Lessons in DefianceHomeschooling Lets Black Girls Learn in Peace

“All Of Us,” 2019. Illustration by Destiny Belgrave.

The Power issue cover featuring Meech, a Black woman with short hair dressed in a black and gold embroidered jacket and a Shakespearean ruff adorned around her neck, arms crossed in front giving a commanding look and demeanor.
This article was published in Power Issue #88 | Fall 2020

I was 5 years old when I was manhandled by an authoritarian: my white kindergarten teacher. She demanded that I apologize to our school librarian for something I have since forgotten, but I still remember feeling as if I were in trouble, though I was confused as to why. Instead of doing as she asked, I was overwhelmed with intense social anxiety and stood in silence as the class watched, quietly waiting for what would happen next in this suddenly tense moment. The teacher grew impatient and, viewing my fearful resistance as an act of defiance, she began to drag me down the hallway by both arms as I wailed an apology—but it was too late. I was terrified.

I felt powerless, even though my mother, a middle-school teacher, was involved in the school system. I didn’t tell her about the incident until recently, as I’m now in my mid-20s and the moment felt distant enough to rehash. As a child who suffered from unease and bouts of trauma revolving around being abandoned by my biological father, I felt psychologically debilitated and longed for an educational space where I felt secure. Though my mother subtly oversaw mental evaluations of me to get to the root of my in-school distractedness, the state of my mental health went unresolved under the supervision of Americanized public schooling. Rather than qualifying as a student who required special attention, I became a dejected statistic—lost in the education system.

To fight back, some Black parents are electing to homeschool their Black daughters. By putting the needs of the students before the ego of a white teachers, homeschooling actively challenges the notion that Black girls can’t thrive intellectually. In both public and private education, Black girls are treated as though we’re inferior. A 2015 article in the Conversation, an independent academic publication, explains that 85 percent of public school teachers are white, making it more difficult for Black girls to find educators who they can relate to or trust. Instead, they find their individuality discouraged as they’re forced into submission through penalization and the looming threat of punishment. Black girls across the board receive an inadequate amount of educational preparation: They’re suspended at six times the rate of white students, are punished for wearing their natural hair, and are even forced to adhere to sexist, racist dress codes that sexualize their bodies. 

A 2018 article published in the Teachers College Record titled “Black Students in Handcuffs: Addressing Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline for Students with Dis/abilities” found the landscape is even more difficult for disabled Black girls, who have the highest rate of overrepresentation in both in-school and out-of-school suspensions. In a classroom setting, Black girls who are seen as being “challenging” or “noncompliant” receive “zero tolerance” for their behavior, and in turn, are criminalized. In 2015, Ben Fields, a police officer in Columbia, South Carolina, made headlines for being caught on video body slamming and dragging a Black female high-school student. Fields, who had previously been named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit, slammed the student for allegedly using her cell phone in class and refusing to go to the school’s “discipline office.”

Similarly, in 2019, two Black 6-year-olds, a girl and a boy, were arrested separately at the same Florida school by school resource officer Dennis Turner for having tantrums. These vicious, disproportionate punishments are both mental and physical, as Black girls are often abused by authorities who don’t recognize or treat them as children. It’s a concept researchers have termed “adultification,” in which Black girls—from preschool onward—are treated as if they’re older and subjected to harsher punishment as a result. Instead of offering gentle, thoughtful instruction in school, some white teachers may feel inclined to push Black girls based on how they think they should be taught, electing to micromanage their classroom experience through discipline rather than doing the work to keep students engaged and to recognize the role that both gender and race play in education.

Unsurprisingly, given this mistreatment, Black girls don’t always have a lot of faith or trust in mainstream schooling. They’re also not being given effective strategies to combat their anger, anxiety, or depression, and are dropping out of school at higher rates than their white counterparts. Black parents are witnessing this treatment and some of them are feeling just as averse to these educational institutions as their daughters. Homeschooling, then, becomes revolutionary for Black parents. In 2018, PBS found that “in the last 15 years, the number of Black children in homeschool has doubled from 103,000 to about 220,000.” These parents want to ensure that their curriculum honors Black girls and validates their self-worth. “Unschooling,” a term originally coined in 1970 by educator John Holt, encourages parents to implement a curriculum that aligns with homeschooled students’ personal interests instead of the oppressive education of mainstream schools.

By putting the needs of the student before the ego of a white teacher, homeschooling actively challenges the notion that Black girls can’t thrive intellectually.

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Choosing homeschool doesn’t hinder Black girls; instead, it works to prioritize the physical, emotional, and mental health of Black girls who need a reprieve from a racist education system. Instead of parents relying on a traditional school setting, the impetus of homeschool teaching can introduce children to religion, astrology, anatomy, and more extensive cultural history than that which is taught by schools solely during Black History Month. Erica (who declined to share her last name), a homeschool teacher and blogger with My Busy Bees and Me, says that homeschooling offers Black parents the chance to challenge a whitewashed version of history and empower their daughters. “[History is] written solely from the author’s perspective, which all but guarantees [the erasure of] some historical figure or event of the utmost importance to the Black plight within America,” Erica tells Bitch. “Our all-inclusive approach to creating curriculum within our homeschool environment allows us to bring those stories of color to life.”

While traditional schooling may position Blackness as other, homeschooling does just the opposite. “[Black girls] have a true window into the past and are able to grasp that we truly stand on the shoulders of giants, and although they live in a world that at times excludes them or their stories,” Erica says. “It’s okay to be culturally rooted and proud of their heritage.” While homeschooling has historically been limited to students with a stay-at-home parent or other economic advantages, the internet is leveling the playing field: Educational YouTube videos are a go-to resource for parents, with PBS Kids, Scholastic Books, and Highlights offering up-to-date learning apps.

Families that have portable tablets such as iPads or Kindles may find it easier to access online educational platforms, and there are also Facebook groups dedicated to Black homeschoolers, like Homeschooling for Black Freethinkers, established in 2015, and the Black Homeschoolers Connection, established in 2016, that act as a source of community and kinship. There are even audio-based formats like Cleverly Changing and Melanin Taught that can help parents decide if homeschooling is for them and, if they choose to pursue it, how to get started. Beyond the traditional classroom, homeschooling allows Black girls to gain access to a fairer assessment as they become attuned with learning on their own terms. By electing to homeschool, Black parents offer their students the chance to achieve with a break from the racial disparities they face in conventional school settings.

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Jaelani Turner-Williams, a Black woman with long, black braids, looks at the camera
by Jaelani Turner-Williams
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Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio. She’s a contributing senior writer at (614) magazine and has also written for Billboard, MTV News, Vice, and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Jacqueline Woodson, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within music, sexuality, feminism, and social criticism.