The Intersectionality of Indomitable Strong Black Women

In 1967, Black students in Philadelphia staged a protest demanding Black History classes in their high schools and more Black teachers. It would take Philadelphia almost 40 years to implement Black History courses in all its high schools.

History is one of those subjects that allows us to see the roots of our struggle for justice and equity and the progress gained from the work of our ancestors and elders. History also provides a perspective that enables us to see how far we have to go. Today, groups like the Philadelphia Black History Collaborative (PBHC) are working to continue to bring light to Black people’s historical contributions to society. I am hopeful that the efforts of the PBHC will be realized in all of our classrooms.

One great reason to have all students take these courses is to learn about strong Black women like Pauli Murray.

The term “strong Black woman” used to intrigue me. Growing up, I had always assumed these were redundant terms, superfluous language used by the verbose. One has to be strong to raise families and serve communities that persevere through oppression. “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement,” Murray wrote in 1970, “her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’ ”

The women who raised me as a child and as an educator, were very strong and very Black. Aisha El-Mekki, her aunt, Maryam El-Mekki Abdullah who introduced my mother to Malcolm X, my mother’s sister, her childhood best friend from 4th grade, who we affectionately called Mama Shakurah, my teachers like Mama Renee, Mama Fasaha, Mama Camara, Mama Wayma, Mama Linda, Mama Doja, Mrs Corbett, Mrs Lee, and my instructional and professional coach, Mrs. Savior, the list goes on and on.

These Black women, like many like them, raised children (theirs and those belonging to others) and tended to the nurturing of our community, leading and serving, sometimes in the forefront, other times, hidden in the background. But always working.

Reading a recent article in the New Yorker about one of the bold and insightful visionaries of the civil rights movement, Pauli Murray, made me reflect on the visionaries in my life and the many contributions of our sheroes, who may not be in the title of the history books, but who had tremendous effects on our collective path towards equity and justice. They, like Murray couldn’t be boxed in or pigeonholed. They are all too complex.

“This was Murray’s lifelong fate: to be both ahead of her time and behind the scenes. Two decades before the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-sixties, Murray was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia; organized sit-ins that successfully desegregated restaurants in Washington, D.C.; and, anticipating the Freedom Summer, urged her Howard classmates to head south to fight for civil rights and wondered how to “attract young white graduates of the great universities to come down and join with us.” And, four decades before another legal scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, coined the term “intersectionality,” Murray insisted on the indivisibility of her identity and experience as an African-American, a worker, and a woman.”

Read more about this extraordinary strong Black woman here.

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.



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