Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I beginwriting my essay on what it means to “stay woke.” This essay was assigned aweek ago; but I am not starting a week late due to procrastination (do not fretDr.
Kenney my actions are always tactically planned). Instead, I chose to stallthis undertaking because I wanted this paper to have a muse and noble birth. Thispaper will have shared the same birthday as one of the most prominent figures ofthe civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both the subject matterof this essay and Dr. King’s birthday are rooted in the constant fight forracial equality amongst blacks in a nation America that consistently takes astep forward and then two steps back. MLK’s work is clearly unfinished, hencethe reason this viral slang is even in existence.
To “stay woke,” in the most generalsense, means to be conscious about what is going on around oneself and in one’scommunity. This vague definition, however, is only a product of the evolution ofthe phrase itself. Its original use can be traced back to 2008, when ErykahBadu released a song titled MasterTeacher. On this Soul and R record, Badu contemplates a hypotheticalsituation in which there were “no niggas” and “only master teachers.
” Theselines are followed by a chorus that sings, “I stay woke.” Annotated by many,these lines can be interpreted as Badu’s longing for a world in which only educatedindividuals, the “woke” contributors of society, existed; and one where thosewho hinder the progress of society and give blacks a bad reputation –incriminatingother, less “woke” individuals (whether black or white) –were absent. Therepetition of the verse, “I stay woke,” throughout the song, can also be interpretedas Badu realizing that her dream society is far from existence and that racialequality is as well. As one can see, based on those three lines alone, Master Teacher is a political song whichis part of a very political album. Badu is credited with bringing this phraseto mainstream media first. “Stay woke” did not surface again until2011.
This three-year lull consisted of people using the hashtag #staywoke ontwitter denoting literally staying awake. By 2011, nonetheless, people hadbegun to dissect the album’s content and “woke’s” non-literal meaning wasrevived. The hashtag went viral on Twitter, however, when the punk-rock band, PussyRiot, was charged with “hooliganism” and were accused of provoking “religioushatred” while performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow. The women argued that theiracts were artistic and political in nature, but the Russian government ignoredthese statements in court, in what was to become a very public trial.
ErykahBadu tweeted in support of the women, asking people to stay woke about the issue.Others followed on Twitter, and stay woke became the hashtag used to remindothers to be observant of social issues. In the same year as the Pussy Riot scandal, GeorgeZimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and the #BlackLivesMatter movement wasorganized. Outrage was sparked when Zimmerman was not convicted, and #staywoke wasrecycled yet again. This time it was tool utilized by Twitter users as a meansof speaking out about other blacks who had lost their lives and had beenwronged by the justice system. The hope was to spread awareness about suchsocial injustices, and those who were considered “woke” would take actionagainst the faulty system.