Today, to be conscious about what is going on

 Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I begin
writing my essay on what it means to “stay woke.” This essay was assigned a
week ago; but I am not starting a week late due to procrastination (do not fret
Dr. Kenney my actions are always tactically planned). Instead, I chose to stall
this undertaking because I wanted this paper to have a muse and noble birth. This
paper will have shared the same birthday as one of the most prominent figures of
the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both the subject matter
of this essay and Dr. King’s birthday are rooted in the constant fight for
racial equality amongst blacks in a nation America that consistently takes a
step forward and then two steps back. MLK’s work is clearly unfinished, hence
the reason this viral slang is even in existence.

            To “stay woke,” in the most general
sense, means to be conscious about what is going on around oneself and in one’s
community. This vague definition, however, is only a product of the evolution of
the phrase itself. Its original use can be traced back to 2008, when Erykah
Badu released a song titled Master
Teacher. On this Soul and R record, Badu contemplates a hypothetical
situation in which there were “no niggas” and “only master teachers.” These
lines 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 educated
individuals, the “woke” contributors of society, existed; and one where those
who hinder the progress of society and give blacks a bad reputation –incriminating
other, less “woke” individuals (whether black or white) –were absent. The
repetition of the verse, “I stay woke,” throughout the song, can also be interpreted
as Badu realizing that her dream society is far from existence and that racial
equality is as well. As one can see, based on those three lines alone, Master Teacher is a political song which
is part of a very political album. Badu is credited with bringing this phrase
to mainstream media first.

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            “Stay woke” did not surface again until
2011. This three-year lull consisted of people using the hashtag #staywoke on
twitter denoting literally staying awake. By 2011, nonetheless, people had
begun to dissect the album’s content and “woke’s” non-literal meaning was
revived. The hashtag went viral on Twitter, however, when the punk-rock band, Pussy
Riot, was charged with “hooliganism” and were accused of provoking “religious
hatred” while performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow. The women argued that their
acts were artistic and political in nature, but the Russian government ignored
these statements in court, in what was to become a very public trial. Erykah
Badu 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 remind
others to be observant of social issues.

In the same year as the Pussy Riot scandal, George
Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and the #BlackLivesMatter movement was
organized. Outrage was sparked when Zimmerman was not convicted, and #staywoke was
recycled yet again. This time it was tool utilized by Twitter users as a means
of speaking out about other blacks who had lost their lives and had been
wronged by the justice system. The hope was to spread awareness about such
social injustices, and those who were considered “woke” would take action
against the faulty system. 


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