Wave of Black studies programs at Canadian universities a long time coming, scholars say

October 31, 2021
Wave of Black studies programs at Canadian universities a long time coming, scholars say
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A new Black studies minor will be offered to students of Ryerson University in the Fall 2022 semester — and other similar programs are in the works across the country, filling what scholars are calling a longtime curriculum gap at Canadian universities.

A successful program at Dalhousie University, launched in 2016, marked the beginning of a new era in academic institutions. But Black studies scholars and academics say that this new wave has been in the works for a long time.

By all accounts, students are leading the charge for Black studies curriculums at Canadian universities, and have been for years, with the support of faculty.

“I’m happy, but I’m not grateful. Let me put it that way,” said Afua Cooper, a Black studies professor at Dalhousie University.

“Because if it took white society and academia so long to recognize that, you know, the Black experience is … worthy of scholarly inquiry, then I’m kind of like, ‘Hmm.'”

Students wanted new curriculum, prof says

The push is “coming from Black students who are having an increased access to post-secondary education, something which many people take for granted as a result of systemic barriers and racism,” said Melanie Knight, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University.

“Our classrooms were not made up largely of Black students.”

The university’s new Black studies minor is interdisciplinary, huddling courses from different departments and schools together into one program — with more to come as the curriculum expands. These efforts took time as the school focused on hiring Black faculty to administer relevant courses.

“It would be odd to have it housed in one department,” said Knight, who was part of a working group that included professors Cheryl Thompson and Anne-Marie Lee-Loy. “That wouldn’t actually speak to the history and the lived realities [of Black people].”

Melanie Knight, an associate professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Sociology, was one of three members of a task force developing a new Black studies minor at the school. (Submitted by Melanie Knight)

In her 2010 book Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada, Canadian scholar Charmaine Nelson wrote that the field of Black studies in this country was absent compared to its American counterpart. Historically, much of Black studies in Canada has taken the form of research centres and other “under-funded structures,” Nelson wrote.

With that in mind, it’s significant that in the last few years a number of Canadian universities — led by Black scholars, students and faculty — have successfully implemented formal programs in Black studies, Black Canadian studies and Black diaspora studies.

Mir Asoh, a fifth-year student at Ryerson University — which he calls X University, given Egerton Ryerson’s involvement with residential schools — said that he would like to see courses taught by a diverse group of Black faculty members.

“If the Black studies minor is only taught by Black cis-gender, neuro-typical and/or non-disabled folks, then it is incomplete and lacking much needed perspectives,” Asoh said.

Knight noted that the pursuit of Black studies is a new opportunity for this generation of students.

“Many students have gone through these educational systems not having had this. Most, including myself,” Knight said. “And I think you get discouraged coming out of it.”

Dalhousie, York led the way

In the last five years, four Canadian universities have announced Black studies programs with at least two more in discussion.

York University offers a Black Canadian studies certificate, which can be pursued independently or as a companion to an undergraduate degree. Since the program was announced in October 2018, it has graduated 7 students and 46 students are currently enrolled, according to the program coordinator.

Two years earlier in 2016, Dalhousie University put forward its Black African Diaspora minor, allowing students to concentrate on history, culture and sociology courses about Black people in Canada as well as the African diaspora. 

Afua Cooper is a professor of Black studies at Dalhousie University. Cooper spearheaded the development of a Black studies minor at the school, announced in 2016. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

That program was the first of its kind, according to Cooper, who is also director of the Black People’s History of Canada project, a government-funded initiative that aims to close gaps in the study of African Canadian history.

Cooper noted that many Canadian universities have been teaching individual courses on aspects of the Black experience for decades.

“But there was nothing that was called Black studies,” she said. “Nothing that was put together in a comprehensive way.”

“What’s unique here is that for the first time, there’s an umbrella. It’s called Black studies. You can come, you can do a minor, you will be able to do a major, you will be able to do a degree program in Black studies. That is the difference.”

WATCH | : Afua Cooper discusses Dalhousie University’s Black studies curriculum:

Afua Cooper speaks about the development of Dalhousie University’s Black studies curriculum

Afua Cooper, a Black studies professor at Dalhousie University, tells CBC News about the school’s pioneering Black studies minor, first introduced in 2016 and now expanded into a major. 1:09

Cooper herself is one of the country’s leaders in the field of Black studies, having taught courses about Black Ontario and African Canadian history at the University of Toronto in the mid-90s.

She said that in the past 30 years, there have been concerted efforts to centralize Black studies knowledge within the Canadian academic system. But political and cultural movements of the last five years, particularly George Floyd’s murder in the context of the broader Black Lives Matter movement, pushed academic institutions into a new direction.

“We have more Black students coming on campus, people are saying, ‘Hey, I’m not reflected in the curriculum.’ People have a voice now.”

In March, Dalhousie announced that it would expand the curriculum into a major. 

Other curriculums in the works — and it’s a long time coming

Ontario Hall at Queen’s University campus in Kingston, Ont., in 2020. The university’s Black studies minor will launch in Fall 2022. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

A Black studies program at Concordia University in Montreal is a matter of when, not if, said Angélique Willkie, a special advisor and chair of the school’s task force on anti-Black racism.

A dedicated group of students and faculty began meeting in 2016 to discuss a new Black studies minor. In 2018, the group drafted a written proposal for the program, but they could not move forward without a commitment from the school to hire more Black faculty. 

As of this writing, a subcommittee is developing the program and plans to announce recommendations in the weeks ahead.

Next door in Ontario, two Black studies diplomas are in the works at the University of Waterloo, which has offered Black studies courses since the 1960s. And, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Queen’s University announced a Black studies minor in 2020, alongside the appointment of two chairs in Black studies and a series of faculty hires. 

Queen’s University’s Black studies minor is ‘amazingly diverse,’ said Katherine McKittrick, a professor in the Department of Gender Studies and a key player in the development of the program. (Submitted by Katherine McKittrick)

Originally targeted for fall 2021 and now slated for next year, the Queen’s program has been in development since 2014-15, according to Katherine McKittrick, a professor in the Department of Gender Studies and key player in the initiative.

“This is a global Black studies program, which means that we are attentive to different Black communities on the continent of Africa and the diaspora,” McKittrick wrote in an email to CBC News, adding that the minor was modelled after the Indigenous studies program. 

“When we started to envision the program, we noticed a lot of existing courses in Black studies and many — Black feminist thought, technologies of hip hop, Black sound studies — are a hit with students.”

The program curriculum is “amazingly diverse,” McKittrick noted, pointing to courses on Black histories, Black and Caribbean literatures, and ecologies in Southern Africa as just a few of the minor’s offerings. Some courses focus on Black and Indigenous collaborations, and another set of courses are centred on anti-racism. 

Though the formal plans span the last few years, McKittrick said that these efforts are urgent, but not new.

“I think of this as long work rather than recent work,” McKittrick said. “What Black scholars and activists have taught us, over time, is that the Black Canadian experience provides a meaningful window into how we understand liberation, belonging, scholarship, activism and more.”


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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