AAs I write this, I am looking at a fashion magazine with the cover “I woke up custom.” Alongside him, a newspaper supplement features a dating journal of the search for “Mr Woke”. There is a guide to “waking up Christmas” on my desk, and in the adjacent tab is an internet spiel in response to that guide requiring people and publishers to drop everything they write about waking up black writers. In another tab, an article lamenting the “great awakening” of American politics. Meanwhile, on British television, a debate rages between royal correspondents and experts about whether the most polarizing members of the royal family, Meghan and Harry, have in fact woken up too much for their own good.
But what is “awakening”? Most online dictionaries define it as a conscientious perception of inequality and other forms of injustice that are typically racial in nature. Some describe the term as a characteristic of people who are just “with it,” as in all the cool kids you met in college. And increasingly, these days, many use it as a pejorative term to describe someone who is a slave to identity politics. How is it possible that all three are the same? It is a sensitivity, a quality, a state of being, a feeling supported by a set of actions, sometimes all these things at once.
I can’t think of a word that reflects the time as well as “woke up.” There’s its relative novelty (it was born and grew up alongside social media), its popularity as a hashtag, and its political implications and activist leanings. There’s also his journey from black culture to the internet and mainstream news. All these qualities are extremely particular for this moment.
Confession: I don’t like the word (especially since 2016, when MTV declared the new term “on fleek”). Ironic, considering I’m an awakened textbook. I identified with what it was, but winced at what it has come to mean and infuriated at the way the word is now used as a weapon. The disparity forces me to question the term and its evolution. As Susan Sontag writes in “Notes on ‘Camp’“, which inspired this essay, “no one who wholeheartedly shares a certain sensitivity can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, display it. Naming a sensitivity, drawing its contours and telling its story requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion ”. So let’s consider what awakening is and what is not.
1. Woke extends to conversations about art, politics, economic and social class, gender inequality, trans rights, and environmentalism. But awakening in its original incarnation is based on activism and blackness.
2. The essence of awakening is consciousness. What you are aware of recently (a pay gap, systemic racism, unchecked privilege, etc.) and what to do with that newfound knowledge is the question. And the answer keeps changing depending on who you talk to. But through it all, you responded to the wake-up call, pushed yourself out of bed, and now you’re listening.
3. To wake up, in the original sense, is to understand James Baldwin’s statement: “To be black in this country and to be relatively conscientious is to be angry most of the time.” It’s understanding the unique kind of burnout that comes from being perpetually in tune with discrimination. It is being tired and cautious. Waking up is wishing for a day when you don’t have to stay awake.
4. The origin of most dates can be traced back to the American singer-songwriter Erykah Badu’s political anthem medley, “Master Teacher” from her album. New Americah, which he released in 2008. Badu sings about a psychedelic collage of samples on the search for a new plane of enlightenment: “I am known for staying awake / (A beautiful world I’m trying to find).” The word recalls Spike Lee’s famous cry of “Wake up uuuuuuuuup!” in his seminal movie Daze School, as his character, a historically black fictional college student, demands that his fellow sex addicts, who adore fair skin, seek good hair, and awaken to self-hatred and materialism and become aware of injustices in your community. and ideally do something about it.
5. You can find a pocket guide to the essence of awakening in the chorus of Childish Gambino’s single “Redbone,” a funkadelic-style R&B song released in 2016 that cautions, “You better believe in something”. In equal measure, a lustful slow jam and a cautious social commentary implores listeners to resist the comfort of complacency and ignorance or pay the price: “Don’t close your eyes.”
It’s an idea that Jordan Peele expanded upon in his horror movie. Salt, which uses the song in its opening scene. Because, as the movie makes clear, its protagonist is slowly realizing an elaborate plot to co-opt his body and trap his mind in an abyss called the sunken place, the consequences of sleeping are truly horrible. These examples solidified as the mood for a new era, emerging in the wake of the modern horror story that was the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump, a time when our freedoms can feel as though they are in game. Stay awake Don’t get caught. Don’t be hypnotized. Do not close your eyes.
