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Challenging the Genius Within

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About This Site

Monica Z. Utsey is an accomplished writer and editor. Her work has appeared in national magazines including Heart & Soul, the Crisis Magazine, and Upscale. In addition to writing, she and her husband operate two successful businesses, One Word Tees & Baby Soul for Boys, clothing lines that feature motivational words.

Monica is also the President of the Southern DC Chapter of Mocha Moms, Inc. She is a foreign language enthusiast, avid reader, breastfeeding peer counselor, and proponent of Attachment Parenting. She is currently working on two books: Etiquette for African-American Children and Attachment Parenting for African-American Families.

She and her husband Eric have been unschooling their only son, Zion, age 4 since birth. Monica is a member of the Capital Area Homeschooling Community in Washington, D.C., and facilitates its book club for the early years (ages 3-6). Her future plans include returning to her Alma matter, Howard University, to teach about Afro-Latino Language and Culture.

Imagine attending a conference with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells?  You'd probably be awestruck.  That's exactly how I felt attending the Challenging the Genius Within:  Excellent Education for African Children Conference in Philadelphia, Pa., in September.  Many of the world's giants of African-centered scholarship were in attendance.  Being in the same room with the authors of many of the African-centered books that I read when I first stumbled down the path on the quest to gain "knowledge of self," made me feel like a giddy schoolgirl.  I was so excited to be in the presence of these intellectual geniuses, and they certainly did not disappointment me.

I attended this conference as a reporter for Fungasa, but I was also looking for ways to expand upon my vision to raise and educate my son from an African-centered perspective.  I knew that homeschooling my son had many advantages, but I had no idea how profound an impact I could make concerning his liberation through homeschooling.  I was blown away by Dr. Asa Hilliard's talk about the state of African education.  Dr. Hilliard is a professor of Education at George State University, one of the leading researchers in the field of Egyptology, author of Reawakening of the African Mind, and architect of the Portland Baseline Essays, which represented the first time that a comprehensive global and longitudinal view of people of African ancestry had been presented in a curriculum.

While I knew that my goal as a homeschooler, and specifically as an unschooler, was to help my child cultivate a love of learning, I had no idea that as an African-centered home educator, my job was also to undo what Dr. Hilliard described as the "12 Challenges for African People."

1) We are unconscious, with no global view of ourselves.  We experience ourselves as local people in a global world.
2) We have no knowledge of ourselves as a historical people evolving through time and spreading through the world.
3) We have lost our solidarity and feel no bond of identity with our people.
4) We are not raising our own children.  We have no systematic socialization structures for the masses of our children.  They are raising themselves or being raised by others.
5) We have a loss of faith-based initiatives.
6) We have no long-range strategic goals as a people.
7) We do not have an appetite for wealth building.
8) We do not have an adequate comprehension of how to nurture health and prevent illness.
9) We have no major, independent, self-funded think tanks to help us define ourselves.
10) We do not have adequate African Centered Higher Education.
11) We do not have sufficient cultural centers, movements, monuments, and celebrations that highlight important experiences and shape directions.
12) We have no way to communicate independently with each other without going through some sort of filter.

When I examined this list, I realized that I could build a curriculum around these themes and in the process give my son the greatest gift imaginable-liberation.  There are also entrepreneurial possibilities within this list.  Most importantly, this kind of education would speak to the core of who my child is and what he is to become.

When I approached Dr. Hilliard afterward (a very warm and kind man), I told him that as a stay-at-home mom and home educator, I was truly grateful that he spoke about the importance of "raising our own children," in an academic environment.  When he equated sending children off to daycare institutions with what happened in the film "Rabbit Proof Fence," the room grew silent.  I felt like the sole member of the "amen corner." The film is based on a true story and documents a time when the Australian government's policy was to steal children from their Aboriginal parents and place them in institutions to learn how to become white or integrated.

In his talk, Dr. Molefi Asante, professor of African American Studies at Temple University, the premier center of graduate training in African American studies and the author of more than 25 books on the Afrocentric experience, said that there are some basic assumptions that must be made in order for Afrocentric education to be successful.  I'll highlight a few here:  phenomena must be interpreted from an Afrocentric perspective; we must understand that there are elements of commonality in all African cultures; Afrocentric theory is not masculine-oriented or female-oriented; the African origin of civilization is a scientific fact; and that research must take place from within the culture.  Learning takes on a whole new meaning when you start with the assumption that the cradle of civilization is in Africa!

The Founder of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga, was also in attendance.  Imagine teaching your son about the principles of Kwanzaa and then showing him a photograph of mommy alongside the founder and his lovely wife (yes, I got a picture!).  Anyway, I digress.  Dr. Karenga is a professor in the Department of Black Studies at California State University, the Director of the Kawaida Institute of Pan African Studies, and author of too many books and articles to list here.  Surprisingly down to earth and still very radical, Dr. Karenga described education as an ethical enterprise, "bold, difficult, important and urgent."  According to Dr. Karenga, education from the classical African concept is a practice and process, which cultivates knowledge, transmits tradition, and fosters reasoning which provides opportunities for students to develop and prepare for a meaningful contribution to do good in the world.  This is accomplished through what Dr. Karenga calls four basic kinds of knowledge transmission, acquisition, and exchange:

1. Knowledge of the world;
2. Knowledge of ourselves in the world;
3. Knowledge of how to negotiate successfully in the world; and
4. Knowledge which aids us in directing our lives toward good and expansive ends.

