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Vicky Mochama is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Dearly beloved: we are gathered here today, wherever you are, to honour the life of a great one.

“Woke” leaves behind a large and rambunctious family: from the baby of the family, “Defund the Police,” to the elder auntie, “Intersectionality.” Woke meant so much to so many diverse white people and their assorted allies, too.

It was there for us when we needed it, when we didn’t know what to say, let alone how to say it.

Her decline has been hard to watch. In an interview last month with CNN’s Jake Tapper, television show host Bill Maher distilled a common concern that people have with the word. “Five, ten years ago, bedrock liberalism was a colour-blind society where we don’t see race. Or we see it, but it doesn’t matter. That’s not what woke is. Woke is something very different. It’s identity politics. We see it all the time. It’s always the most important thing. I don’t think that’s liberalism.”

A chill ran through my spine that day; I’m sure you felt it too. “Woke” had officially slipped into the final stages of life’s inevitable processes. If she was not dead already, surely the patient was in hospice care, waiting for the sweet kiss of death, or at least becoming rendered meaningless.

I thought “woke” could outlive, outplay, outlast; unlike the dab, I thought this one had the staying power. But in the end, they finally did it – they killed “woke.”

Look, words come and go. I have been awaiting the quiet resurgence of “snollygoster” – meaning “a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician” – which has somehow lain low despite a plethora of recent examples. One can’t always account for English’s ebbs and flows.

But for a time, woke was the new It Word. It was to late-stage capitalism what “cool” was to the Jazz Age – a saying seemingly headed for a comfortable place in the daily vernacular.

How did woke lose its way?

Woke was born surrounded by mystique, with the lore telling us many origin stories. But there is always one detail consistent among them: She emerged from the lyrical confines of Black American cultures, arriving wide-eyed and optimistic, born anew – and always on alert.

One of the stories of her birth goes back to March, 1931, when nine Black teenage boys were accused of rape by two white girls. Ten thousand people turned out on the first day of the trial in Scottsboro, Ala. – population 2,000. By that July, the boys’ execution had been scheduled. With the intervention of civil rights organizations and lawyers, four of the nine would eventually be released, but all would be forever marked by the ordeal. After meeting the youth via their lawyer, blues singer Lead Belly wrote a song titled Scottsboro Boys, which ended with a warning about the South: “best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

Woke, speaking the past tense into present existence, exemplified Black people’s irrepressible spirit. You could find us in the long long ago, it implied, but also right here, always – and always watching carefully. Woke insisted on it.

With the additional mandate to stay woke – that is, to remain and persist – the word was not only extending its life into an endless future, it was also, crucially, giving you something to do.

The intervening years were good to woke, which stepped gingerly into the spotlight thrust upon it. It appeared in a 1962 New York Times essay, then in a 2008 song by funk singer Georgia Anne Muldrow and Erykah Badu. Then it was reborn into the cultural lexicon after the tragic 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which is when it began to enjoy a level of ubiquity.

I hardly need to remind you of those glory days for the word. Friends would greet each other, open-armed and smiling: “Stay woke, old chum!” We’d text our crushes late at night: “Ay, you woke?” We’d e-mail, in its corporate-adopting heyday: “See attached. Thank you and stay woke.”

I first got word that something had happened to woke when I heard it slip derisively out of the mouth of Jordan Peterson. Fans of his Teachings and Wisdom for All Thinkers may know better about when exactly he began railing against “woke ideology,” but my initial response wasn’t one of alarm. The guy who rose to fame refusing to use “made-up” words for a variety of gender expressions – such as “they” and “them,” nonsense words clearly invented in 1974 by a lesbian separatist commune – was the same guy now crankily arguing that woke had ruined everything.

My reaction was in short: LOL.

I should have been checking the defibrillator pads.

Like cocoa butter and cornrows, Black people have given yet another gift to the world.

May woke rest in power.

Editor’s note: (Mar. 31, 2022) A previous version of this opinion piece erroneously identified Scottsboro as being in Arizona, rather than Alabama.

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