Researchers say black Nova Scotians were discriminated against by the relief commission after 1917 explosion
The morning of Dec. 6, 1917, would have started normally for Mary and Levi Lucas, as it did for every other family in Halifax. But by midday, their lives were in ruins, thanks to the Halifax Explosion.
The couple rented their home on Cornwallis Street and Levi owned a small shoe-shining business. But during the explosion, Mary lost an eye and Levi suffered a head injury while their neighbourhood was levelled by the blast.
At the end of January, a worker with the Halifax Relief Commission cut off food assistance to the family. The worker wrote of the family:
“Claim that both himself and wife were injured in the Explosion, his wife requiring operation on eye. Mentions cataract. Doubtful if it is an Explosion case. Suggest investigation.”
Two legal workers in Halifax recently examined relief given to black families, including the Lucases. Their research helps illustrate the disparity between what black families and white families received, and suggests possible ways to make amends
Katrin MacPhee, a Halifax lawyer, was inspired to research the topic by Dalhousie University professors Afua Cooper and Michelle Williams, who suggested an academic paper on the topic would be useful.
“It definitely confirmed for me what African-Nova Scotians had spoken about, a history of discrimination in the aftermath of the explosion. I think it really validates the sense in the community that an injustice was done,” MacPhee said.
MacPhee and her research partner, Mark Culligan, used files from the Nova Scotia Archives to compare the experiences of 50 black families and 50 non-black families who were all given relief funds. They found definite differences between the two groups.
For example, when the researchers examined personal effects claims, they found that on average the 50 non-black families in their study claimed $267.93. On average, those families were granted about 79 per cent of their claim.
By contrast, on average the 50 black families claimed $217.26 for personal effects and were granted about 53 per cent of their claim. Relief workers often wrote skeptically about the claims made by blacks, or did not try very hard to find the families to offer relief.
“It’s really easy to quantify the discrimination,” MacPhee said.
“The systemic issue with the way that relief was handed out was that the relief commission sought to restore the social order as it existed in Halifax before the explosion,” Culligan said.
“So that meant compensating people with property to the value of their property, and compensating for lost wages more to people who had formalized, high-skilled employment.”
Blacks in Halifax were less likely to own property and less likely to have formal jobs, and this effectively cut them off from relief.
Cooper, who is also the poet laureate for the Halifax region, said she was happy that MacPhee and Culligan acted on the suggestion to research the experience of the black community during the Halifax Explosion.
“I know some other people have written on it, but in a more general way,” she said. “I’m just thrilled.”
“For me, it’s the other half now that’s being told, the other half of the story that’s been suppressed and buried.”
MacPhee and Culligan, who are married, also examined different legal avenues today’s black community could use to seek reparations for the unfair distribution of funds.
Those included techniques like filing claims under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or human rights law. However, the pair concluded it would be extremely difficult to win such cases.
“It’s really unfortunate for groups that have been discriminated against historically that the way the legal system has evolved has made it very difficult to actually bring these claims,” MacPhee said.
The researchers concluded that because there are so many obstacles to a legal case, reparations might be easier to win through political action.
Lynn Jones is a community activist who has been working on reparations for historical injustices for many years.
“When we talk about reparations, we need to understand that in Canada there has never been a reparations claim made on behalf of black people,” she said.
Jones feels there are many incidents in Nova Scotia where a case for reparations could be made, such as the destruction of Africville, abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children and the Halifax Explosion.
“If we had obtained what was rightfully due to us at that time, how might we be living today? What kind of properties, land, might we possess today? And by that not happening, how can we be compensated in today’s terms?” she said.
Jones said reparations could come in the form of educational programs and services, business and development support, supports for families and children, or direct financial compensation.
“There should be some way of trying to obtain some equity today,” she said.”
HALIFAX, N.S. — Several rows of reserved empty chairs served as stark reminders on Friday that there are no more survivors of the 1917 Halifax Explosion, yet a couple of hundred people still gathered at the Fort Needham Memorial Park to honour the memories of those who died that fateful day as well as the sacrifices and courage of those who carried on in the days and weeks that followed.
Lindell Smith, the city councillor for the area, served as master of ceremonies. When he looked out on the crowd of residents of all ages, he drew attention to the chairs, each bearing a carefully folded green blanket on the seat.
“Take a moment to look at these empty chairs in the front,” Smith said before a number of digitaries began the traditional laying of wreaths on the steps to the memorial.
Trevor Sanipass performed a smudging ceremony on behalf of the Mi’kmaw community to open the service, followed by prepared remarks from Smith, city poet laureate Afua Cooper, and Halifax deputy mayor Lisa Blackburn.
