Afros, Boxers & Handcuffs: You Too Can Be a Revolutionary. Teach.

Dear Black Man (and everyone else determined to make changes),

When we look at the history of schools that have served poor Black children in this country, they have often communicated the lowest expectations, provided the least amount of funding, and were housed in the most decrepit buildings.

However, everyone can choose to resist and serve the community as a revolutionary.

To teach and lead students from oppressed communities is the epitome of revolutionary. It took me a long time to realize that though. Hopefully, you arrive at that conclusion much sooner than I did.

I knew from early on that my parents, teachers, and other role models expected me to be a vocal and active member of my generation’s freedom fighters and activists. A revolutionary, if you will.

Choose to be a revolutionary. teach.

My earliest dreams -both when I was asleep and awake – involved activism, resistance, and struggle.   Although I was a little kid at this time, these visions were never nightmares.  Rather, they were dreams and aspirations of a kid who was being raised to become – and aspired to be – a revolutionary.

  • My parents met (and married) in the Black Panther Party. At least 3 of my paternal cousins and their spouses were also members.
  • I was enrolled in Nidhamu Sasa on Queen Lane in Germantown – a school started by activists and revolutionaries. We didn’t have gym, we had Vita Saana, an African style of martial arts, which meant a Warrior’s Art. Our Martial Arts teacher, Baba Changa, used to say, “If you’re gonna speak the truth, you gotta be able to defend the truth.” Baba Changa also taught us art, political science, and history.
  • Our classrooms weren’t named after numbers or letters or colleges. Our classes were named PAIGC, FRELIMO, SWAPO, MPLA – liberation movements in Africa fighting against colonialism.
  • By the time I finished 6th grade, I had met some of the most amazing revolutionaries: Sonia Sanchez, members of the Wilmington 10, MOVE members, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Angela Davis, etc.
  • We used to sing in the schoolyard (the asphalt parking lot behind the school), “We are soldiers in the army…” We were singing about the army of folks focused on engaging in the liberation of Black people. Most of us already knew that we would be a part of this army. Some way. Some how.

I stared at the picture. I knew this scene.

I was 10 when my Mama handed me a picture. I stared at the picture of my father (Abu) and 6 other men. I had a lot of emotions, but the main 2 were pride and fury. My mother pointed out that one of the 7 handcuffed men facing the wall, dressed only in boxers, was my father. I kept staring.

Afros, Boxers, and Handcuffs.

I noted to myself that, when I got older, I was definitely gonna switch to boxers because that’s what men wore. That’s what revolutionaries wore. It didn’t escape me that revolutionaries were also likely to wear handcuffs.

But, I was also proud. I had heard of the raids from my Mama and others plenty of times. I knew that Rizzo’s cops forced Black men to strip and were prone to shoot unarmed Black men. But, now, I had an image in my hands that could merge with the images in my head.

I felt a lot of pride because I knew I was the son (and student) of revolutionaries. I also felt rage about the cops who chose to do that to my father, his friends, and many others. I looked at the police officer in the picture. He had a shotgun, and I was sure he was yelling something racist and thinking something even worse.

If I had any doubt before, there was certainly none now. I was going to be a revolutionary.

So, I grew up angry – furious actually – about social justice issues everywhere. I couldn’t not see it. But, I was also confused about when I would have a chance to be a revolutionary like my parents, teachers, and other heroes. In the meantime, I graduated from IUP and tried to determine the answer to, “How do I become a revolutionary?!”

Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.          -Malcolm X

One day, someone called me. An organization, Concerned Black Men, was working with the School District of Philadelphia to recruit and hire Black men to become teachers. Although my own mother was a teacher, as were several of my cousins, I had never even considered it to be my path. But, now, after being asked directly, I was very interested.

In 1993, I was hired to become a teacher at Turner Middle School on Baltimore Avenue in southwest Philadelphia. My students (and their families), principal (Charles D’Alfonso), my new colleagues, coach, and mentors welcomed me with open arms. I quickly came to love this southwest Philly community.

When I walked into Turner MS on my first day, I recalled how I used to think that there was some colossal mistake. That God should have had me born in 1951 instead of 1971. I should have been a part of my parents’ generation of revolutionaries.

But, as I began teaching, I knew that there are no mistakes. My revolution was to be a Black man at a blackboard in southwest Philadelphia (same part of the city that I had been shot almost one year before).

Teachers are revolutionaries-especially those who teach our most oppressed students in our most beleaguered neighborhoods. Teaching is a form of resistance against the societal expectations stubbornly held by many about our kids and communities. Yes, teachers are revolutionaries.

And, that is a great relief to me. Although I was still angry, I had finally found peace.

Happy birthday, Abu (father). Thank you.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


  1. Great, inspiring article…..even to an aging still active revolutionary. Much gratitude son. You’re more of a revolutionary than I could ever be.

    • No, we stand on shoulders like yours. I was always grateful to know that I never fell by my tree, but stood on its tallest branches. I love you. Wa Salaam


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