Black Boys and Girls Don’t Have to Read About Oppression in History Books, They Live It

“Dad!! Help!!”

I paused from talking to my 6-year-old son to focus where my older son’s frantic voice was coming from. He had just been  three- or four-feet away from me, and now two strangers had him gripped up and were dragging him down the sidewalk. We didn’t find out until we were handcuffed in the back of a paddy wagon that the two men who inexplicably grabbed my son were police officers and we were being charged with assault.

We were attending an anti-war protest at an event that then-President Bush was speaking at. While we were there, the two undercover police officers accosted my son. They later said he had a suspicious container with unknown liquid (hot lemonade) in it. It was too much for them to ask him (or me) what it was. They grabbed him and tried to whisk him away. When my brother and I intervened, the two offending officers still did not identify themselves; one of them started swinging punches when we blocked their way and I grabbed my son’s arm. They ended up leaving my son alone, but me and my brother were arrested.

I thought about this day when I read about the children who were handcuffed for selling water without a permit at the National Mall. These young men did not have a permit, so they were deemed dangerous and handcuffed and detained accordingly. My son and these young men were treated like so many innocent and harmless Black boys in America. It has to stop.

It is the primal fear of Black parents that has a terrible historic legacy of not knowing when your child may be ripped from you. Our ancestors suffered this as slave owners and “pattyrollers” would yank Black children for profit or on a whim.

Just as many Black families are descendants of those who suffered from these horrific scenes, today’s police officers can trace their legacies back to those days as well, where their primary function was to terrorize Black people. Often they would use fear to break men, they’d terrorize children hoping the child would grow up fearful. A terrorized woman would teach her child to avoid the wrath of those in charge at all costs.

These children who were selling water, and, thankfully later offered jobs, posed no threat to society, other than quenching people’s thirst, yet the officers found it prudent to handcuff and detain them.

My son wasn’t selling anything, but he did have some similarities with the detained water boys. He had hot lemonade with honey that he was drinking (he had a cold and his grandmother swears by this potion) and he was Black. We know about driving while Black, but this was a new wrinkle to century old oppression—drinking lemonade while Black.

I’m sure it didn’t help that my son was at an anti-war protest. I took a personal day off from school to take him there (with my mother, brother, and younger son). He had attended protests before, but this was his first as a teenager who was coming of age and wanted to exercise his right to protest. A civic lesson in action. Folks often speak of experiential learning, no group experiences the oppression that others read about in history books quite like Black boys and girls.

My son not only got to see police brutality first hand, he witnessed his father and uncle arrested and falsely accused of assaulting a police officer.

Despite having evidence from fellow protestors of police throwing punches and acting reckless, we were fortunate to have been found not guilty. We know all too well that pictures, film, and any recording has the same status as yesteryear’s Black man’s testimony against authority’s brutality—most often, none.

While some students seek authentic voices of history through primary sources, when it comes to Black students’ lessons about brutality and the callousness of those in authority it is too often learned firsthand.

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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