On Dec. 6, 1917, the munitions ship Mont-Blanc caught fire and exploded in Halifax Harbour after colliding with the Norwegian vessel Imo, a ship carrying war relief supplies. The blast flattened large areas in the northern section of Halifax, Dartmouth and the Mi’kmaw community in Tufts Cove, killed nearly 2,000 people and left another 9,000 injured. Fires raged and a snowstorm followed the next day. Relief trains from Boston and Montreal brought urgently needed medical supplies and aid.
International aid followed with funds from numerous nations coming in to support relief efforts and the Halifax Relief Commission operated from 1918 all the way through 1976, managing compensation claims, pensions and reconstruction.
That work was not without controversy, as African Nova Scotians found the commission denied much of their claims, Cooper pointed out. After Friday’s ceremony she expressed the importance of remembering the impact of the Explosion and its aftermath on minority communities.
“It’s tremendously important because many members of the black community, when they applied for the relief commission, many of them were denied (by) the commission, many of them were given a pitiful sum of whatever help they could have gotten, so the racial segregation, the racism, again reared its ugly head in a time of tragedy, and that was unfortunate,” the professor in Dalhousie University’s department of sociology and social anthropology said.
“And today — meaning in this time — the scholars have revealed that and are questioning that and are saying this city of Halifax needs to give restitution to the survivors, in some way, shape, or form, of these black individuals who were denied compensation, who lost their homes, who lost family members, who lost their means of livelihood, who lost limbs and so on.”
That said, she also stressed the importance of marking the anniversary of the tragedy for all.
“It’s wonderful that even 102 years later, we’re still remembering the event, we’re remembering the victims, we’re remembering the survivors, we’re remembering the helpers, the people who rallied from near and far to come and help the city of Halifax and neighbouring communities. So my heart is just full. I think it’s fantastic that we do this every year.”
Marilyn Davidson Elliott, spokeswoman for the families of the original survivors, was one of those who laid a wreath, but she had been hoping for a chance to speak. She was told in advance that the agenda was full. She still feels it’s important to make sure their voices don’t fade away.
“If this service is not about the families, then what is it about?” she asked before the ceremony began.
“Now all the survivors are gone, so we are the ones who are left to tell the stories. We’re the storytellers, the torch has been passed to us, and we don’t want that to be forgotten (or) overlooked.”
She’s still hopeful that she or some other representative of the survivors’ families will be able to say some words at future events.
Sometimes, self-reflection is forced to occur with great velocity. The committee behind the 1989 Breaking Barriers report (see Breaking Barriers, 30 Years Later) was given a mere four months to engage with the community and assess the state of Black and Mi’kmaq education at Dalhousie—no easy feat. Which is why, more often than not, self-reflection takes time—especially when the historical record being reflected upon is controversial or unclear.
Afua Cooper knows this better than most. When she agreed to serve as chair of the Dal-commissioned Scholarly Panel to Examine Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race back in late 2016, she knew it was not a project to be rushed. Still, she didn’t expect it to become a nearly three-year commitment. “But looking back, I think it was the right chunk of time for that research and this report,” says Dr. Cooper, a faculty member in the Departments of History and Sociology & Social Anthropology and former James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies. “And that’s because our report is based in history and founded in historical research—research that took place locally, nationally and internationally. That takes time.”
The result of that time and effort by Dr. Cooper and a scholarly panel of experts was released in early September of this year. At more than 130 pages and roughly 50,000 words, the Panel’s report offers a thorough accounting of the various intersections—“entanglements,” as the report calls them—between George Ramsay, the Ninth Earl of Dalhousie who commissioned the founding of Dalhousie University in 1818 while serving as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, and the institution and legacy of slavery.
The report’s story is focused on the experience of Black Refugees from the War of 1812, who fled slavery for freedom in Nova Scotia and formed the largest immigration group of what would become the province’s African Nova Scotian communities. It tells how the views and policies of colonial leaders of the time towards the Black Refugees helped institutionalize anti-Black racism and created systemic barriers with legacies that still resonate more than 200 years later. And though there were no slaves in Nova Scotia at the time, the report shows how deeply intertwined the province’s economy and ruling class still were to the global slave trade, and how these connections are inextricable from an understanding the history of 19th century Nova Scotia—including Dalhousie University’s earliest years.
