When did we wake up to ‘woke’? Skip to content

When did we wake up to ‘woke’?

Spoiler alert – It wasn’t this year. Or even this decade.

3 min read
Photo by Library of Congress / Unsplash

Everyone has seen multiple examples of rage-filled right-wingers floundering with defining woke. Probably the funniest example is that video of Bethany Mandel. Despite being the author of a book purporting to advise parents on how to protect their kids from wokeism titled Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence And Indoctrinating A Generation, Mandel couldn’t really do it.

Now, a lot of people growling about woke know better than define it because, to them, it is a euphemism for “gay lover” or “n-word lover.” Just look at the books they’re targeting: books featuring gay or transgender characters or books on Black history. In Texas, Maus was banned because the animals appear naked. You know, just like in nearly every children’s book. I’m sure the fact that Maus I and II is about the Holocaust, so for many woke is also a euphemism for “antisemite.” Why, even Charlotte’s Web was targeted in Kansas!

But others, like our very own Daniel Cameron, realize they need to prepare for what shouldn’t be a gotcha question but is. He and others have cobbled together a word salad based on unreality to spew when asked about woke. So I propose we instead ask a different question: “When did wokeism begin?” The response is likely to be with President Barack Obama, or with President Bill Clinton. Or maybe with the 1960s. Which is what makes this question — “When did wokeism begin?” — the ultimate gotcha question.

Because what they call “woke” predates even the 1960s. Is Dr. Martin Luther King woke? In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he wrote: “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Sure sounds like BLM, diversity, equity, and intersectionality to me!

Were all those male actors dressing up as women, going back to the dawn of film — Charlie Chaplin and his brother Syd Chaplin, Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, Cary Grant, Will Hay, Jack Benny, Alec Guinness, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Anthony Perkins, Milton Berle, Red Skelton — woke? They must have been! As must have been Peter Tchaikovsky, since Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker is always played by a man.

Was Woody Guthrie woke? The singer-songwriter, who died in 1967, wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” an American standard; one of its stanzas, frequently omitted, is this one:

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

But Woody’s wokeness doesn’t end there. Just look at “All You Fascists” (promotes protest marches and unions, and lambastes voter suppression), “Blinding of Isaac Woodward” (racist police brutality), “The Government Road” (in support of Big Government), “Hobo’s Lullaby” (defund the police), “Pretty Boy Floyd” (compares bankers and businessmen unfavorably to bank robbers), “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” (better treatment of immigrants), and “Old Man Trump” and “I Don’t Like the Way This World’s A-Treatin’ Me” (diatribes against Fred Trump, The Donald’s dad). Sounds pretty woke to me!

Is the Pledge of Allegiance woke? Of course it is! The pledge, written in 1892 by socialist Reverend Francis Bellamy, upholds “liberty and justice for all” — obviously a nod toward diversity, equity, and definitely inclusion.

Not to belabor this by-now obvious point, I’m going to skip the obviously woke 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution and jump all the way to the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson’s greatest work declares that “all men are created equal.” If that’s not equity — at least for males — what is?

Maybe a part of America has always been woke. Maybe that portion is getting bigger and bigger. Maybe what we’re witnessing isn’t righteous indignation, as the Right would have you believe, but fear. Fear of America finally matching its words with deeds.


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Ivonne Rovira

Ivonne is the research director for Save Our Schools Kentucky. She previously worked for The Miami Herald, the Miami News, and The Associated Press. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)