In The Believer, writer Kashana Cauley examines the origins of the term “woke”:
The Oxford English Dictionary credits William Melvin Kelley with the first printed, political use of woke, in a 1962 New York Times article titled “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” about white cooption of black language. But twenty years earlier, in a 1942 edition of Negro Digest, J. Saunders Redding used the term in an article about labor unions. A black, unionized mine worker told him: “Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.” Barry Beckham’s 1972 play Garvey Lives! is often cited as another early example of the word’s political meaning. A character exclaims, in reference to Marcus Garvey, “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.” This is the version of woke that I grew up with: a call to study and act against anti-black oppression.
(Sidenote: Kathryn Schulz wrote a really interesting piece in the New Yorker about what happened to William Melvin Kelley, noting that he published his debut novel, A Different Drummer, a few weeks after the “woke” op-ed, at the age of 24. He and his wife moved around, from Paris to Jamaica, converted to Judaism, homeschooled their kids, and eventually moved back to the US to settle in Harlem. He was 32 when his last published book was released. “He wrote constantly for the next forty-seven years, never published another book, and died a year ago, at the age of seventy-nine.”)
“Stay woke” sort of hit the wider pop consciousness in 2008 with Erykah Badu’s “Master Teacher Melody” (Listen closely: Is the refrain, “I stay woke” or “I’d stay woke”?):
You can also hear it in Childish Gambino’s 2016 track, “Redbone”:
“Stay Woke” became the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and then hit the mainstream, with (white) people like Jill Stein and, dear lord, Jack Dorsey, using it, causing many to say, “It’s Time To Put ‘Woke’ To Sleep”:
A word meant to imply a constant state of striving, course-correcting and growth has been heard now, for almost a decade, as a static and performative state of being.
In this recent interview with Erykah Badu (who I love, btw), titled, “Erykah Badu Helped Define ‘Wokeness.’ Now She’s a Target,” she talks about her sense of the phrase:
[W]hen we say that it means we just pay attention to what’s going on around us, and are not easily swayed by the media, or by the angry mob, or by the group. You know: Stay focused, pay attention…. Stay woke just means pay attention to everything, don’t lean on your own understanding or anyone else’s, observe, evolve, eliminate things that no longer evolve. That’s what it means. Stay conscious, stay awake. It doesn’t mean judge others. It doesn’t mean gang up on somebody who you feel is not woke. That’s not evolved.