I’m actively working to reclaim the word “woke.” 

As you know, it’s been stolen by conservatives, made into a near-slur for most anything related to Black or queer or vulnerable, whether it’s teaching Black history or providing gender-affirming care. 

I first heard the term in the 2008 song “Master Teacher” by Erykah Badu, where “I stay woke” was chanted and sung over different melodies, resounding like both a declaration and a warning.

In truth, the term has a longer, fuller history that dates back to the 1920s; it’s a precise and vivid piece of Black vernacular. 

Being “woke” or simply “aware” is the language of people who know they have to be alert, people who understand there are forces actively at work against them. The need to stay woke is more elemental than practicing critical race theory or making others feel bad about the past. It reflects the stresses of an unequal society and it’s not a healthy place to be. How can you really rest when you have to sleep with one eye open? 

Yet that’s why the people we center at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism have to stay woke and it’s why, as we cover our community and help make material change, we do too. We can’t rest easy just because the Department of Justice is investigating the patterns and practices of the Memphis Police Department. We can’t rest easy just because there’s a new mayor who speaks words of inclusion. 

Staying woke is good for our journalism; it begs us to ask: Who gains from this? That’s a core question as we interrogate power. 

Who gains when the primary narrative about Memphis is about crime?

Who gains when in Tennessee, more than 470,000 people can’t vote and more than 21% of Black adults are disenfranchised? 

Who gains when we have less affordable housing than we need? 

The funny thing is many of those standing up against “wokeness” don’t know that there’s some wisdom there for them too. HBO is streaming a new documentary by Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of former House Speaker Nancy), “The Insurrectionist Next Door,” about people who stormed the Capital on Jan. 6. Where, those people might ask, were the people who riled them up and told them the election was stolen, when it was time for them to go to court and then, head to prison? Who gained as their lives fell apart? 

Unsurprisingly, our namesake, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., knew the value of wokeness. In “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community,” he wrote:  “Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.” 

So, join me. Embrace being woke. Use the term with vigor. Claim it with pride. Counter the narrative. 

But even if you don’t want in on my little crusade, stay woke. There’s more work to do. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.