For some time, I’ve been pondering if I should touch on a current word that suggests political division to some people but is really an inspired word for people of some faiths. I find that many believe it to be divisive until it’s discussed in the context of its etymology, history, and usage. As I was mulling this over, I came across a letter-to-the-editor in our local newspaper in which the writer said he had to look up the word in a dictionary and then began to see why it is not a nefarious word or a brazen call to war and hatred. The writer admitted he is ‘old’ but now completely understands that we need a consciousness of this word and what it implies to face up to the racism and prejudice still pervasive in our country.
Then I turned on the television to see a certain governor of a certain state tell a crowd of people that this word has no place in ‘our state,’ no place in our schools or businesses—and so on. He grimaced and snarled as he said it and pounded his fist on the lectern and, of course, his admirers applauded thunderously.
Like many who don’t understand the meaning of the word, they shudder in fright of its mystery. After all, one portion of our population understands it quite well and they threaten the well-being of an establishment.
The word is, ‘woke.’
As with many words and phrases, woke was used in different forms within hymns American slaves sang as they worked in cotton fields or did the common labor for the white owner’s business. Within their burdened beating hearts was the prayer to resist the indignity they were suffering and find the courage to awaken and rise as free people the way God intended. Not only would they awake to freedom when woke, but, more important, those who supported slavery might also be woke and then identify with them, their slaves. So, they hoped.
The concept of woke is threaded throughout the Hebrew Scriptures because Jews fought oppression constantly and looked to God for help in untying the bonds that held them. The Book of Isaiah and the Psalms are full of references to ‘waking from sleep’ (oppression) and the power of words to release the fetters of injustice. Words were important to the Jewish slaves who taught their own believers, “By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words, you will be condemned.” One of my favorites is, “Like golden apples in silver settings, are words spoken at the proper time.” (Proverbs 25: 11) The Christian Scriptures seem to be the locus from where woke is taken. In Ephesians 5:12-15, Paul exhorts his listeners not to take any part in “vain deeds done in darkness.” Condemn these deeds he says by bringing them into the light and he refers to Isaiah 60:1 but adds the redemption secured by Christ saying:
“Awake O sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
“(T)he proper time”? and “…vain deeds done in darkness”? It appears we need to be awakened now as an insidious movement is growing to keep people uninformed about the realities of unjust power gaining more strength continuing to oppress others. We can never say we are finished. Woke is a culture word adapted from the lexicon of slavery. It simply means that when one is woke, one empathizes with the oppressed, lives their lives with them. It means one sees the interconnectedness of the human race. It means one sees all of us as children of a liberating God. In different iterations woke fell off the lips of millions shackled in slave ships as they prayed that the captors would awaken to the deeds they were doing ‘in darkness.’ It fell off the lips of my grandparents in steerage leaving the home where they were servants and farmhands for English landowners in Northern Ireland. All slaves and oppressed people prayed that others would “wake from their sleep,” and venture forward to freedom and most of all, that the oppressors would awaken and drop the cudgels that tied, beat, and starved them. That is what this word meant in the past and still means today.
One of the hymns in the Catholic hymnal that usually gets a resounding, full-throated participation at the end of Mass during the recessional is City of God. It is a joy-inspiring, body-swinging, toe-tapping piece praising a God who is Liberator and Lover of everyone. This hymn speaks of woke to me. See if you can detect the same thought as you read:
“Awake from your slumber! Arise from your sleep!
A new day is dawning for all those who weep.
The people in darkness have seen a great light
The Lord of our longing has conquered the night.”
Listen to this hymn in its entirety which can be found on YouTube, titled, City of God. Let the words permeate your prayer. All of us build the city of God by being awakened—woke—and accepting everyone out of darkness into light. “The golden apples in silver settings are the words spoken at the proper time.” (Proverbs: 25: 11.) Words like woke! P.S. I am probably home by now but since this blog must be to the editor the day I arrive; I have written it ahead of time. I cannot wait to share with you the experiences of our Holy Land.
Dear Sister mary Ann
I am deeply grateful for this blog on the word “woke”.
I love the song quoted in your blog.
Thank you for your gift of words. Blessings to you always.
My curiosity got the best of me and I searched for the definition of. Woke. Here is what I found. I looked up
the Merriam-Webster dictionary and felt relief for the crisp definition.:
Woke is now defined in this
dictionary 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.
Mary Ann, welcome home. I loved this column regarding “woke.” Maybe publish in the PD? I thought of you during your two weeks in the Holy Land. I hope it was a special, sacred trip. And we can’t wait to hear about your travels. Love,Jane Cavanaugh
Wow! Sr Mary Ann,
One of my favorite Hymns..
Thank you for your insight which continues to guide my personal reflections on the Journey
Am so excited to “hear” through your words as you have now Searched for the Holy Land, walking on Holy Ground and seeing with your own eyes, heart and soul the
emotions with you now cherish!
I will be in Ohio the 2-4th of October, would love to see you at Mary Kay’s in Mentor, or maybe we can come visit you? Thank you, as always, for your insight in this blog, love it all! take care, Margaret