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Being ‘Woke’ to Racial Injustices in The United States Has a Long History

For Black people, the modern-day meaning of the word has little to do with school curriculum or political jargon and goes back to the days of Jim Crow and legal, often violent, racial segregation.
Demonstrators march on Jan. 1, 1934, in Washington against the unjust trials of nine Black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Bettmann/Getty Images

Written by Ronald E. Hall, Michigan State University

If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had his way, the word “woke” would be banished from public use and memory.

As he promised in Iowa in December 2023 during his failed presidential campaign, “We will fight the woke in education, we will fight the woke in the corporations, we will fight the woke in the halls of Congress. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob.”

DeSantis’ war on “woke ideology” has resulted in the banning of an advanced placement class in African American studies and the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs in Florida’s universities and colleges.

READ: Making Sense of Florida’s Nonsensical History Curriculum

Given the origins of the use of the word as a code among Black people, DeSantis has a nearly impossible task, despite his tireless efforts.

For Black people, the modern-day meaning of the word has little to do with school curriculum or political jargon and goes back to the days of Jim Crow and legal, often violent, racial segregation. Back then, the word was used as a warning to be aware of racial injustices in general and Southern white folks in particular.

In my view as a behavioral scientist who studies race, being woke was part of the unwritten vocabulary that Black people established to talk with each other in a way that outsiders could not understand.

The Early Days of Wokeness

It’s unclear when exactly “woke” became a word of Black consciousness. Examples of its use – in various forms of the word “awake” – date back to before the Civil War in Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first Black-owned newspaper.

In their introductory editorial on April 21, 1827, the editors wrote that their mission was to “plead our own cause.” Part of that mission was offering analysis on the state of educating enslaved Black people who were prohibited from learning how to read and write.

Because education and literacy were “of the highest importance,” the editors wrote, it was “surely time that we should awake from this lethargy of years” during enslavement.

READ: The Culture Wars Are Wars of White Supremacy

By the turn of the 20th century, the use of versions of the word “woke” by other Black newspaper editors expanded to include the fight for Black voting rights. In a 1904 editorial in the Baltimore Afro-American, for instance, the editors urged Black people to “Wake up, wake up!” and demand full-citizenship rights.

By 1919, Black nationalist Marcus Garvey frequently used a version of the word in his speeches and newspaper, The Negro World, as a clarion call to Black people to become more socially and politically conscious: “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!”

At around the same time, blues singers were using the word to hide protest messages in the language of love songs. On the surface, Willard “Ramblin’” Thomas laments a lost love in “Sawmill Moan”:

If I don’t go crazy, I’m sure gonna lose my mind ‘Cause I can’t sleep for dreamin’, sure can’t stay woke for cryin’

But instead of a love song, some historians have suggested that the lyrics were a veiled protest against the atrocious conditions faced by Black workers in Southern sawmills.

READ: Anti-Critical Race Theory hysteria revives McCarthyism, Klan politics

The song given the most credit by historians for the use of the word woke was written and performed in 1938 by Huddie Leadbetter, known as Lead Belly. He advises his listeners to “stay woke” lest they run afoul of white authority.

In an archived interview about the song “Scottsboro Boys,” Lead Belly explained how tough it was at the time for Black people in Alabama.

“It’s a hard world down there in Alabama,” Lead Belly said. “I made this little song about down there. … I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

Lead Belly explains his “stay woke” advice to Black people at the 4:30 mark.

And that’s the message that came out in the song lyrics:

“Go to Alabama and ya better watch out The landlord’ll get ya, gonna jump and shout Scottsboro Scottsboro Scottsboro boys Tell ya what it all about.”

A Miscarriage of Justice

image 6 - Bucks County Beacon - Being 'Woke' to Racial Injustices in The United States Has a Long History
National Guard troops protect members of the Scottsboro Boys as they enter an Alabama courtroom on Jan. 1, 1932. Bettmann/GettyImages

Based on their words, the nine Black men – ages 12 to 19 years old – were immediately arrested and in less than two weeks, all were tried, convicted, and with one exception, sentenced to death.

All the cases were appealed and eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 1932 Powell v. Alabama decision, the court overturned the verdicts in part because prosecutors excluded potential Black jurors from serving during the trial. But instead of freedom, the cases were retried – and each of the “Scottsboro Boys” was found guilty again.

There were four more trials, seven retrials and, in 1935, two landmark Supreme Court decisions – one requiring that defendants be tried by juries of their peers and the other requiring that indigent defendants receive competent counsel.

The nine young men spent a combined total of 130 years in prison. The last was released in 1950. By 2013, all were exonerated.

How Woke Became a Four-Letter Word

Over the years, the memory of the Scottsboro Boys has remained a part of Black consciousness and of staying woke. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. used a version of woke during his commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965.

“The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution,” he said.

In recent times, use of the word has ebbed and flowed throughout Black culture but became popular again in 2014 during the protest marches organized by Black Lives Matter in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Two years later, a documentary on the group was called “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.”

But for GOP lawmakers and conservative talk show pundits, such as DeSantis, “woke” is a pejorative word used to describe those who believe that systemic racism exists in America and remains at the heart of the nation’s racial shortcomings.

When asked to define the term in June 2023, DeSantis explained: “It’s a form of cultural Marxism. It’s about putting merit and achievement behind identity politics, and it’s basically a war on the truth.”

DeSantis couldn’t be more wrong. The truth is that being aware of America’s racist past cannot be dictated by conservative politicians. Civic literacy requires an understanding of the social causes and consequences of human behavior – the very essence of being woke.

Ronald E. Hall is Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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