As a child, youth, and adult, I have had the absolute pleasure of being surrounded by Mamas and Babas who upheld Black liberation in thought and action. Many of them made tremendous sacrifices to plant and defend this banner.
They believed then and now that education was paramount to the survival and thriving of the Black community.
To these heroes, seeking an education wasn’t just for their own children, they believed it to be a fundamental right for all children. Several of them took this to heart so much that they started a school.
My parents used every resource available to them to ensure we received a quality education: Islamic Schools, Nidhamu Sasa, an African Freedom School, private and public schools. Homeschooling was a part of the mix. Hell, we even became expatriates and attended school in Iran.
We received a quality education that was affirming of our Blackness, by any means necessary. These experiences informed my resolve to fight for education for my people.
A recent New York Times article, “I Love My Skin”, speaks to the views of many Black families:
Afrocentric schools have been championed by black educators who had traumatic experiences with integration as far back as the 1960s and by young black families who say they recently experienced coded racism and marginalization in integrated schools.
To make it plain: If you think excellence can’t exist in all-Black spaces, you are suffering from the internalization of white supremacy—whether you’re Black or White.
The only way integration has a chance of succeeding, as outlined by the group “Parenting While Black” in the NY Times article, is if “all schools are responsive to the needs of black and Hispanic students — which they say requires new curriculums, more teachers of color, and a strong emphasis on culture and identity.”
As an educator, I’ve come across many folks whose parents chose for them expensive Quaker schools, private schools, and impossible-for-Black folks to get in magnet schools. As a result, they left their school experiences with a very different mindset than my classmates.
These same people who benefitted from schools outside the traditional school system, believe that if you’re fighting for parents to have the dignity and right to choose a school that’s best for their children, then you’re missing the mark.
These elitists will have you believe that while they deserved the choice their own parents could afford, others are sellouts for trying to establish choice in poor Black communities. I’m not sure exactly what they believe is being sold out, but they’re fighting against the right that they enjoyed for themselves.
Once I was at a lecture of a prominent Black speaker who I admire greatly. We agree on many issues (ending mass incarceration, ending oppression against immigrants, fair wages for all, etc). But he also railed against parental choice and a friend (also anti-parental choice) gleefully looked at me and said, “See. You respect him. You should listen to him.”
I responded, “Ask him where his own child attends school.” What my friend didn’t know was that this Black leader’s child attended a very expensive private school. Choice.
This was a few years ago, but since then, I’ve noticing a pattern in the lives of several anti-school choice advocates.
They tend to have attended schools where most Black and Brown families cannot attend. They also exercise their parental right to choose their own child’s school. They either move to gentrified or suburban neighborhoods or pay for private education.
They often don’t work directly with the people they claim to fight on behalf of—when Bryan Stevenson says be proximal, it falls on their deaf ears. The mis-education is rampant because they’ve ingested the idea that their own circumstances place them beyond the common experiences of other Black people.
My experiences of my parents making choices about school makes me want that educational right for all parents. Others’ school experiences led them to believe it is the sole right of the few—the few who can afford to pay for it.
This blog was originally posted on Education Post.
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.