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Guest Commentary: Teaching Black Children is a Revolutionary Act

The director of a Black teacher training program pens an open letter to new educators for their “subversive act of hope”

The director of a Black teacher training program pens an open letter to new educators for their “subversive act of hope”

[Editor’s Note: This piece was originally an Open Letter to teachers in Sharif El-Mekki’s Freedom School Literacy Academy training program this summer.]

Dear Freedom School Literacy Team 2020,

Across the nation, we started the summer of 2020, lighting up the streets with rage.

We rage for George Floyd’s senseless strangulation.

We rage for Ahmaud Arbery, who was hunted down.

We rage for Eric Garner, who was suffocated.

We rage for Walter Scott, who was shot five times in the back.

We rage for Michael Brown, who was shot six times in the back.

We rage for Philando Castile, who was gunned down for legally carrying a gun.

We rage for Jamar Clark, who was shot in the head while handcuffed.

We rage for Freddie Gray, who was handcuffed and shackled screaming in pain. 

We rage for Tamir Rice, who was shot dead after playing in the park with his sister.  

We rage for Stephon Clark, who was shot for being in his grandmother’s backyard.

We rage for Botham Jean, Aiyana Jones and Breonna Taylor, all three shot dead for being Black in their own home.

We rage for Tony McDade, who reminds us that Black Lives Matter applies to all Black people in our communities. 

We rage against state-sanctioned brutal murders of Black men and women whose families and friends will never ever get to see them, hold them and love on them.  

Do SomethingWe rage for Emmett Till and his mother whose outcry against barbarism and injustice was to expose her 14-year-old son’s mutilated body to everyone and demand change.

We rage for our Civil Rights heroes—Reverend George Lee, Lamar Smith, Herbert Lee, Medgar Evers, James Early Chaney, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Samuel Leamon Younge, Jr., Clarence Triggs, Wharlest Jackson, Benjamin Brown, Samuel Ephesians Hammond, Jr., Delano Herman Middleton, Henry Ezekial Smith, Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. All assassinated by cowards before the world could see their full truth realized. 

We rage for every Black and Brown body that was degraded, violated and slaughtered throughout this country’s destructive history. 

We rage against the systems and institutions that have allowed these cowardly inhumane acts, the same anti-Black systems and institutions that have kept every Black and Brown student from achieving in school and in life.

Racism is America’s original birth defect.  

But stronger than this outrage, for me, was something different this time around—real hope.

All revolutions are, at their heart, actions driven by not just rage, but also hope. Hope that things can be better, that progress is—if not inevitable—then at least possible.

Read MoreAs I protested in the streets of Philadelphia along with my children, relatives, and friends, I took in moments that made me feel for the first time in my life that we could see real change sooner than any of us was willing to believe before. 

But to get there, it’s going to take hard work. 

I want to thank each and every one of you for joining the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy as servant leaders, junior servant leaders, and instructional coaches.

Each one of you represents the hard work that it’s going to take for us as a community and as a nation to realize, finally realize, true social equity and justice. 

Make no mistake. You are a vital part of the vanguard in our fight for not only protecting Black and Brown bodies, but also for protecting their intellect, and thus, protecting our collective future.   

James Baldwin said that to teach Black children is a revolutionary act. I’d add to this quote to say: to teach Black children superbly is the revolutionary act. 

What is revolutionary is for every educator of Black children to hold themselves accountable for their students’ learning for their having the knowledge and confidence to fight the systemic racism that challenges their every step to greatness. 

While there are many ways to fight racism, a thorough education is a must.

That’s why Frederick Douglass told us to be highly literate. His exhortation remains relevant today, because an educated Black child is still unfit to be enslaved and, as Chris Stewart, my friend and 8 Black Hands colleague often says, the revolution will be literate.

Each of you is playing a critical role in changing the narrative in Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and in the nation. A racist reality that keeps our children from being highly literate. A racist reality where 96 percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers are white. A racist reality where almost half of Philadelphia’s Black boys don’t graduate from high school within four years. A racist reality where only eight out of every 100 of our city’s Black male high school graduates goes on to graduate from a four year college.

Each one of you can help change this racist reality.  

Today, by joining the Center for Black Educator Development, you are stepping up to rewrite this narrative. That’s because we know that Black students with a single Black teacher are up 39 percent less likely to drop out of school. If Black students have not one, but two, Black teachers, they are significantly more likely to see themselves as college students, then matriculate.

Most of you don’t know this, but I was shot by a 7th grade dropout. I started the Center for Black Educator Development and the Freedom School Literacy Academy in protest against the racist reality that still plagues this nation and the racist reality that precipitated the shooting that nearly killed me. 

We commence today with the urgency of knowing that had Derrick, the young man who shot me, been taught, early and often, by conscious and committed Black educators, he would have been far less likely to have tried to murder me. He would have stayed in school and found a productive outlet for his rage. 

This is why we are here today to change the reality for the countless Derricks in our communities. 

And you are not doing it alone. Showing up alone is never a good idea when fighting for justice and longing for peace. We are combining all our forces to fight for educational justice, for educational justice is linked to racial justice and they are both prerequisites to the peace we seek for everyone we love. 

Thank you for your courage in questioning everything and everyone, including me.

Thank you for standing and working with us, because there is no neutral ground when it comes to racism. 

As Douglass said, Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are women and men who want crops without the hard work of plowing

Thank you for committing to fight today’s pernicious racist reality and doing the hard work to change this reality with your revolutionary acts in the classroom this summer. 

All revolutions are, at their heart, actions driven by not just rage, but also hope. Hope that things can be better, that progress is—if not inevitable—then at least possible.

This summer—especially this summer—is not going to be easy for you. Important things never are. 

You have much to learn, much to experience and much to gain. You will come to feel viscerally both the unlimited potential and unjust challenges Black students confront in reaching their full potential in a society that continues to oppress them.

Together we are going to build strong Black children because it is easier to build strong children than repair broken men and women (Douglass again).  

Thank you for committing to the seditious act of teaching Black children well. Thank you for helping to shape the School-to-Activism-Pipeline.

Thank you for standing defiantly against the legacy of oppression our children and communities have faced for generations.

Thank you for making this affirmative, subversive act of hope.

Thank you for agitating for change. Thank you for signing up for the revolution. 

Thank you for liberating education


Sharif El-Mekki is founder/CEO of The Center for Black Educator Development. A version of this piece originally ran on his blog, Philly’s7thWard.

Header photo: Courtesy of Mastery Charter-Shoemaker

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