‘Woke’: How a Word for ‘Awake’ Got Hijacked


I am not an early riser, but I am glad for those who are. I admire those who are not only up but OUT, enjoying sunrises over the ocean and general natural splendor. One of the people I am grateful for is Lea Gallardo, who faithfully posts sunrise photos every day on her Facebook page, “Moods of Amelia.” I feel less bad about not being there in person when I can see it through her lens. If you are a Facebook user, you might want to follow her page.

My brother is an early riser and walks the beach for miles, sometimes spotting nests even before the turtle patrol gets there. He is once again training for the USAF’s half marathon in September, which he power-walks. He gets photos like this with just his phone!

You’d think with all this early morning inspiration, I’d get out of bed! If I am awake early, I am slurping down coffee, not trudging up and down the beach.

One of my favorite poets is Mary Oliver, whose ode to early morning is also the title of her 2004 book, “Why I Wake Early.”

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips and the nodding morning glories, and into the windows of, even, the miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.

By Mary Oliver

Being awake, or “woke” has taken on a whole different, pejorative meaning. I am not happy that this expression has been hijacked and is used as an insult.

Here is a definition and usage from Merriam-Webster:

Woke” is now defined as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice),” and identified as U.S. slang. It originated in African-American English and gained more widespread use beginning in 2014 as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. “By the end of that same decade, it was also being applied by some as a general pejorative for anyone who is or appears to be politically left-leaning.”

Recent criticisms of the school library, classroom and textbooks decry that selections are too “woke.” I think that label hardly provides rational criticism. Fortunately, in terms of a recent challenge to a textbook, the Nassau County school board denied the challenge.

In the Black community, to “stay woke” has come to mean “a watch word for those who are self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better.” (Merriam Webster, Arts and Culture) This call to action came into use, especially after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

For the better part of two decades, I had a sticker on the back window of my car that said, “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm.” I picked it up at a boutique on Martha’s Vineyard. I loved the quizzical looks it inspired and I also liked it as a conversation starter. Back then, it was my small way to “stay woke” to ways that Christianity in general and myself in particular could be co-opted to mean something other than their original intention.

I wanted to “stay woke” to Jesus of Nazareth's words and actions, even as I was an employee of a denominational hierarchy and then a lead pastor of a significant church in a wealthy suburban neighborhood.

Now I want to “stay woke” to the ways that Christianity is being wedded to political ideology. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion may not be in the Constitution, but they are item number one in the Bill of Rights. They also were item one for the earliest Baptists, who before we were a nation, stood firmly for the separation of church and state and influenced our founders to be sure that freedom was protected. No historical spin by groups like the Heritage Foundation, which has tentacles of local outreach, can change that. The inalienable rights in the preamble to the Constitution are for everyone at all times. Full stop. A state religion is not inspiring or life-giving. Merging the cross and the flag does a serious disservice to both.

I may not wake up early, but I intend to stay woke.