Dictionaries tell us that woke refers to a sensitivity to injustice, racial and otherwise. This definition is incomplete. Yes, what divides the woke from the unwoke (and the fake woke) is often the tough question of what constitutes injustice; but experience suggests that the dividing line is more often about the appropriate response once injustice is spotted.
Like so many words we twist to political advantage — “patriotism” comes to mind; so does “un-American” — “woke” possesses a daunting fluidity. What the word encompassed yesterday will be enlarged when tomorrow dawns. Depending on where you sit, this aspect may be a feature or a bug. For the wordsmith, it presents an irresistible challenge.
Those who’ve searched for woke’s origin have coalesced around a particular story. In this tale, the trail stretches backward from the present day to a 1962 article in the New York Times Magazine by the novelist William Melvin Kelley, then to a 1940 quotation from a Black United Mineworkers official, next to a 1938 song by Huddie Leadbetter, known as Lead Belly, in which he advises his listeners to “stay woke” lest they run afoul of White authority, and then to a 1923 volume of Marcus Garvey’s aphorisms in which he beseeches his readers,“Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up, Africa!”
Given this origin story, some observers have berated progressives for appropriating a term coined by Black activists. Kelly’s 1962 essay in the Times addressed this very subject. Titled, “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” the piece argued that Black people living in a White world needed a way to talk to each other that outsiders would not understand. Each time a word entered the mainstream, he wrote, “the Negro knows that part of his code is being broken.”
Kelly’s point is powerful, but the etymology of “woke” doesn’t quite fit his thesis. Even granting the proposition that a race can “own” a word, a better description of where the term came from would acknowledge that it’s been traded back and forth.
To begin with, Garvey isn’t relevant. True, the phrase appears in the aforementioned 1923 volume, but there’s no evidence that “woke” was associated with him by the Black public of the day. Small wonder, given that Garvey was merely borrowing a term Black leaders had long ago adopted. Examples abound. “Wake up, wake up!” cried a 1904 editorial in the Baltimore Afro-American on the subject of voting rights. “Race in Chicago Must Wake Up!” was the headline on a 1912 essay in the Chicago Defender, arguing that there was more Black activism in Florida than Illinois.
As for Lead Belly, his 1938 usage of “woke” was likely a repurposing of the key line in “Sawmill Moan,” a song recorded a decade earlier by the great blues artist Willard “Ramblin’” Thomas:
“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.’”(1)
Although on the surface the song laments a lost love, historians have suggested that the lyrics were a veiled protest against the atrocious conditions faced by Black workers in Southern sawmills, where Thomas and other blues artists often performed.
This interpretation makes sense, and not only because blues songs often included hidden meanings representing opposition to cultural norms, particularly norms about race. The timing is also right. Black mill workers had previously been transients whose principal occupation was farming, but by 1928, when Thomas’s song was released, they were flooding into the permanent workforce in the Southern lumber industry. There they suffered exactly the indignities one would predict. As the historian William P. Jones notes, mill owners believed “that the only way to secure labor from a Black man was to ‘keep him broke.’”
There’s an additional reason to give Thomas rather than Lead Belly the credit. The worry about pain so great that one cannot “stay woke” is consistent with the idiom of the labor movement of the day, which well before the song became popular had already adopted “wake up” as a common trope. A 1903 editorial in a socialist paper urged the working class to “wake up” and recognize “that you have nothing that they may have much.” In 1918, a union magazine celebrated a new contract with these words: “[A]fter being asleep for a long time, like Rip Van Winkle, we finally woke up.” And again, the time line fits: When Thomas’s song was released on the eve of the Depression, the 1912 massacre of protesting mill workers in Bon Ami, Louisiana, was still fresh in memory.
Thus, the proper way to understand the history of our current usage of “woke” is that the metaphor was popularized by the labor movement, then borrowed by Black activists early in the 20th century before bursting into blues music in the 1920s. But the word remained a part of labor discourse all along, and is still used by organizers today. Moreover, for all that we identify the metaphor with a particular politics, it carries much the same meaning in everyday conversation. (“Wake up and smell the coffee.”)
We study etymologies so that we might use language to unlock history. Here the history is far more complex than the commonly accepted origin story suggests. So whether or not wokeness has passed its peak, understanding how the word first came to be adopted by activists more than a century ago suggests it will remain a part of our political conversation in 2023 — and for decades to come.
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(1) This line in turn might have repurposed by Caliban’s memorable soliloquy in The Tempest, Act III, scene 2.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of law at Yale University, he is author, most recently, of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
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