“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” —Steve Biko
Few things are more important than the fertile minds of our children. On the commemoration of the martyrdom of Steve Biko (9/12/77), revolutionary and thought leader of South Africa and beyond, his quote reminds me of the imperative of our work and the fortifying and revolutionary mindset we must bring to our school, classrooms, and districts.
Biko wasn’t our only teacher who warned against the co-opting of our most potent weapon of resistance—the education of our youth. Malcolm X also warned against the inundation of racist and colonial mentalities contaminating and permeating our teacher colleges and classrooms, school boards, and schools.
“ONLY A FOOL WOULD LET HIS ENEMY EDUCATE HIS CHILDREN.”
During and after the civil war, Black educators from around the country flocked to open up public schools . Many Black educators resisted northern emigrant educators who came as “saviors” and, as an act of resistance, built schools stocked with conscious educators—especially Black educators— to ensure the future of our people. It is why Freedom Schools like Nidhamu Sasa, Sankofa Academy, and countless others were established.
It is also why white teachers (and all others) envisioning to teach Black and Brown children should be hellbent on checking their privileges at the door, remaining humble and curious, and understanding that a whole Black child, unfortunately, is and has always been a revolutionary concept.
In order to raise such a child, educators must humbly embrace the fact that one of the biggest and more enduring impediments of this revolution could be the educators themselves. From this point of realization, effective work can be launched.
Biko realized the barriers to Black liberation could not be toppled if the culture of a school and the psychological make up of students weren’t imbued with a strong positive racial identity. Biko is given credit for promoting “Black Consciousness” which ultimately led to his assassination.
Matthew Graham wrote about this last year.
Black Consciousness demanded pride, self-assertion, and self-confidence. Biko’s idea was that this would in turn stimulate a “revolution of the mind”, allowing oppressed peoples to overcome the racial inferiority and fear propagated by white racism so they could appreciate that they were not just “appendages to the white society”.
We can salute and honor the work of Biko and so many others by building strong students, capable of not only resisting the onslaught of negative self-images in the media and classrooms, but actually internalizing and projecting a wholly different self-image. Our classrooms and schools are petri dishes for the cultures that we choose to create for our children.
I have found it helpful over the years to not only remember what people appear to have been born to do, but also what they died for. Thank you, Baba Biko.
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.