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What Does "Stay Woke" Mean?

Aug 12, 2022


Terms such as “woke,” “wokeness,” “stay woke” and even the hashtag “#StayWoke” have become part of the mainstream vocabulary.

The dictionary defines “woke” as being alert to injustice in society, especially racism. But before looking at the meaning of the word today, let us look at its historical evolution.

Historically, the term “stay woke” has been used as a warning of particular significance for Blacks. For example:

  • In 1923, Jamaican philosopher and social activist, Marcus Garvey, said “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa” as a call for global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious.
  • In 1938, the song Scottsboro Boys, by Blues musician Lead Belly, described the saga of a group of nine young Black men who were wrongly accused of raping two White women. He used “stay woke” as a warning to Blacks to be aware of racially motivated threats.
  • In 1962, William Melvin Kelly wrote a piece for the New York Times called “If You’re Woke You Did it.” In it, Kelly implies that “to be woke,” is to be a socially conscious Black American and to have knowledge of social issues, especially violence against Blacks.
  • In 2014, after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, “stay woke” was used as a warning against police brutality. During the Ferguson protests, the hashtag #StayWoke was being used not only online but also in street signs and merchandising.
  • In 2017, “being Woke” was being used in a political context. In fact, it appeared on many signs during the women’s march that happened that year. 

While the Black community has always used the term as a cry against racism and injustice, as the term hit mainstream and it started being used by those outside the Black community, it lost some of its original meaning. 

Today, for some “to be woke” means you are a social justice advocate. For others, though, “woke” is political correctness gone awry. In fact, Boston Globe columnist, Alex Beam, wrote that “the real purpose of “woke” is to divide the world…” 

Here is what you need to keep in mind about “stay woke”:

  1.  Remember the historical origin of the word. It was first used as a warning to Blacks to “stay woke” against the many injustices they could and still face in society. If you want to deepen your understanding in this area, read Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, by Dr. Joy Degruy. You need to stay informed! 
  1. As the word was appropriated by other groups, it took on many different meanings. Some see “wokeness” as a religious experience, others connect it to Critical Race Theory and even DEI. In addition, depending on your political leaning, “stay woke” can carry a positive (i.e., we are fighting for social justice) or negative (i.e., it is dividing us) 
  1.  If you are going to use it, do not use in a vacuum. Make sure you are indeed standing for social justice and that you are actively working towards a more equitable society. This will require a lot of commitment, hard work, and dedication on your part. 


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