State of 24 million? DeSantis took the sun away, turned Florida cloudy.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini coined the word “fascism” in 1919 to describe his political movement. Henry in his column refers to Yale philosopher Jason Stanley’s 2018 book, “How Fascism Works.” He wrote, “fascists aren’t served by the truth, as they draw power from maintaining a state of unreality.”

Sound surreal? See QAnon and all of the other mythical conspiracy nonsense out there, especially on social media. And there are people who believe that crap.

White supremacist “myth is meant to maintain white anxiety about racial takeover, so they’ll keep supporting anti-democratic policies and voting for anti-democratic politicians such as” DeSantis and Trump.

“To preserve their power,” Henry wrote, “the champions of white racism don’t need to define woke, only to create an experience around it. It should feel like a shark in the water only news pundits and politicians can see, leaving Americans vulnerable to manipulation.”

Isn’t that precisely what happened beginning in 2015 when Trump rode down that faux gold escalator in his New York building to announce his candidacy for president? Like Caesar crossing the Rubicon?

DeSantis and the MAGA Republican racists may be going in the wrong direction by attacking “woke.” It could mean negative ramifications for them in a general election because a recent poll shows Americans view the loaded word as positive, meaning being aware of social injustice.

Fully 56 percent of respondents in a recent USA/Ipsos poll said to be “woke” is “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.” Another 39 percent agreed with the Republican conservative definition “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.”

Not only are right-wing Republicans against history but they’re against current American thinking as well. Good luck in 2024, especially with a known liar of a leader who soon may be indicted.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East, the Pentagon and was foreign editor of United Press International, was the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.

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Richard C. Gross

Correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor at home and abroad with United Press International. Retired as opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.