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  • Woke: The Journey of a Word

  • A BBC Radio 4 Series
  • Written by: Matthew Syed
  • Narrated by: Matthew Syed
  • Length: 1 hr and 9 mins

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Woke: The Journey of a Word

Written by: Matthew Syed
Narrated by: Matthew Syed
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Publisher's Summary

Matthew Syed traces the origins and evolution of the word 'woke’

Once a watchword for African Americans in the early 1900s, 'woke' is now used as an insult across the political spectrum, and it has become synonymous with our era of angry debate. As the word has spread, what people mean by it has become less clear than ever. Award-winning journalist and author Matthew Syed is on a mission to uncover the roots of this social phenomenon and, in this series, he follows the evolution of 'woke' through five key stories.

Beginning with the first ever use of 'woke', which appeared on a 1938 recording by the musician Lead Belly, Syed uncovers what the singer meant when he instructed people to ‘stay woke, keep their eyes open’. Matthew then explores one of the earliest uses of 'woke' in print, by young Black author William Melvin Kelley in 1962. He goes on to look at #StayWoke and how the use of 'woke' online exploded in 2014, following the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Next, Matthew considers how the adoption of 'woke' at the 2017 Women's March aided the term's movement away from Black communities and into the mainstream. In the final episode, he examines the actions of Governor Ron DeSantis, tipped by some to be the next President of the United States. The politician has labelled his state of Florida as 'Where Woke Goes to Die', and introduced a 'Stop W.O.K.E.' bill aimed at reducing the spread of identity politics.

Has the word become too politically charged? What relationship – if any – does the word ‘woke’ have to its original sense? Syed considers its multiple meanings in this fascinating series that sheds new light on a word that is often used – and often misunderstood.

Cast and credits
Presented by Matthew Syed
Produced by Sam Peach

Episode 1
Featuring Peggy Parks Miller and Kip Lornell

Episode 2
Featuring Jesi Kelley
Readings by Tayla Kovacevic-Ebong
Excerpts from ‘If You're Woke You Dig It’ (New York Times, 1962) and ‘Dunfords Travels Everywheres’ by William Melvin Kelley

Episode 3
Featuring Johnetta Elzie and Nicole Holliday

Episode 4
Featuring Prisca Kim and Aja Romano

Episode 5
Featuring Nicole Holliday, James O'Malley and Prof Matthew Goodwin

First broadcast BBC Radio 4, 20-24 February 2023

©2024 BBC Studios Distribution Ltd. (P)2024 BBC Studios Distribution Ltd.

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