In response to exchanges about public monuments and the causes of the Civil War, Ta-Nehisi Coates recently tweeted: “Majority of people living in South Carolina in 1860 were black — they did not need modern white wokeness to tell them slavery was wrong.”

Coates lands here on wokeness, the condition of being woke, a term that has been in the linguasphere for about a decade.

MTV, magazines focusing on a young audience, and hipsters of all stripes have glommed on to this term. To be woke is to be aware, to have awakened into a clear perception of how social injustice is threaded through the experience of being a black person in America.

Amanda Hess wrote about the turn to woke in a 2016 article (“Earning the ‘Woke’ Badge” ) in The New York Times Magazine. “If ‘P.C.’ is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then ‘woke’ is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive. It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.”

Hess’s linguistic diagnosis conjures up the desire among men to be considered sensitive (to women, to issues like the environment and childcare, to things that guys aren’t traditionally thought to care about sufficiently or at all).

But there’s an earnestness about woke and, as Hess observes, something a tad self-righteous about it, too.

Which is what Coates is pointing to in his tweet. White folks who want to declare their wokeness are caught in a historical-linguistic muddle: What happens when a word becomes an easy badge of awareness for people-not-of-color?

The issue of wokeness might, of course, also be thought of as being historically informed and socially aware. A person who has studied the history of the Civil War, for example, will have an informed opinion of its complexity and a firmer, more persuasive position from which to hold forth on the issue of slavery in American history.

It doesn’t feel as if condemning slavery is something that requires wokeness, but apparently this is where we have found ourselves. Coates’s point, of course, isn’t that white people needn’t have come to the realization that slavery was a bad thing, but that black people don’t actually need white people to explain this to them. That would be an example of whitesplaining, or the patronizing explanation of just how racism works.

But wait — there’s more language history to the story.

It turns out that wokeness is a very old word in our language, the earliest written documentation dating from around the year 1000 (the Oxford English Dictionary cites the Homilies of Ælfric).

The medieval usage wokeness (also spelled wacnys or wacnysse) is akin to our modern weakness, and means either debility or inferiority.

We seem to have stopped talking about our bodily wokeness/wakenes sometime in the 16th century.

The modern, urgent use of wokeness turns the original usage on its head. Not weakness but the strength that comes from awareness, not intrinsic inferiority but maybe the humility that derives from knowing how privilege and prejudice have benefited those of us who have benefited, and how the same privilege and prejudice have damaged or destroyed others.

So it’s OK to be woke – it might be a goal, even – though if you know what privileges you’ve been benefiting from, maybe the last thing you want to do is to declare your wokeness. 

Doing so just might be a sign of wokeness in the medieval sense.

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