6. The goal is to wake up and then stay that way. For example, be on your guard, ready to actively acknowledge, call out, and resist prejudice, fake news, and inequalities as they arise, as members of the Black Lives Matter movement do, by posting smartphone images of illegal killings, assaults and arrests, sometimes using the hashtag #StayWoke, and campaigning for legislative change. Waking up is serious business. It is often said out loud with a clenched and raised fist reminiscent of the famous black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
7. Despite its ever-changing nature and twisted journey, awakening is inextricably linked with the rise of black consciousness, which has never really gone away, but has had waves and waves. But can you be awake and not black?
8. If you believe in BuzzFeed, awakening is also the much-needed awakening of the privileged to all manner of social ills and the willingness to denounce them, usually in the form of a white, cisgender, heteronormative male who acknowledges that other non-white Cisgender, heteronormative, and masculine people are often denied equal rights, treatment, and pay. See website love letter to Orange is the new black star Matt McGorry, self-proclaimed feminist and BLM supporter: “Can we talk about how Matt McGorry woke up in 2015?“
9. Woke is also actress Anne Hathaway speaking out against the murder of black teenager Nia Wilson and challenging white people to verify their privilege and acknowledge: “Blacks fear for their lives every day in America.”
10. Tarana Burke also woke up by making the #MeToo hashtag go viral and inspiring hundreds of thousands of women to acknowledge and express their experiences of sexual assault.
11. Waking up is also a punchline. An ending nod to an online joke that mocks the perception of justice worthy of awakening culture. The satire material is usually spoken aloud with gestured air quotes.
12. Awakening is often the result of cultural appropriation, which is tragically ironic, given that this is one of the things against which the act of staying awake would be on high alert. See Wake’s journey from black political circles to white internet slang through the headlines of the mainstream media. See also the Evening Standard “alarm clock”, which measured people on a scale from “asleep” (Theresa May) to “awake” (JK Rowling)… and did not include people of color.
13. Not only has a political state of mind been awakened, it has become commercialized. When Nike introduced Colin Kaepernick, the NFL star who protested police brutality by refusing to defend the national anthem during his nationally televised games, many accused the brand of waking up, the act of profiting from the social justice.
14. But awakening is more powerful and valuable when it is lived and not mentioned. When it is not seen as a quality to be proud of. Martin Luther King Jr, Steve Biko and Angela Davis did not declare themselves activists, they did not have to, their actions defined them. Awakened people know that they should not describe themselves as awake and that they do not need to.
15. Woke has become a weapon, used in conservative media circles as an insult, often in quotes, to mean rigid, uptight, and socially and politically puritanical. When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex decided to step away from their roles, the Daily Mail complained that Harry went from being a “fun-loving guy to being the Prince of Woke.”
16. One must always distinguish between awakening as a serious state of mind and awakening as satire. The latter almost always makes fun of the former. The latter is also the most irritating due to its presumption. Example: “Garnet is only navy red. #staywake “.
17. Dropping the word “wake up” in a conversation between strangers in a social setting is a fairly easy way to determine where someone sits on the political spectrum without spending too much time in awkward debates. Just watch out for nods, stiff smiles, or rolling eyes.
18. Some have tried to recapture the awakening of internet misuse, key phrases and clickbait in the spirit of black consciousness.
19. Awakening is often combined with youthful outrage and optimism. Check out the dozens of students who participated in the People’s Vote march against Brexit in the UK last year, or the March for Our Lives against gun violence in the US the year before. Also witness the record number of young people who have entered politics in recent years, from Mhairi Black to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
20. Ultimately, awakening is rooted in love – self, family, humanity – just as injustice is rooted in hate.
21. Despite its inherently pessimistic nature, awakening is hopeful. Searching for the beautiful world of Badu requires the belief that one is out there, or at least capable of being created.
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Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.