What We Really Mean When We Say "Woke"

There’s more to it than retweeting Jesse Williams—being woke is inextricably tied to being Black in America.

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Complex Original

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From the head nod to the dap, from regional vernaculars to the English Creole once known as Ebonics, black folks share in (and create) an ever-evolving, living English that is at once coded and complicated, simple and straight-forward. The manipulation of language is black folks' birthright: a vital part of our culture as former Africans and, now, as black Americans—we got it honest. Our words strengthen our ties to each other, establishing familial love across the boundaries of blood relation, across state lines and city boundaries, from hoods to projects to suburbs, and even beyond oceans. Our speech gives meaning to the shared complication of navigating American society in a black body—the dual consciousness of being black and being American, but never seen as both, in spite of our contributions to the creation of this country, in spite of our humanity. In this way, African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, is nothing short of living innovation.

When we talk to each other, we bend and stretch English outside of its confines, freeing the possibilities of speaking an English so plain and so simple, we are able to hide the content of our conversations in plain sight. This is purposeful and powerful, a by-product of the way our ancestors found ways to alchemize language into sacred, hidden code that their white slave masters would never be able to crack. What sounded like gibberish ended up being these masters' demise when successful slave revolts were plotted right in front of their faces (see: The Haitian Revolution and Nat Turner’s Rebellion). Furthermore, slaves used the creation of Creole to foster a universal speech that allowed displaced, enslaved West Africans to speak amongst themselves despite being forbidden to speak their native languages and numerous dialects.

According to Nielsen’s The State of the African American Consumer report, Twitter is the most popular social networking site amongst black folk. Twitter is now where a majority of our once-private conversation take place, so a distinct thing is happening to black folks and our language in the age of social media: Everyone is listening to us.

Stay woke, listen and watch Jesse Williams greatness https://t.co/mf23ja6tQl
Jesse Williams is WOKE not "pretend woke" not "overly woke" but actually see what's going on & has called everyone out on it! 🙌🏾👏🏾

I spoke with Dianna Harris, creator of BLK Proverbs—which collects user-generated content documenting black proverbs, idioms, and sayings across the diaspora—to ask for a definition of one of social media's most used and misused words: woke. Harris defines woke as “a way to explain that black people are no longer subscribing to the hegemonic ideas about how we should live. Growing up you just accept things as they are, but as you get older and learn more about how systems operate, it’s harder for you to digest everyday life and they way it’s been given to us. It’s hard living in a society where you as a black person have to accept that you’re starting like twenty miles behind everyone else. It’s hard to exist in that reality.”

Woke is a coming of age, and to be woke is a specific sort of awareness, inextricably tied to the challenge of navigating America in a black body. Woke can also be a specific moment: when you are denied a job or loan because of your "black-sounding” name, when your white partner introduces you as "a friend" or doesn’t introduce you at all, or maybe when a police offer kills another black person in cold blood and you watch society defend the death of someone who could have been you, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. Woke happens when one becomes conscious of these frameworks and works toward sustaining that consciousness over a lifetime.

Woke is a coming of age, and to be woke is a specific sort of awareness, inextricably tied to the challenge of navigating America in a black body.

What the general public now knows as woke, was once referred to as "conscious," and it's existed in the collective black psyche for a very long time. The term and the system of survival it was created in is new only to interlopers. There were "conscious" rappers, "conscious" poets, the "conscious" black person — see Ankh and African necklaces, dashikis and a chosen vegan lifestyle as popular "conscious" archetypes.

Erykah Badu is probably the most mainstream example of a conscious black person. In her requiem, A.D. 2000, written for Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who was extrajudicially executed by NYPD in 1999, Badu sings “This world done changed/Since I’ve been conscious.” Eight years later, Badu expands on her journey to consciousness in Master Teacher, singing “I stay woke,” in reference to the innocence of her daughter who will eventually come to her own awakening of the world; the actual ignorance of religious zealots and extremists; the distractions of romantic love and material things. Badu is ever vigilant, as we should be. 

#StayWoke is a call for vigilance at modern history's height of horror—after the continual murders of unarmed black people and public stoking of overt racism, we are reminding each other of our reality: this country—our home—is still a hostile and dangerous place to navigate.

“The way they treat our experience as novelty is really irritating. Nobody considers what it is to be a black person living in this body … Every day, we have to fix ourselves to be jubilant because you don’t know what we have to survive, literally,” Harris explains. "There is no way to police who uses the content that is created during conversations, especially on social media platforms like Twitter, but white folks and non-black people of color alike, would do good to actively listen to what is being said instead of listening for the purpose of pilfering the creative speech of black people to seem ‘cool’ or ‘relevant’ or ‘hip.’"

this is not what stay woke means. please stop doing this pic.twitter.com/jTvjJAXp8h

Much of what mainstream media writes off as trendy "millennial" speech is actually black vernacular that's often been disregarded as "slang" or "Ebonics" so as not to be taken seriously...that is, until it starts trending or completely bleached of its actual meaning and usage. I’m still not quite sure what Time was attempting to do in alerting us that Frank Ocean’s album might be in on its way. Anyone with two eyes and brain knows we ain’t gettin’ that album for at least another 5 to 10 years, but I do know Time wanted to prove to us just how down they were by misusing AAVE to reference an album by a black artist. There’s levels to this.

Illustrator Richie Pope defines down as "someone who accepts that white supremacy and all of its offshoots, all of its effects, exists and are willing to put their proximity to white privilege on the line for people’s freedom.” In this way, woke has and always will be an integral part of black liberation, so you can’t have that, but you can be down—Down with us. Down with the struggle—but please keep your struggle speech to yourself. ​

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