In the 1930s, the incomparable Billie Holiday sang about the horror of Black lynchings—the strange fruit hanging from Southern trees, the blood on the leaves that flows from the savage anti-Blackness at the root.
Nearly a hundred years hence, we know all too well that strange fruit doesn’t just swing on branches in the Southern breeze. Malcolm would warn that “the South” is everything south of the Canadian border. If it is one thing the United States of America is united in is its anti-Blackness and racism. Murderous racism is not restricted. As Malcolm X also said, America is Mississippi. And the “strange fruit” doesn’t just hang from trees, but they lie on asphalt, beneath suffocating knees, even in our own beds.
Black bodies have been, and are still, crushed without consideration of time, place and status. Black people are taught early on that you could be next. The only description you have to fit is being Black, and that warrants the death penalty.
Last week in West Philadelphia, we saw this reality play out again.
Walter Wallace, Jr. should still be alive. Of that there can be no debate. He was killed as if a target at a gun range under a fusillade of bullets by officers who swore an oath to protect him.
What’s strange is the lack of accountability, training, oversight and humanity at the root of our city and country’s law enforcement.
What’s strange is there are officers who draw their salary from my taxes and yours are given the power to assault and murder Black human beings.
What’s strange is the motto of the Philadelphia Police: “Honor. Integrity. Service.”
Where is the honor in state-sanctioned murder? Who was served last Monday afternoon in West Philly? Was it our community? Who is safer now because of their actions? Who is crushed?
Was it Walter’s mother, who was pleading with officers to put down their guns? Where was the integrity in thrusting her into the role the police should have been playing from the start, that of someone seeking to de-escalate the situation?
As a Black man—as a human being—it’s beyond infuriating that there’s continued open license, issued by law enforcement in this city, state and nation, to kill Black people.
Too many times we’ve waited for too long for the release of the killers’ names, badges and bodycams even as the righteously angered crowds chant repeatedly, “Who killed Walter Wallace?”
Too many times, we’ve seen ‘an investigation’ lead to an outcome that offers no accountability or justice, nor any changes in policy or practice, for it all to be just a series of coincidences. This is by racist design.
It’s hard not to conclude that a hardened, racist mindset held by those who police our communities has been calcified by decades of zero accountability for those who clearly violate basic rules of justice, fairness and plain old humanity.
In the same way we couldn’t imagine being satisfied with just reforming slavery, we can’t merely reform the police department. Not when anti-Blackness runs through its foundation and through the veins of the people who protect these systems. Not when imprisonment is no less than modern-day human bondage. We must abolish it and start over.
So now what?
This should be not a philosophical, rhetorical question for teachers across our city, and our nation. It must be a burning question in our classrooms. One, yes, rife with emotion, but with true educators, also an opening for solutions that come from our students.
Last Monday, another Black man was lynched by police. But how many teachers on Tuesday morning (or since) started their lessons—virtual or not—as if everything was normal? How many chose silence as the easiest path, avoiding controversy rather than teach it? How many still ignorantly believe that schools are safe havens where racism doesn’t exist and conversations about racism are not needed?
Yesterday, one of my students told me about how their teachers used their power and platform to mute students, young people who need, for their own sanity and humanity, to speak up and out about grave and perpetual injustice.
That educators fear or loathe mentioning Walter Wallace, Jr. and the humanity of a Black man murdered by a hail of bullets in a community students belong to should give us all pause and question those who train and supervise these teachers.
Who taught these educators to check their humanity at the classroom door? Who taught them to stifle their students—the ones closest to the trauma and the solutions?
For those who want to teach with decency and integrity, but feel ill-equipped to have these necessary discussions and the PTSD (the Persistent Traumatic Stress Disorder) that’s unleashed on our communities, here are some basic pointers. Know that the disorder lies with the oppressor, not the students.
Acknowledge what happened, how racism claimed another Black life. Ask students how they are doing, then listen carefully and compassionately to hear what they say. Honor their vulnerability, their sadness, anger and rage. Reflect on how race, power, and anti-Black mindsets permeate our systems – including, and especially schools and law enforcement.
Most of all, take lessons from the Racial Justice Organizing Committee has shared and teachers like Gerald Dessus, who taught social justice to eighth-graders at Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia. Create safe and brave spaces in your classroom and schools for students to identify and start solving problems they see. Then be responsible for preparing them to engage and become agents of change.
As educators, our work should never be disconnected from the lived experiences of our students, and the families and communities who birthed, nurture and love them.
Educational justice is a requisite to racial justice. As such, our work, ultimately, should be about educating young people in ways that equip them with the shields, the armor, and the tools necessary to survive in our society and recognize what is truly strange and inhumane.
Our students—and the rest of us—revolt because we simply cannot breathe. How can anyone learn when deprived of basic humanity?
In planting the seeds to a better future for all of us, we must give our students the tools and the inspiration to dig out the bloody racist roots once and for all—and not be content with pruning the branches of the tree that continues to bear such strange fruit.
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.