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.”
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 was burnt out. She realized it and she said, ‘the magazine’s done.’
“My mom and I are both very stubborn people. The hierarchy between mother and child was very much in place and still is to this day. However, my mom listens to me. She gives me her advice and then lets me make the decision,” Kenya says.
Kenya was ready to expand her world, desiring a prom and teenage normalcy. “I told my mom I didn’t want to be homeschooled anymore.” At tenth grade, she attended a private high school with this requirement: “Throughout my coeducational experience, I only had Black teachers. My mom felt that Black students should have Black teachers.”
Accepted to many colleges, Kenya chose Howard University. Her mother says, “She chose a great school. At 18, you’re still being molded, you’re still clay. College represents a philosophy. I advised her to be clear on the philosophy of the school and choose on that basis.”
Kenya could not be more pleased with her choice. “Howard was so great.” She giggles at the thought. “It was crazy. It was fun. I’m a proud Bison. It’s a very familial environment. It was the best four years of my life. Howard University has a work ethic. I worked and played much harder!”
When Kenya asked for a tattoo and piercing, her mother obliged her. “Kenya was the type of child that made you want to reward her. She always worked so hard. And as she developed, she partied hard too! Which is fine. I always told her, if you work hard you can play hard. And she did her work and understood that concept very well!”
Pursuing a master’s in international affairs at The New School for Social Research in New York City, Kenya says, “I’m gung-ho about joining the foreign services. It’s exploring the connection between politics and culture.” She’s currently interning at the United Nations environmental program on Capitol Hill.
Karen says, “I asked her the other day what happened to her piercing. She said ‘I can’t have that working on the Hill!’ Nobody had to tell her that.”
Karen and Kenya have traveled to Turkey, England and Morocco. They also spend Christmas in Jamaica every year. Kenya says, “We went to Paris in April. It was the first time I felt that there was no hierarchy; we were more like friends going on a trip.”
Karen Mason has reared a young woman who was a dean’s list student at Howard, traveled to Italy as a part of the honors program, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated with honors. In two years, she’ll be a United States diplomat living in a foreign country. Her mother says, “I call her Ambassador James all the time. I already know she’s going be an ambassador, and she already knows it. The U.S. is just way too small for Kenya Jordana James.”
Karen admits, “I didn’t know everything in reference to raising Kenya, but I sought advice. Children should be taught who they are. If you’re not sure, you should seek advice from those who are sure.”
Kenya believes that family should respect each other, value each other and let each other rock. She says, “I had the freedom to choose what I wanted to do for my life, and my mom supported that fully.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.