“Stay woke” is the title of a new Black Lives Matter documentary on BET. Many of us, even those in BET’s target demographic, might have to work to process what “woke” even means here. For the record, it’s “awake” as rendered in Black English, as in taking the regular past tense form “woke” as in “woke up” and fashioning it as a participle. But the reference here is not to coming out of sleep, but rather being attuned to the realities, the truths — specifically the political ones. One must be “woke” about, for example, the notion that “black lives matter.”
In short, it’s political correctness, revamped for 2016, and rendered in black vernacular.
Black lives do matter, of course — a lot. But this new usage of “woke” signals a linguistic, and by extension sociological, revolution in how many Americans process black speech. To the extent that this usage of “woke” has leaped from a mannerism local to Black Twitter about 10 minutes ago to young mainstream slang, we are seeing evidence that America is much more receptive to “the black thing” than we are often told.
Even if on a certain level we think of black casual speech as riddled with “errors” — though, we shouldn’t — on another level we hear it as truth. The white pop singer who wants to become famous must enunciate with a Southern black cadence to some extent. Have you noticed how many voiceover artists for faceless institutions, like banks and medicines, are now black ones? Don’t feel guilty for subconsciously sussing that out (it’s scientifically proven that there is, indeed, a “black” way of sounding), and today it’s good capitalism, not to mention enlightened. “Woke,” even.
None of this is surprising, as humans in modern societies go. Casual speech, that of the folk, the ordinary people with nothing to lose, is always heard as genuine. It has always been thus — “woke” is just the latest. Time was that Jonathan Swift bemoaned that people were saying “rebuk’d” instead of “rebyuk-ed.” That’s how past tense verbs were pronounced at first, like “bless-ed” is today. But while at first clipping the “-ed” sounded vulgar, the plebes triumphed, and now we read Swift as a snob.
Of course, the overtones of “woke” have their downsides. One might suppose that whatever the folk think is automatically correct — as in the “wisdom of crowds” we hear so much about. But, then again, certain crowds are voting for Donald Trump. Crowds are, apparently, not always so wise. In the same way, the wisdom of “wokeness” is hardly beyond question.
“Woke” might be taken as having the same meaning as “politically correct” had in 1984, the first time I heard that term used by a roommate using it to mean “having the Democrats’ liberal views we all know are the right ones.” This was before “PC” was something that had irritated anyone.
But here, 30 years later, when Black Lives Matter bills its ideology as “woke,” not everyone is on board. Some, perhaps, won’t agree that racist cops are a bigger danger to young black men than other young black men, who kill far more. Adherents of “wokeness” would shout down such an observation as backward — despite the fact that it reflects reality.
“Woke” is, in that light, today’s version of my roommate’s “politically correct” — an implication that there is a political take that is beyond reasonable question, a product of waking up from slumber. A failure to be “woke,” then, is a failure to grasp an undeniable truth, one in no need of rational justification.
In 2016, that sentiment is conveyed through Black English rather than a classical locution such as “politically correct.” Twenty years ago such a term could never have acquired purchase. But today, Black Language Matters.
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.