In my mind the word “woke” is a verb indicating that one is awake.
As in the song “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, written by Kris Kristofferson and sung by Johnny Cash:
“Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad
So I had one more for dessert”
But like some other words in the English language, “woke” has taken on a new meaning in modern culture.
Merriam-Webster says “woke is a slang term that is easing into the mainstream from some varieties of a dialect called African American Vernacular English.” It refers to awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice.
That’s the woke, the use of which recently caused Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson to draw criticism he claims is a “hatchet job.”
Watson, a Republican, said in a television interview that he opposes any move by the federal government to set new rules about voter registration or mail-in voting.
“Think about all these ‘woke’ college university students now who would automatically be registered to vote, whether they wanted to or not,” Watson said. “You have an uninformed citizen who may not be prepared and ready to vote, automatically it’s forced on them, ‘Hey, go and make a choice.’ And our country’s going to pay for those choices.”
The remarks drew criticism from, among others, five college professors, who wrote in a Clarion-Ledger opinion piece that “Watson used a tired, political dog whistle to claim that ‘woke’ students, whom he implies do not deserve to vote and might, therefore, improperly benefit from the For the People Act, a proposed federal law that would broaden accessibility to voting around the country.
“His intended target was clearly more progressive voters on campuses across the state, while ignoring the fact that young people of all political persuasions attend our colleges and universities.
“In addition, his assumption that young people do not want to vote is demeaning when, as a state leader, he should be telling college students how important their vote is. By creating an atmosphere and erecting obstacles that discourage young people from voting, Secretary Watson robs our state of the engaged future voters Mississippi needs to prosper.”
Watson says his comments were taken out of context and that his job is to make sure that every legal resident of the state has the ability to vote. He said Mississippi registered 113,000 new voters last year, including some on college campuses.
All this talk about woke reminds me of a story from my teen-age years when there were far more voting restrictions than there are now.
My father worked at the now closed Hercules plant in Hattiesburg where one of their operations was to extract resin from virgin pine stumps.
The process required some strong men, using long forks, to pull out stump chips from large tanks where the stumps were heated to drain out the resin.
It was hot, hard work and the men, after pulling an extractor, were allowed to rest for about as many hours as they worked.
My dad told a strapping young man he knew that one of those jobs was open and he should apply for it.
Dad told him, “you are young and strong and can do it. Actually, you can sleep for about half your shift.”
“Yes sir,” the man replied, “but when you’re pulling you’ve got to be well woke.”
Maybe Secretary Watson, a conservative, is worried about how “well woke” those woke voters on college campuses are.
Charlie Dunagin is editor and publisher emeritus of the McComb Enterprise-Journal. He lives in Oxford.