The elders sat in the front of the classroom, and the pupils were rapt.
“All human life came from us,” Paula Peebles told 30 eighth graders. “Love your beauty, love yourself, and then you’ll be able to help other people, other ethnicities.”
Peebles was a Philadelphia schoolgirl when she joined the Black Panther Party at 15, not much older than the Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus students in front of her. Peebles, other members of the Black Panthers and a representative of the Black Lives Matter movement addressed Mastery students studying social justice as part of “Black Liberation Day” on Tuesday.
Some in the audience absorbed the material solemnly; others smiled when a speaker said something that resonated with them. But all were listening.
Gerald Dessus normally teaches English, but is offering the social justice class for the first time this year. The idea was to learn about inequality, to inspire eighth graders to see things through a historical lens, to be informed, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Students have studied units on the civil rights movement, on South African apartheid, and recently on Black Lives Matter. Tuesday’s event was student-led: groups of young people recruited Black Panthers and Shakira King of Black Lives Matter Philadelphia to speak and answer questions, just as they had hosted Philadelphia police officers recently.
“They’re not going into this blindly, as supporters or fans,” Dessus said. “They know about the criticisms and the controversies.”
The speakers talked plainly of the injustices that they had faced as black people and the way that makes them see the world. The trauma of their ancestors being enslaved changed their DNA, speakers told the Mastery Shoemaker students, the vast majority of whom are black.
“America’s going to forever owe us,” Peebles said. “They stole us from the motherland.”
The speakers — including King of Black Lives Matter and Peebles, Barbara Easley-Cox, Russell Shoatz III and Aisha El-Mekki of the Black Panther Party — offered advice to the students. Surround yourself with friends who will check your ego, they said. Listen to criticism. Always connect the dots. Know who you are and where you fit in the world.
One student asked about the role of white people. Some white people helped in the struggle for black liberation, she said — what about them? King said it was complicated, but that certainly white people were capable of helping in the struggle, of being “accomplices,” she said.
“I don’t hate white people,” King said. “I hate what whiteness has done to me and my people.”
Aisha El-Mekki talked about how suburban children are taught to seek out police officers if they’re hurt or lost. That notion was not shared with her children, including Mastery-Shoemaker Principal Sharif El-Mekki.
“I taught my children at a very young age — you don’t stop a cop,” said Aisha El-Mekki, who talked about one of her first experiences with the Black Panther Party, walking into a church at 20th and Columbia in Philadelphia where the organization was offering a free breakfast program for young people.
Even after the bell rang signaling the end of the school day, the eighth graders lingered.
Tyari Hutchins said he liked what the speakers had to say.
“It made me think more about what’s going on around me,” said Hutchins, 14.
And Courtney Phillips-Ricketts, a serious young man who made a presentation to the group about the history of the Black Panther Party, said the class generally changed his world view. He learned from the black liberation speakers, just as he learned from the police officers, said Phillips-Ricketts who is 14.
“If all kids knew about social justice, it would help make the world better,” he said.
The speakers said that someday, the students at Mastery Shoemaker, a neighborhood charter school at 53rd and Media in West Philadelphia, would be leading their own movements.
“I wish,” Easley-Cox said, “that you might have some of the adventures that some of us have had.”