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Studying Black Homeschooling

The Mocha Moms
Studying Black Homeschooling
An Interview with Monica Wells Kisura
by Nathalie Zur Nedden

The study of homeschooling, in all its forms, is still a relatively new field of research. Graduate studies can be an isolating endeavor. Therefore, the studying home education in an educational environment can be lonely. But to my good fortune, scholar Monica Wells Kisura moved to Toronto in 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship to research Black Canadian homeschoolers. Since then, we have had many interesting and thought-provoking conversations on the evolution of homeschooling in North America. I’d like to share one of those chats with you.

N: Monica, have you always been researching Black homeschooling families?

M: No, not at all. Three years ago I was getting ready to leave for Mexico to gather my Ph.D. research data. At the time, my area of focus was looking at the El Barzon social movements. Before leaving, a colleague and I were asked to review my friend Jameelah’s book manuscript. I was meeting her at a mutual friend’s home to give her our comments.

Upon arriving, I found a house full of children and Black women my age. “Was there a birthday party today that you guys forgot to tell me about? Did I forget?” I asked my friend. I was completely confused because I was not expecting this.

“No, this is a group of Mocha Moms; it’s a play date,” my friend answered.

“Mocha Moms? What are Mocha Moms?” I asked.

“Mocha Moms is a group of Black stay-at-home mothers; this is the Southern D.C. chapter,” she answered.

Without giving much attention to what I had just heard I started playing with the kids on the floor. After a while of playing, I sat on the couch and started talking with one of the Mocha Moms, whose name happened to be the same as mine. She informed me that she was the president of the D.C. chapter, and with vigor she spoke about homeschooling her son.

N: Had you heard about homeschooling?

M: Yes; I had a close friend in Seattle who homeschooled her kids for 10 years. She’s Caucasian. It just never occurred to me that there were Black people homeschooling! Monica, the mom, was sharing all this information with me and added, matter of factly, that there were Black Canadian homeschoolers.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said,

“No, I’m not kidding. It’s based out of Peterborough, Ontario,” she added.

Our conversation had a profound impact on me. I wondered what on earth would posses this woman to stay at home and homeschool her child. She had worked hard at getting a university degree, and had accomplished many things…and the living room was filled with a gamut of professional Black women like her. My afternoon with the Mocha Moms led me to an in-depth self-examination, reflecting upon my life choices, and theirs. After a night’s sleep I awoke with even more questions: How is it possible that a Black woman can stay home? What are the cultural implications of that? What are the financial challenges? What changes in society have made this venture possible for Black people? I started thinking about the decolonization movement, the civil rights movement, affirmative action, and the feminist movement and realized two things: these changes occurred in my lifetime and in these women’s lifetime, and these movements opened doors and opportunities for us that our parents did not have—for example, getting a university degree. A woman who came from many generations of struggle and chose to homeschool her child was phenomenal to me. I became hungry to know more about women like the Mocha Moms. I also became aware of how dissatisfied I was with my education.

N: What do you mean?

The Black homeschooling movement is one of the most, if not the most, radical statement of self-determination and resistance made since the civil rights and decolonization movements.

M: When I met the Mocha Moms, I was on my way to Mexico to learn the history of the Mexican people and to learn their culture. This chance encounter made me question what I knew about my own history. What had I committed to memory about my history as a Black American, the struggles of my people? How many famous people could I rattle off? What did I know about their lives, their contribution to the world? I thought, how ironic; the university is applauding me for going to Mexico. I realized that I did not have to fight an uphill battle, that I could remain in the States and study my history and my people. I felt conflicted that I was about to have a doctoral degree conferred upon me and that I was really rather ignorant about myself and my people. So it became a way for me to bridge what I felt was a deficiency in my education. I informed my dissertation committee that I was changing my dissertation topic and they were fully supportive. In the Spring of 2003, I formally began my journey in the world of the Black home educators in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

N: So what brought you to Toronto?

