Reading @DouthatNYT on Bethany Mandel: who frets, not about her ignorance of the word/concept of ‘woke’, but about her comments going ‘viral’. Douthat acts as excuse maker.

Queer Atheist comments.

Headline: What It Means to Be Woke

The first paragraph of Douthat’s essay is revelatory:

This week the conservative writer Bethany Mandel had the kind of moment that can happen to anyone who talks in public for a living: While promoting a new book critiquing progressivism, she was asked to define the term “woke” by an interviewer — a reasonable question, but one that made her brain freeze and her words stumble. The viral clip, in turn, yielded an outpouring of arguments about the word itself: Can it be usefully defined? Is it just a right-wing pejorative? Is there any universally accepted label for what it’s trying to describe?

Douthat offers the notion of ‘brain freeze’ as a would be defence of Mandal’s ignorance. Yet the OED offer this definition from 2008:

woke adjective earlier than 2008

View OED entry

#staywoke. In the last few years, the injunction to ‘stay woke’ in the face of racial discrimination or social injustice has ensured that woke, an originally African-American variant of woken or awake, has received wide currency and considerable attention. Woke was among the candidates for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016, when its development and usage were explored by Nicole Holliday for the OxfordWords Blog. The OED is currently seeking any contextual evidence (i.e. not from a glossary or definition) of woke meaning ‘well informed’ or ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’ that dates from earlier than 2008.

Although first recorded in the nineteenth century in the literal sense of ‘awake, not (or no longer) asleep’, figurative use of woke has been traced back to 1962 in a glossary of ‘phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem’. This glossary accompanies a New York Times article titled ‘If you’re woke, you dig it’ by novelist William Melvin Kelley. In it he discusses the constantly shifting street slang used in urban African-American communities and provides the following definition of woke:

Well-informed, up-to-date, (‘Man, I’m woke’).

1962 New York Times Magazine, 20 May, pg. 45

Despite this mid-twentieth century origin, contextual evidence has been difficult to find. The only twentieth-century example we have located is in an extended metaphor from a 1972 play by Barry Beckham that, seemingly by coincidence, anticipates the word’s later use in racial and social contexts:

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.

1972 Barry Beckham, Garvey Lives, prologue, pg. 1

Further contextual evidence next appears in 2008, when American singer-songwriter Erykah Badu used the words ‘I stay woke’ as a refrain to her song Master Teacher. In more recent years it has been particularly associated with the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Because it began existence as a slang term that was more likely to be spoken than written, finding early examples of woke could require consulting unusual sources like transcripts, personal letters, pamphlets, or signs. As mentioned, we are particularly interested in identifying contextual examples in the sense of ‘up-to-date, aware’ or ‘alert to racial and social injustice’ from prior to 2008, but any evidence (even glossarial) earlier than 1962 would help us to enrich the word’s entry in the OED Online.

Can you help us find earlier evidence of woke?

Posted by OED_Editor on 25 June 2017 15.53

Tags: 1960s, 2000s, North American, slang

This might have been the beginning point, on which to start a conversation about ‘woke’. But Mandel seems more concerned about her ignorance being on public display.

Not to forget, that ‘woke’ has become a dismissive epithet, to characterize thoughts, opinions, politics, sexual orientation, gender identity etc. , etc. as beyond the pale of respectable bourgeois discourse. Undeterred Mr. Douthat chatters on, presenting his own essay as a source:

Headline: The Religious Roots of a New Progressive Era

Sub-headline: Welcome to the post-Protestant Reformation.

Queer Atheist

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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