The Origins of the Term ‘Woke’ Had Nothing to Do With Today’s Identity Politics Wars

When in 2017 the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary added “woke” to their list of new words, they defined it as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.” The earliest modern citation of “woke,” according to the OED, was a 1962 article, “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” written for the New York Times by the African American novelist William Melvin Kelley. Coincidentally, Kelley passed away the same year “woke” was recognized by the OED. In a 2018 profile of the late author, The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz drew her readers’ attention to the same Times article.

What neither the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary nor Schulz did, however, was provide a close reading of Kelley’s important essay, and as a result they lost an opportunity to dampen the culture wars now being waged in public and in private in the name of “woke.” “If You’re Woke You Dig It” is an essay that deserves rescue from the obscurity into which it fell for many years. But above all, it deserves to be seen for what it is—a work of cultural description rather than a battle cry.

I knew Kelley for many years as a Sarah Lawrence College faculty colleague. He enjoyed provoking readers with his fiction. His debut novel, A Different Drummer, published three weeks after his NYT essay, more than lives up to the title it borrows from Thoreau’s Walden. A Different Drummer  tells the story of Tucker Caliban, a black farmer living in an imaginary Southern state who by his example persuades every African American living in the state to leave it. 

By contrast, “If You’re Woke You Dig It” is not designed to set readers on edge. It’s an expository essay about the richness of black idiom that comes with a series of whimsical drawings that illustrate Kelley’s text. Written a year before the 1963 March on Washington, “If You’re Woke You Dig It” reflects its time (to the point where he uses the term “Negro”).

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