M: My research and my love for the city. I loved the city and had dreams of living here one day. When I discovered that there were Black people home educating in Toronto, I knew I had to come here and learn more. I’ve been here for nine months interviewing Canadian Black home educators in order to better understand their educational choices.

N: You said earlier that you were surprised to find out that there were Black homeschooling families here. Why?

M: I was surprised that there were Black homeschooling families in the States, let alone in Canada! Considering the small population of Black people, I was fascinated to learn they existed.

N: When you came here, what was your aim?

M: I wanted to explore the same kinds of questions I was exploring in the States about motivations, culture, and pedagogy. I also wanted to see if there were some differences and/or similarities and whether they transcend nationality—that is, if there was some kind of connection in terms of people seeing themselves as Black/African homeschoolers.

N: What has your work revealed to you?

M: I discovered that there are very distinct reasons why Black folks are choosing to homeschool (which differ significantly from White homeschoolers). One of the distinctions that translates across Canadian and American culture is that Black homeschoolers are creating a learning environment that passes on racial pride and cultural heritage to their children. Passing these values and knowledge on to them is important as they are not getting it in predominately European cultures in which they live.

N: You, too, have been shaped by this predominantly European culture.

M: Absolutely!

N: And consequently, you decided not to study Mexicans and stay home to learn about your own history and culture.

M: I thought, what better time in my life to do this because so much of the dissertation process is about self-directed learning, about teaching yourself, and about discovering who you are. I needed to learn about myself, learn about my people, learn about my culture so that I have a deeper, richer appreciation for it and celebrate the incredible accomplishments of Black people. For instance, jazz music has influenced the entire world and that has come specifically out of the Black American experience.

Since I’ve embarked on this journey, like many of the homeschooling families in my studies, I’ve developed this sense of racial pride as well. To come back to the different reasons why Black people choose to homeschool, another distinction people make is how Black people are perceived and portrayed. Many of the moms I spoke with recognize that Blacks are often portrayed negatively. I want my work to contribute to changing the phenomenon of seeing Black people as down-trodden and without. Rarely do we find academic literature depicting the successes of the Black diaspora. I am not denying that challenges exist, but there are many people who are doing well, who are professionals, accomplished, and are loving towards their children—many of whom are homeschoolers.

I believe that out of this generation of people, this group of children, there is a huge potential for them to have an impact on the Black community in terms of how people see themselves, and begin to see what’s possible.

It’s not unusual to see Black mothers portrayed in the media, with five kids in tow and on welfare. In fact, one of the black homeschooling moms I interviewed told me about an afternoon she went grocery shopping with her five kids, and people were giving her these looks, looking down on her a bit, and this is a woman who was accepted into a Ph.D. program but she has chosen to postpone this passion to focus on homeschooling her children. You see, she’s an accomplished, brilliant woman but, because she’s not at work and has five children out of school during the day, all these assumptions were made about her as a mother.

Part of my writing is looking at Black women and work, looking at Black women and motherhood, and looking at the Black middle class. And it occurred to me that this is a no-win situation because Black people find themselves looked at as betraying the Black people, the civil rights movement. There’s this mentality of “We fought so hard for you people to be in public schools and you’re pulling your children out. Do you not have any respect for your elders or ancestors who fought so hard for you to have public education?” This is a struggle in the minds of many Black American families. It’s something that they have to overcome in their family and with their friends when they decide to homeschool. I hope my work contributes to changing this mentality.

N: You have spent three years immersed in your work – interviewing, thinking, questioning, prodding, reading, and writing. What stands out the most?

M: Something profound occurred to me one day after interviewing a radical afrocentric mother: the Black homeschooling movement is one of the most, if not the most, radical statement of self-determination and resistance made since the civil rights and decolonization movements. I feel strongly about this because Black people have reached—economically and scholastically—a position where they now have the power and confidence to truly direct their own learning, which in return nurtures the development of a strong sense of identity for parents and their children. This is empowering because they do not have to put their children in an environment that is statistically proven (and they themselves have also experienced it) to not be conducive to building a strong sense of self.

