If You’re Woke You Dig It
In 1962 the young and talented author William Melvin Kelley published an article in The New York Times. He had recently seen a public notice posted in a Manhattan subway car on the subject of encouraging the ridership to help officials keep the car clean. The post was supposedly written in 21 languages; one in particular belied the humorless bureaucratese one would expect: “Hey cats this is your swinging-wheels, so dig it and keep it clean.” Its listed language was Beatnik. Kelley may have been the first to recognize in an essay that “the Negro idiom’ was being co-opted by others, and in this case, the language was attributed to the iconic counter-cultural beat group populating the city streets of New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Along with the article, he compiled the short “‘Saying something’ Lexicon,” which listed “some phrases and words you might hear in Harlem or any other Negro community.” A large number of them are still widely used in American conversation 60 years later, including the word woke.
Woke had been used early in that decade and was part of the language of the civil rights movement; then many years later was incorporated into the Black Lives Matter dialogue. It wasn’t until then that the word caught on in the media and quickly spread across the country with the help of internet social media and 24/7 news. It was a Black idiom that became a national buzzword among youthful social justice supporters and insecure white folk alike. It had become unofficially but thoroughly appropriated.
The problem with woke being appropriated here is not—as Kelley noted—that whites using borrowed idioms are going to be behind the learning curve—not quite nailing the meaning and/or context.
At issue here has been the demonization of the term by demagogic political leaders and firebrand media commentators by erroneously associating it with what they call the “divisive language,” “revisionist history,” and “guilt tripping” of Critical Race Theory, and exaggerating the frequency and the imagery of physical violence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps worse, they have transformed the word to a metaphorical witch’s cauldron into which every perceived cultural illness and aberration is thrown, from the LGBTQ “agenda” of inclusion and promotion of “pornography” now filling children’s textbooks in public schools and libraries, to AP Black Studies programs being taught in high schools, to enforcement of vaccination mandates. Conservative governors in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere, as well as legislators and other government officials use woke as a bitches brew of evil to or from which they can add or extract the poison-du-jour. The simplicity is sinister: everything evil goes in the pot; all good things stay out where we can protect you. Immigrants will take your job and use the social services you pay for. They go like human cattle where craven pols ship them to score political points, but they still remain in the woke pot, along with their enablers.
William Melvin Kelley was like most Black folk in his day finding it mildly amusing listening to their language being clumsily co-opted by people outside of the community. He died in 2017, and by that time probably recognized the innocence of the faux pas on the subway poster relative to the lessons the last years of life brought him.
It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. George Orwell, 1984
The title of this piece is taken from Kelley’s News York Times article. The article is not digitized, and you may need a NYT subscription to access their Timesmachine where it is available as a PDF.
Marty Bankson, Ed.
February 2, 2023