“…and watch your back.”
That is the last thing my great aunt Maryam would say to any of her children, nephews, or nieces before parting. Her birthday was last week and I have been thinking about her often. Maryam El-Mekki Abdullah was my maternal grandmother’s sister.
She was one of those people who read incessantly. Once she had a stroke, her reading slowed, but she continued to persist. She would get mad at us, because we needed to fireproof her home and we would remove dozens of newspapers from her home.
I have so many fond memories about Aunt Maryam, four of them are: her insistence on quality education, in particular, strong literacy skills, her love for Scrabble, and her love for Malcolm X.
She Was a Word Ninja
As I mentioned, Aunt Maryam was an avid reader and she insisted we do the same. She would ask about the latest books we read and her gifts were often quotes from her reading and books for us to read. Her daughter, my cousin, amassed thousands of comic books, for example, some I still pine to re-read.
She owned an impressive library and she was one of the few folks I know who actually read every single book in it. She championed “Black literacy” and backed it up with providing us with magazines, comics, books, articles, and a plethora of quotes from her heroes that she read about.
I also remember how masterfully she played Scrabble. It is with great pride that my own students, Word Ninjas, came in second place in our city’s Scrabble championships. Their efforts reminded me of my aunt’s love for Scrabble and how she would send my mother and cousins scrambling to find her words in the dictionary. They were never able to prove her wrong.
She Was a Revolutionary
Aunt Maryam was also the first Muslimah in our immediate family. She came to Islam by way of Malcolm X, who she adored. She would travel to hear his speeches and kept records of his speeches that she would frequently play and share. My mother would often listen to those records at her aunt’s house which led her to do more research and read up on him. My great aunt’s revolutionary spirit was similar to her niece’s and led her to follow Malcolm X’s teachings and her religious and political paths as well.
When my mother told her aunt that members of the Black Panther Party needed a refuge for some Panther Cubs (BPP’s babies/children) because they received information that Philly’s infamously racist and abusive top cop was planning to raid the BPP headquarters, without hesitation, she said, “Bring them here,” which my mother gratefully did.
What appealed to my aunt was Malcolm’s revolutionary spirit and his quest for justice and human rights. That unwavering pursuit of justice is what permeates through my mother’s blood and mine. We pray that Aunt Maryam’s lessons continue to motivate my family to unceasingly strive for justice, including the educational variety, which is inextricably linked to so many other forms of justice.
We know that as the only group of people who have consistently had legislation thwart our attempts to become educated, it is imperative that we remain vigilant and we fight for educational justice. The remnants of historical educational inequities are alive and well. It will take a certain level of revolutionary spirit to fight for what our communities have long been denied; a quality and accessible education for every child—especially those who have long had forces, “friends” and foes alike legislate to deny us the same.
For those who are committed to this work, we will watch each other’s backs.
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.