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Root Work Journal - Navigating the Ocean - Volume 1, Issue 2

If You're Woke You Dig It

Brianna Perry




Brianna Perry is a visual artist, writer, and poet, originally born in Chicago, Illinois. She is interested in the intersection between studying and practicing black cultural production. By submitting to this journal, she hopes to be in conversation with a larger community of thinkers who are reckoning with blackness in their creative and scholarly practices. 

"If You're Woke You Dig It" is a research article and elegy for the popular AAVE term, "woke." I attempt to illustrate woke's early uses in the Black Atlantic in connection to its resurgence in the 21st century. I discuss it's usage among non-Black people and the absorption of Black Vernacular Englishes into popular consciousness and its usage by non-Black people. I argue that the "death" of woke is indicative of the lack of possession Black people have over cultural production and the importance of Black Vernacular English as a counter- hegemonic tactic. Black cultural production should be understood as key to global black liberation.

Contrary to the general consensus that the origins of “woke” lie in the 2008 Erykah Badu song “Master Teacher”, the genesis of “woke” can be traced to the ending of the Civil Rights Movement and the seeds sown for Black militancy. In 1962, Black novelist William Melvin Kelley penned a New York Times article “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” Kelley’s editorial is captioned:

“No mickey mouse can be expected to follow today’s Negro idiom without a hip assist.” Kelley’s op-ed begins with him riding a subway train in New York City, reading the various advertise- ments plastered on the train. One of the advertisements issues from New York Transit Authority, featuring “This is your train, take care of it” in 21 languages. One of the languages is “Beatnik”, which puts the following spin on the NYCTA’s slogan: “Hey cats this is your swinging-wheels, so dig it and keep it boss.” Kelley takes time to note that this language is not Beatnik, but what we have decidedly come to call Black Vernacular English (BVE), the language of Black people from New York City’s “No Strings” area to Chicago’s South Side. What white and non-Black “users” of Black Vernacular English miss about this variety of English is that it is far from simple. It is about context and inflection, or as Kelley says, “what it means depends on who and what a per- son is talking about.” It hardly be claimed or definite that Kelley’s use of “woke” is its genesis; it probably flew from the lips of any anonymous Harlemite. But the importance of “woke” and “stay woke”, both as a call for critical consciousness among Black people, and the political pur- poses of Black speech and utterance, have been missed. Black speech itself is always a form of political consciousness, the counter-hegemonic approach to language which renders its use and dissemination pertinent to calls for Black liberation.

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