As I sit back on a relatively quiet Friday night listening to a classic song by Lyn Collins called "Think (About It)," I can't help but think about how that song continues to live on in Black culture. Within R&B and Hip Hop alone, Collins' song has been sampled more than 2,000 times. Sampling, for the uninitiated, is when a contemporary artist intentionally includes elements of a pre-existing song into their own recorded music.
From Janet Jackson to Jay-Z, Rob Base and DJ Eazy Rock to Boyz II Men, Snoop Dogg to Beyoncé, Black artists have kept the legacy of this iconic song from 1972 alive through sampling. And throughout R&B and Hip Hop culture, sampling has always been a way to honor the talent, style, and power of those who came before us. This is evidenced in the joyful way Black artists give homage and credit to singers and songwriters from generations before, not only in the written credits of an album but also in interviews or even while performing on stage.
Unfortunately, giving credit or honor to Black culture has been a consistent issue for the Majority Culture. In terms of Black contributions in music, dance, scientific innovations, medical discoveries, fashion, or even ministry, Black people are not simply overlooked. Their efforts and creations are also stolen, miscredited, and misappropriated.
This is undoubtedly the case for the word “Woke.” A slang word misappropriated from Black culture that has taken on a life of its own in the US. From conservatives and liberals in Congress who sling the word around as if it were an insult to social media’s digital brawlers attaching the term to anything that seems too Black, “Woke” has become a dirty word. It was once a term protected and carefully applied within Black culture but has now become diluted in Majority Culture circles. Even Merriam-Webster Dictionary has joined the fray in assigning meaning to the word. According to the dictionary, the term woke means “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice.)”
Far too many in Majority Culture don’t understand the true historical meaning and context of the word. Since the 1940s, the word “Woke” in the Black community has been used in ways similar to The Negro Motorist Green Book. Published from 1936 to 1966, The Green Book was a tool to help Black people navigate their way through areas in the US that were unsafe for us to travel at night. These areas, often referred to as “Sun Down Towns,” were given their title because, if you are Black, you had to make sure that you were out of that town before the sun went down, or you risked physical harm from local residents.
The word “Woke” was used in very much the same way. It was used as a tool for Blacks to warn one another of banks that refused to give loans to Black people, miseducation that occurred in school, unfair practices at work, or police officers around the corner looking for any reason to detain and jail Black people. It was a word that communicated care, safety, and unity. It gave Black people a heads up when dealing with lynchings, Jim Crow, White rage, and other spokes within the wheels of systemic racism.
So, to any racial reconciliation, equity, or justice ally searching for another easy way to help remove an obstacle to unity and collaboration, I would ask you to “come on and think” like Lyn Collins. Think about the context and history of a word misappropriated and now diluted. Think about removing “Woke” from your vocabulary and educating those who misuse it.
A Broken Seat at the Table: Conversations About Race, Resilience, and Building Bridges tackles the topics of Race, Resilience, and Building Bridges through open and hard conversations.