Article

What Are the Origins of the Term 'Stay Woke'?

The phrase was used in a 1938 recording by Black folk singer Lead Belly.

Published June 1, 2023

Portrait of Bunk Johnson, Lead Belly, George Lewis, and Alcide Pavageau in the Stuyvesant Casino, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1946. (The Library of Congress )
Portrait of Bunk Johnson, Lead Belly, George Lewis, and Alcide Pavageau in the Stuyvesant Casino, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1946. (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress )

The word "woke" is broadly used to describe a state of being "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues especially of racial and social injustice" according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. While it originated from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the early part of the 20th century, the term has become a common part of American slang. 

Its usage has evolved and grown so much that conservatives now use it as a pejorative to refer to progressives or left-leaning liberals. 

The phrase "stay woke" has long been used in Black communities to indicate staying alert to others' deception--especially law enforcement--as a survival mechanism, but in 2014 "stay woke" became common usage among Black Lives Matter activists after the police killing of Michael Brown, bringing it into the wider lexicon.  

Radio host Lana Quest wrote on Twitter that the first documented usage of the term "stay woke" was by Black folk singer Lead Belly when he was talking about his 1938 song "Scottsboro Boys." According to Quest, the song referred to "nine Black teens falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931, [who] were sentenced to death. NAACP forced repeated retrials. They were finally freed but never recovered."

In an interview about the song, Lead Belly—who was born Huddie Ledbetter—said, "Stay woke, keep your eyes open."

Lead Belly does indeed use these words when discussing the song, as heard in this archival recording from the Smithsonian. A free version of the recording is available on YouTube, and he can be heard using the phrase at the 4:30 mark:

The song refers to the real-life incident in 1931 involving nine Black teens who were wrongfully convicted for allegedly raping two white women. The case is considered to be one of the first prominent examples of how the U.S. justice system treated Black people, and was said to have inspired Harper Lee who went on to write "To Kill a Mockingbird."  

However, is that the first documented use of the phrase? We looked at early recorded uses of "woke" and "stay woke" and found that while this is possibly the first recorded usage of the phrase, there could be numerous other examples that we just have not come across yet. 

Merriam-Webster, which included "woke" in its dictionary in 2017, stated about the word: "It can be hard to trace slang back to its origins since slang's origins are usually spoken, and it can be particularly difficult to trace a slang word that has its origins in a dialect. Woke's transformation into a byword of social awareness likely started decades earlier but began to be more broadly known in 2008, with the release of Erykah Badu's song "Master Teacher"."

Bijan C. Baynes, a columnist, argued in the Washington Post that the concept of "wokeness" first emerged through the Nation of Islam that was formed in Detroit in 1930. The group said that the Black community needed a spiritual awakening from its state of mental sleep.   

In "The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey," a compilation of the words of activist Marcus Garvey, first published in 1923, he stated, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations." In this case he was calling on Black people globally to become more socially and politically conscious. 

A 1943 story by J. Saunders Redding in The Atlantic described a great "awakening" among Black people in the North and South, evidenced by growing unrest and labor organizing. He details a 1940 exchange with an official in the Negro United Mine Workers of West Virginia, who said to him, "Let me tell you, buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we'll stay woke up longer."

In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech to graduates of Morehouse College, an historically Black men's liberal arts college, titled, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution." In the speech he called on graduates to strive for greater success (emphasis, ours):

Now the great question facing us today is whether we will remain awake through this worldshaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand. There would be nothing more tragic during this period than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place. May I suggest a few of the the changed responses that we must make in order to remain awake during this great revolution [...]
 
In this new age that is emerging we will be forced to compete with people of all races and nationalities. Therefore, we cannot aim merely to be good Negro teachers, good Negro doctors, good Negro ministers, good Negro skilled labours. Maybe that was alright in the past. But today if you are merely seeking to do a good Negro job, you have already failed your [strikeout illegible] matriculation examination for entrance into the university of integration. You have failed to remain awake through a great revolution.

At the time, King was becoming a pariah, who had been a subject of investigation by the FBI due to his activism.

In 1962, Black novelist William Melvin Kelley wrote about the term "woke" in The New York Times, titled "If You're Woke You Dig it." He described the phrase as a "Negro idiom":

The Negro's pride in this idiom is that of a man who watches someone else do ineptly what he can do well. The Negro laughs at white people who try to use his language. He experiences the same glee when he witnesses a white audience at a jazz concert clapping on the first and third beat.

Today both the usage of "woke" and the phrase "stay woke" have become so common that many do not remember its origins in AAVE. While it is difficult to determine the first use of the phrase "stay woke," it has been recorded a number of times through the 20th century and is an important call to action for the Black community.

Sources

Bump, Philip. "Analysis | The Emergence of 'Woke' as a Pejorative Masks a Deeper Insecurity." Washington Post, 7 Oct. 2021. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/10/01/emergence-woke-pejorative-masks-deeper-insecurity/. Accessed 1 June 2023.

George, Alice. "Who Were the Scottsboro Nine?" Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/who-were-scottsboro-nine-180977193/. Accessed 1 June 2023.

Harriot, Michael. "War on Wokeness: The Year the Right Rallied around a Made-up Menace." The Guardian, 21 Dec. 2022. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/dec/20/anti-woke-race-america-history. Accessed 1 June 2023.

Light, Alan. "Lead Belly, Folk-Music Giant, Has a Smithsonian Moment." The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2015. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/arts/music/lead-belly-folk-music-giant-has-a-smithsonian-moment.html. Accessed 22 June 2023.

Miles, Linda. LibGuides: LAC 118 - Caribbean Society and Culture - Textbook: 5.1 Marcus Garvey. https://guides.hostos.cuny.edu/lac118/5-1. Accessed 1 June 2023.

"Opinion | How 'Woke' Became the Least Woke Word in U.S. English." Washington Post, 2 Feb. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/02/02/black-history-woke-appropriation-misuse/. Accessed 1 June 2023.

Redding, J. Saunders. "A Negro Speaks for His People." The Atlantic, 1 Mar. 1943, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1943/03/a-negro-speaks-for-his-people/657170/. Accessed 1 June 2023.

"'Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,' Address at Morehouse College Commencement." The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 27 Jan. 2015, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/remaining-awake-through-great-revolution-address-morehouse-college. Accessed 1 June 2023.

Romano, Aja. "How Being 'Woke' Lost Its Meaning." Vox, 9 Oct. 2020, https://www.vox.com/culture/21437879/stay-woke-wokeness-history-origin-evolution-controversy. Accessed 1 June 2023.

"Scottsboro Boys." Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, https://folkways.si.edu/lead-belly/scottsboro-boys/track/music/smithsonian. Accessed 1 June 2023.

"Stay Woke." https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/woke-meaning-origin. Accessed 1 June 2023.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.