Blues singer and guitarist Lead Belly recorded a song titled, “Scottsboro Boys” in 1938. It told the story of nine young black men who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama. In a spoken afterward to the recording, Lead Belly advised his hearers to “Stay Woke” when they go through Scottsboro – that is, stay alert.
In 1962, the novelist William Melvin Kelly titled a column for the New York Times Magazine, “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” The article, which is about the beatnik appropriation of African American slang, shows that “woke” had already been popularized sixty years ago. It also reveals an evolution in the word’s meaning.
In the twenty-first century, “woke” became loosely synonymous with awareness of systemic injustice in white-black relationships. After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, activists revived Lead Belly’s “stay woke” slang to protest police violence against blacks.
Within a couple of years of the Ferguson protests, “woke” had broken out of its referent boundaries within racial injustice. The word ballooned to include awareness of discrimination against women and LGBTQ people as well as the environmental dangers that threaten the planet. Corporate America saw “wokeness” as a means to an end: profits. Progressive America saw it as an identity marker. Conservative American saw it as insanity.
Excesses have given that position some validity. To “protect students” – and cynics wonder if it was also to display its wokeness – Princeton University stopped requiring students of the Classics to study Greek and Latin. They now learn how Greek and Roman cultures were complicit in white supremacy.
In its rush to show itself woke, Oberlin College assisted students in protesting racial profiling at a local bakery because the owner had stopped an underage student of color from shoplifting two bottles of wine. Students who took part in the protests were awarded extra credit. The dean of students joined them. The college suspended its contract with the bakery. The courts eventually found the college guilty of libel against the store’s owners, who were awarded many millions of dollars in damages.
To commit an injustice in the name of correcting an injustice is not wokeness. The only way to really be woke is to love, to love people not concepts, to love people whatever their race, ethnicity, sex, or social standing. Love does more than tilt at social justice windmills. It treats real people with respect and fairness.
There is another, and I would argue, more basic, kind of wokeness than the social type: spiritual wokeness. The concept is given considerable space in the biblical writings. More comprehensive than social wokeness, it includes an alertness to one’s place and responsibility in God’s creation as his child.
Jesus warned his followers to “stay awake at all times…” St. Peter said, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” St. Paul tells Romans Christians that “the time has come to wake up from your slumber.” After reminding the Ephesian church of the need to wake up, the apostle instructs them to “Be very careful then how you live … because the days are evil.”
That sounds a lot like Lead Belly’s “Stay Woke.” It is not enough to wake up spiritually; one needs to stay awake. And that is not a given.
In Revelation 3, Christ shouts to the sleeping the church in Sardis, “Wake Up! Strengthen the things that remain,” and warns them of what will happen if they continue in their slumber.
I think he is similarly telling the church in America to wake up. We have spent the past few decades daydreaming of political power and institutional success. We were too groggy to notice that our children were wandering away and that some were being “devoured.”
A church that is truly awake will set the standard for true social justice. It will not do so to win kudos or increase its market share, but simply because it loves. Such love is impossible apart from an alertness to God, his will, and his ways.