Do you know how it feels to almost drown? I will never forget that feeling. I was 7 years old and knew that I could not swim; still, I just had to dangle my feet into the pool’s deep end. The neighborhood prankster thought it would be funny to yank my foot and pull me into the water. As I clawed my way up, I shrieked with terror and began to ingest water between my screams. I. Could. Not. Breathe. Just as I was sinking to the bottom of the pool, someone reached in and grabbed me out. I remember lying on the side of the pool, coughing—freeing the water from my lungs.
I will never forget that feeling. I feel it raising a Black boy, and I felt it while watching “Black Boys.” There were moments when I could only place a hand on my chest to try to catch my breath and moments when I saw my beautiful Black son and nephews in each young man on the screen. I watched the film and came away with a deep healing, a deeper understanding, and a deeper calling on what Black boys need—someone to believe in them.
How does my presence offend you? These words stuck with me throughout the film, which seeks to humanize our boys. As I watched the movie, I could not help but think about how society attempts to vilify our Black boys, often painting them as a monolith. However, this film shows the many facets of our Black men and boys as fathers, sons, cousins, friends, dreamers, lovers, poets, deep thinkers, prolific, gifted, beautiful.
All I have to offer is my body. I remember being so proud of my nephew when he graduated from high school. Not only was he talented in football, but he was a gifted student. Knowing what he had to come through—single mother home and the struggle—made his success that much more inspirational. I would show his highlights to my students to encourage them to go after their dreams.
Anytime my students would say, “I want to play professional (fill in the blank),” I would always tell them to pick a backup profession too. I shared this with my nephew too. Too often we teach our Black boys that all they have to offer is their bodies, that if they give the world their body through sports, they will be less feared, more loved, and their body can be the ticket to acceptance, but they are so much more than that.
My nephew gave his body to sports and went to college on a full academic scholarship, but one wrong move, a simple misjudgment to post himself on social media with a firearm, landed him in jail at 19. This one mistake led to the loss of his scholarship, loss of college education, and a loss of societal acceptance. He is who I thought of while watching “Black Boys,” and [pullquote]I wondered why Black boys don’t ever just get to be boys?[/pullquote] Like my nephew, there are so many Black boys out there who do not get to make a mistake, who do not get to have society’s benefit of the doubt—especially when they encounter law enforcement.
George Floyd, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Baker, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, DeAndre Ballard, Elijah McClain, and Deon Kay are just a few of our Black boys and men whose lives were cut down by law enforcement, but truly, our Black boys, are set up to fail from the beginning. Those who care to understand our boys—our men— need to watch “Black Boys” to understand the complexities of how those with so little are given “so little” and no real chance from the start.
[pullquote]“Black Boys” disrupts the single-story narrative and allows us to chart a new path for our Black boys.[/pullquote] One where my nephew will not be judged on a single incident, one where interactions with the police do not end in death, one where our Black boys are more likely to go to college than prison, and one where expertise is valued over athletic ability. Sharif El-Mekki says in the film, “Love helps heal trauma.” Let’s love our Black boys, encourage our Black boys, believe in our Black boys, celebrate our Black boys, value our Black boys—let’s watch “Black Boys” and commit to loving the hurt and pain away—and healing ... together!
Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.
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