The Coolest Black Family in America, No. 21: The James-Masons

Mother Karen and daughter Kenya on the waves

Karen Marie Mason was born into a West Indian family where there was no question as to whether one would pursue higher education after high school. Everybody goes to college. “My grandparents were educators in Jamaica. My mother was a first generation immigrant to America. There was a very hard line about accomplishment,” Karen says.

A graduate of Syracuse University with a degree in communications, Karen was making a six-figure salary as the marketing director of a record label in New York. But she quit that job, moved to Atlanta and bought a house, affording time for full focus on her daughter, Kenya Jordana James. Karen describes her former love, Trevor James, as a great father and businessman. Tragically, he was killed when Kenya was 3 years old.

“Things were happening subliminally and simultaneously,” Karen says. “Outside looking in, I seemed to be managing things well, but I didn’t feel that way inside. I left my job because I was picking up my daughter late or I was tired when I got home. Our children, they need us there—not just physically, but spiritually and mentally there.” She continues, “The more I was able to be there for Kenya, and observe how it rounded out the person she was becoming, it made the experience more lovely, more beautiful. It’s like, ‘wow, this is what motherhood is about.’ ”

Karen soon took the progression of her daughter’s education into her own hands. Kenya had told her mother she didn’t feel challenged. Living in Atlanta, disappointed at the dismal numbers in the public school system at the time, Karen researched and took the necessary steps to homeschool her daughter. Karen says, “I couldn’t see making Kenya a part of that statistic.” A courageous call to action, she studied the curriculum required for the state of Georgia. “It was challenging, but after a while, I really got the hang of it!”

Critical thinking was a key component to Ms. Mason’s teaching style for her sole student. Karen recalls, “I used to have a block of English, a block of math… we had the chalkboard and everything! Then it became incredibly boring for Kenya and for me.” Along with teaching her the curriculum all other kids her age were learning, Karen designed her own “world as a classroom” formula: a stimulating, life-engaging brand of teaching compounded with the state’s educational requirements.

Karen’s philosophy? “Being able to critically assess the world around you is as important to me as learning the ABCs.” Ms. Mason took Kenya to lectures, there was current events “homework” about the news. “I wanted her to be able to think critically about what we were just told,” Karen says. “I wanted her to understand certain concepts in a way that could be applied to any subject. So if I teach her the concept of excellence, for example, she would understand it in a way that also applied her.”

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The Coolest Black Family in America, No. 21: The James-Masons

Kenya, now 23, has no recollection of her father. “People would tell me stories about him, but my mother has been my momma and my daddy.” And her teacher, and her business partner. “I never felt the need to fill that gap, because I never felt one. My storyline has been complete with my mom. Whatever my mom felt like she couldn’t provide herself, she made sure I received it somewhere else,” says Kenya.

Motivated by that sensibility, Karen chose a collective of luminary thinkers, as Kenya’s  godfathers—Dr. Asa Hilliard (Pan-African intelligentsia and professor of educational psychology) and Dr. John Henrik Clarke (historian and leader in the Africana studies movement), to name a few. “I looked at them as advisory council,” Karen says.

Kenya was 12 when she started Blackgirl magazine. “I did it because I was frustrated that I didn’t see Black [girls in magazines],” she said. “I felt like, I’m not even asking for equal representation, but let me just get a little something.” The magazine supported Kenya’s vision of how she saw herself, her people and her little Black girl experience—African-American images of history, music and culture. As the editor and publisher of Blackgirl, she interviewed Bow Wow, Mario and B2K, as well as reported on Emmit Till and Fannie Lou Hamer.

At 13, Kenya and Blackgirl magazine appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “My mom won’t admit this, but I’m sure it was my mom’s efforts that got me there.” Subscriptions went way up. Kenya had speaking engagements and radio shows. “I was juggling a lot. I thought I wasn’t a normal child. I felt like a celebrity kid type character.”

She published Blackgirl until her senior year in high school. “I was ready to go out and be normal without having this reputation to live up to. I relish the fact that I was able to have a magazine. And my mom was my protector, especially when I