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woke adjective earlier than 2008

#staywoke. In the last few years, the injunction to ‘stay woke’ in the face of racial discrimination or social injustice has ensured that woke, an originally African-American variant of woken or awake, has received wide currency and considerable attention. Woke was among the candidates for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016, when its development and usage were explored by Nicole Holliday for the OxfordWords Blog. The OED is currently seeking any contextual evidence (i.e. not from a glossary or definition) of woke meaning ‘well informed’ or ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’ that dates from earlier than 2008.

Although first recorded in the nineteenth century in the literal sense of ‘awake, not (or no longer) asleep’, figurative use of woke has been traced back to 1962 in a glossary of ‘phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem’. This glossary accompanies a New York Times article titled ‘If you’re woke, you dig it’ by novelist William Melvin Kelley. In it he discusses the constantly shifting street slang used in urban African-American communities and provides the following definition of woke:

Well-informed, up-to-date, (‘Man, I’m woke’).

1962 New York Times Magazine, 20 May, pg. 45

Despite this mid-twentieth century origin, contextual evidence has been difficult to find. The only twentieth-century example we have located is in an extended metaphor from a 1972 play by Barry Beckham that, seemingly by coincidence, anticipates the word’s later use in racial and social contexts:

I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.

1972 Barry Beckham, Garvey Lives, prologue, pg. 1

Further contextual evidence next appears in 2008, when American singer-songwriter Erykah Badu used the words ‘I stay woke’ as a refrain to her song Master Teacher. In more recent years it has been particularly associated with the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Because it began existence as a slang term that was more likely to be spoken than written, finding early examples of woke could require consulting unusual sources like transcripts, personal letters, pamphlets, or signs. As mentioned, we are particularly interested in identifying contextual examples in the sense of ‘up-to-date, aware’ or ‘alert to racial and social injustice’ from prior to 2008, but any evidence (even glossarial) earlier than 1962 would help us to enrich the word’s entry in the OED Online.

Can you help us find earlier evidence of woke?

Posted by OED_Editor on 25 June 2017 15.53