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What does the word 'woke' really mean, and where does it come from?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Woke - it's just four letters, but it has had a big impact on Republican politics ahead of the 2024 election. It's hard to avoid criticism of, quote, "wokeness" and "wokeism" among GOP presidential hopefuls. But what does it actually mean? As Domenico Montanaro reports, the term didn't arise out of the culture war.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: There's one word on the Republican presidential campaign trail that's hard to avoid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Now, this woke mind virus represents a war on merit, a war on...

MONTANARO: That's presidential hopeful and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis using the word woke he's repeated over and over and over again and made central to his politics.

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DESANTIS: We will fight the woke in the legislature. We will fight the woke in education. We will fight the woke in the businesses. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Our state is where woke goes to die.

(APPLAUSE)

MONTANARO: Republicans on the campaign trail are using it as something of a catchall to criticize anything on the progressive side of the political spectrum they don't like, whether it's teaching about racism in schools or gender transition policies or even books and libraries they deem inappropriate. Not every candidate likes this focus. Here's North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum on NBC's Meet the Press.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

DOUG BURGUM: I believe that the president of the United States has got to define a set of things they're supposed to work on, and it's not every culture war topic.

MONTANARO: But Burgum is in the minority in his party on this and has minimal support at this point. What about the front-runner for the Republican nomination, former President Donald Trump?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And I don't like the term woke because I hear woke, woke, woke. You know, it's like just a term they use. Half the people can't even define it. They don't know what it is.

MONTANARO: But that seems to be a new stance for Trump because he's used the word multiple times to criticize the left. In fact, just hours after making that statement, he used it repeatedly in a town hall on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: A lot of things going on with our military, with the woke and all this nonsense. They're not learning to fight and protect us from some very bad people. They want to go woke. They want to go woke.

MONTANARO: But what does the word really mean, and where does it come from?

ELAINE RICHARDSON: It comes out of Black culture.

MONTANARO: Elaine Richardson is a professor of literacy studies at the Ohio State University.

RICHARDSON: In simple terms, it just means being politically conscious and aware, like stay woke.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDBONE")

CHILDISH GAMBINO: (Singing) Stay woke.

MONTANARO: The word has a long history. It was used in Black protest songs dating back to the early 20th century, including by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, the singer of the 1938 song "Scottsboro Boys."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCOTTSBORO BOYS")

HUDDIE LEDBETTER: (Singing) Go to Alabama and you better watch out. The landlord'll get you, going to jump and shout. Scottsboro, Scottsboro boys, tell you what it's all about. I'm going to tell all you colored people...

MONTANARO: Here's Ledbetter speaking about the song in what's believed to be the first audio recording of the use of the word woke. An old record - it's hard to hear, but he says in Alabama, be careful and stay woke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEDBETTER: So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through Alabama - stay woke, keep their eyes open.

MONTANARO: Be careful. Stay woke. Keep your eyes open. The Scottsboro Boys were nine Black teenagers who are accused of raping two white girls in what is widely seen today as one of the worst cases of racist legal injustice. It helped spur the civil rights movement and loosely inspired the book and movie "To Kill A Mockingbird."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD")

GREGORY PECK: (As Atticus Finch) This case should never have come to trial.

MONTANARO: Again, here's Ohio State's Richardson.

RICHARDSON: It comes out of the experience of Black people of knowing that you have to be conscious of the politics of race, class, gender, systemic racism, ways that society is stratified and not equal.

MONTANARO: The phrase came back into popular use in 2008 after Erykah Badu's song "Master Teacher."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER TEACHER")

ERYKAH BADU: (Singing) Everybody - I stay woke. Everybody stay - I stay woke. Sing it everybody - I stay woke. Everybody...

MONTANARO: Modern Black activism and the Black Lives Matter movement used it widely as a rallying cry. At other times, the seriousness of the word has been diluted, used facetiously and ironically on social media. And now the word has been co-opted as a political slogan on the right, something Richardson warns could lead to violence, like recent cases in which Black people have been shot knocking on a door, for example.

RICHARDSON: It promotes anti-Blackness. It promotes stratification. It promotes fear. And that's very dangerous.

MONTANARO: On the campaign trail, though, there's no sign of the candidates abandoning the word as they continue to use it to galvanize the conservative base around culture war issues.

Domenico Montanaro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.