N: Unfortunately, this is true for a lot of youth irrespective of what cultural heritage they are from.

M: Right; then add the layer of institutional racism and all the other things that people are impacted by and you have a recipe for expected failure. Statistically we know that there are more Black children being diagnosed with ADHD, and all the gamut of the learning disabilities, particularly with the boys, and this came up over and over again in the interviews, this concern around the way that Black male children are dealt with and handled in schools is a huge concern. Homeschooling for the Black community means providing the child with support, freedom, and time for them to learn at their own pace. It also means that one starts with the assumption that they are bright and capable of achieving a high academic performance, which is not where things start with Black children in mainstream schools. I’ve experienced it, and the failure that comes as a result has been duplicated so many times that it’s very hard to deny. This is part of the schooling culture. It’s important to note that the idea of taking your child’s education in your own hands really didn’t break into the Black community until the late 1990s, the early and mid-‘90s

N: What happened to make this possible?

M: Being a political economist, my take on this might be different from others in terms of what I think led to that. Politically, the first thing that led to this was a greater acceptance of education being privatized—the rise of vouchers in the 1980s, for example. This certainly created an opening. Another important factor is that the ‘80s and ‘90s saw the coming of age of a post civil rights generation of people who were established professionals, were having children, generating two-incomes, and felt they had the means to begin home educating. The third piece, in the United States anyway, is that in the 1980s the Christian Right influenced the homeschooling movement and were successful at linking homeschooling to the Christian vocation of “training up your child” (a Biblical reference). Public schools were seen as having become awful places where they were exposing children to secular humanism, and some Christian families felt it was incumbent upon them to withdraw their children from public schools to teach them at home. So I believe that these three converging factors resulted in more Black families choosing to homeschool, and it has caught on like wildfire in the United States and is growing in Canada.

N: What have you discovered in terms of the kind of homeschooling philosophy the Black community relies on?

M: I do not know if this is a function of them being Black or of being new homeschoolers, but many of them discussed how they started off being structured and loosened up as time passed. I have more families that consider themselves as being eclectic in terms of their pedagogy versus structured, meaning they blend an unschooling philosophy with some structure, and at the child’s own pace, while moving through certain modules of State curriculum.

N: What excites you the most about the work that you are doing?

M: There are a couple of things that come to mind. One, there are the people I am meeting. I am meeting some fantastic women that I just nearly worship; I so admire their courage and the strength to be counter-cultural. And the children that I am meeting show so much hope; they are so bright and show so much potential, and they are so happy. There isn’t any fear or trepidation around learning. It’s exciting to know that there will be a generation of young people coming up in North America who have a strong sense of self that hasn’t been tainted or shaped by conventional schools, and it’s something that their parents have helped create with them, and that they think outside of the box. They use creativity, they think in ways that would not even occur to kids who have been conventionally schooled, and so there are these creative problem solvers. I believe that out of this generation of people, this group of children, there is a huge potential for them to have an impact on the Black community in terms of how people see themselves, and begin to see what’s possible.

Black homeschooling is below the radar! It’s subversive in that the people are not petitioning the State for something. They are not asking for anything. It’s about it being radical and powerful. They have come into their own, taking complete and total ownership of their lives, their children’s lives, and their future.

After the completion of her Ph.D. studies, Monica Wells Kisura worked as an adjunct professor of intercultural communication at Trinity Washington University. She died on October 24, 2015 after a two-and-a-half-year struggle with lung cancer. She was 49. This interview was published 2006.

Nathalie Zur Nedden left her home in Montréal, Québec and quit school at the age of thirteen. She has been learning ever since, both through life experiences and university. Her work with at-risk youth eventually led her to a Master of Arts in Transformative Learning from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. based on telling the story of a Canadian woman who has theorized about the virtues of alternatives to formal schooling – Life Learning’s editor Wendy Priesnitz.  

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