If there were any unschoolers in the audience besides me, they would have been smiling broadly as he charged education with the task of improving the human condition and the world, and made numerous references to learning being linked to life, nature, and well-being.  Dr. Karenga went on to say that education must also have a moral framework, which includes a profound respect for the sacred, human life, family and community, and the environment.  Finally, he spoke of the importance of the concept of relatedness.  He called it reciprocal solidarity for the mutual benefit of humanity.  In layperson's terms, we like each other and want to be around each other.  Dr. Karenga used the lunchroom example to highlight this point, stating that when all of the Black students sit together it's not about being separatist, instead it's culturally healthy.  As African American unschoolers, I'm sure we understand this point.

My brain was starting to get heavy at this point.  The best place to park all of this knowledge is inside of a brain that is thinking optimally.  Enter Dr. Linda James Meyers.  I'll admit, I'd never heard of her.  But after her presentation, I'll never forget her.  For the past 25 years she has been working in the areas of African Psychology.  She is a professor in the Department of African American and African Studies and Psychology at the Ohio State University.  She is the Executive Director of the Center for Optimal Thought, and author of two groundbreaking works:  Understanding an Afrocentric World View:  Introduction to an Optimal Psychology and the newly released Blessed Assurance:  Deep Thought and Meditations in the Tradition and Wisdom of our Ancestors.  Did I mention that she was very nice? After giving a profound talk, she humbly sat next to me and asked me questions about my notes for this article.  Again, I digress.

Based on the wisdom tradition of African Deep thought, Dr. Meyers asserts that, "no area of American life in which the racial and cultural biases historically plaguing U.S. society serve to the detriment of African American children and families more than in the arena of formal education."  Wow! Now that's saying a mouthful.  She went on to say that "the U.S. systems of formal education, policies, and practices serve to perpetuate a status quo that is detrimental to African American children."  Hello!  She highlighted a few points that are particularly harmful, including educational environments that are not nurturing, relevant or supportive; worldviews, values and beliefs of the dominant culture that are counter to the health and viability of African American individuals, families, and communities; and a fragmented, non-comprehensive, incoherent worldview unsupported by science.

And who can discuss education without an essential piece of the African American cultural experience-the Spirit.  According to Dr. Wade Nobles, a sought after social psychologist, professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University, Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Black Family Life and Culture and the Center for Applied Cultural Studies and Educational Achievement, a California State University System Educational Research Center dedicated to studying and developing models of culturally consistent education for African American Children.  Dr. Nobles' teaching model is called the Nsaka SumSun (which means, in the Twi Language of West Africa, to touch deeply and profoundly the spirit).  When love is a component of the educational process, Dr. Nobles says that there is a "merging of the spirits [student and teacher] to create greater spirits."  The teacher is held in high regard and described as the "Jegna," another term from the Twi language, which means, "to protect the people and the culture."

According to Dr. Nobles, "the purpose of the educational experience should be to respect and reinforce the spiritual evolution and cultural maturation of the child in harmony with their own existence, family, and community."  He went on to list what he called four postulates for educating African American children, paraphrased here:

1. The content should be connected with their experiences.
2. The teacher must be able to speak the child's language.
3. The child must have adequate time to process and apply new information and make it culturally meaningful.
4. African American children must feel in harmony with his or her learning environment.

In essence, because of the experience of the extended family, our children are accustomed to receiving more emotional support and thrive in a cooperative learning setting.  Our children also want to know the what, how and why of what they are learning relates to their own lives.  That's a good thing and a sign of a thinking person.

If there were any holes in my homeschool plan for Zion, they were filled and running over with information by the time I left this conference.  I also discovered there was much for me to learn as I journey alongside my son.  More importantly, I put to rest (at least temporarily) many of my fears that crop up about whether I'm "depriving" my son by not sending him to school like everyone else.  These scholars confirmed for me that even the African-centered schools are not fully addressing these deficits.

The conference was a first-class affair.  The workshops were informative and very organized, the vendors were superb, and the food was great.  Sankofa Publishing Institute founded and sponsors the conference for African-centered educators to come together each year.  The founder of Sankofa Publishing is Dr. Freya Rivers, author of the Challenging the Genius Language Arts Curriculum-a wonderful, holistic literature based curriculum.  (I loved the book Becoming and purchased it for my son).  The city of Chicago is rallying heavily to hold next year's conference.  Wherever they are, I hope to be there.  This event has profoundly changed my life.

Yurugu
                                    : An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior
Yurugu : An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior

The Afrocentric
                                    Idea
The Afrocentric Idea

Sankofa Publishing Institute

Dr. Maulana Karenga

Dr. Linda James Myers

Dr. Molefi Asante

Dr. Wade Nobles