“We cannot change the history detailed by this Scholarly Panel, nor change how it has informed our present, but we do get to decide how it shapes our future.”—Dalhousie Interim President Teri Balser
At a September 5 event to recognize the report, Dalhousie Interim President Teri Balser delivered a joint response from the university, co-signed by Senate Chair Kevin Hewitt and Board Chair Candace Thomas. She thanked the panel for its work, apologized on behalf of the university for the views and actions of Ramsay and their impact, and pledged to work to address the panel’s recommendations.
“Today, on behalf of Dalhousie University, I apologize to the People of African Descent in our community,” said Dr. Balser. “We regret the actions and views of George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, and the consequences and impact they have had in our collective history as a university, as a province and as a region. Further, we acknowledge our dual responsibility to address the legacies of anti-Black racism and slavery, while continuing to stand against anti-Black racism today. The recommendations from the Scholarly Panel are important and they, along with our upcoming African Nova Scotian strategy, will be critical in informing our path forward.”
Dr. Hewitt, who commissioned the Panel in 2016 together with then-President Richard Florizone, calls it a historic document. “This is a body of work that will inform the work of scholars and activists for generations,” he says. “It allows us to move forward with the difficult but important conversations and work that will tell us what kind of people we are, what reconciliation looks like, and what world we want to live in—hopefully creating a more welcoming, just and equitable place for all.”
Shedding light on a complex history
“Slaves by habit & education… their idea of freedom is idleness and they are therefore quite incapable of industry.”
Those words about the Black Refugees from the War of 1812 come from a letter written by Lord Dalhousie to Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst in December 1816, less than a year into his tenure as Lieutenant Governor of the British colony of Nova Scotia.
More than any other historical document, that letter—available online from the Nova Scotian Archives—is what sparked the mandate of the Scholarly Panel. For many in the African Nova Scotian community aware of the letter, those words have long stood out as a shadow on Nova Scotia and Dalhousie University’s history. It’s those words that the Black Faculty and Staff Caucus brought to then-Dalhousie President Richard Florizone’s attention when they met with him in 2016, and which eventually led to the idea of applying scholarly rigour to a full accounting of the relationship between Lord Dalhousie and the institution of slavery.
“Our history makes this an area for considered inquiry, conversation, and respectful dialogue in exploring how we can better support a diverse and inclusive community on campus.” —Former Dal President Richard Florizone
“At Dalhousie, we should tackle this complex discussion in the same way we would address any complicated issue: through scholarly inquiry and community engagement,” wrote Dr. Florizone and Dr. Hewitt in the Panel’s terms of reference. “Our history makes this an area for considered inquiry, conversation, and respectful dialogue in exploring how we can better support a diverse and inclusive community on campus.”
To complete their work, Dr. Cooper and the research team on the panel crossed the Atlantic to comb through relevant archives in both Canada and the United Kingdom. They examined letters, formal proclamations, immigration reports and accounting documents to better understand Ramsay and his views. “When we looked at George Ramsay, and his writings and letters, we realized that it was part of a larger story, part of a larger context,” says Dr. Cooper. “From that phrase—‘slaves by habit and education’—we discovered these entanglements that Dalhousie University and George Ramsay had with slaves and slavery and anti-Blackness.”
In choosing “entanglement” to describe the intersections between George Ramsay, Dalhousie University and slavery, the Panel’s report is noting how complex this history is—that even though slaves weren’t present in early 19th-century Nova Scotia, and there’s no evidence that Ramsay himself was ever a slave-owner, there are still a multitude of connections and links that can be made (economic, political, social and cultural), directly and indirectly, to slavery and its legacies.
“I think of it as yarn of wool that gets tangled up,” says Dr. Cooper. “We couldn’t divorce the Refugees of the War of 1812 from the larger story of British imperial history and the history of American slavery.”
The first of these entanglements, and the one most directly tied to Lord Dalhousie personally, is the one illuminated by the letter to Lord Bathurst: that along with other Lieutenant Governors of Nova Scotia, Lord Dalhousie expressed views and enacted policies that explicitly and intentionally marginalized the Black Refugees of the War of 1812. These constraints, such as providing insufficient farmland and, at one point, considering deporting the settlers to former slave masters in the United States, essentially treated Black settlers as unwelcome second-class citizens. “Dalhousie, like Sir Sherbrook before him and Kemp after, embarked on policies, laws and regulations that marginalized the Black Refugee community for the next 200 years,” says Dr. Cooper.
The second entanglement is Lord Dalhousie’s participation in the Franco-British wars, where he enacted orders that enacted orders returning enslaved rebels to their masters following the overthrow of a revolutionary government on the Caribbean island of Martinique. “This experience of conquest and re-enslavement,” says the report, “helped influence [Lord Dalhousie’s] subsequent views and perceptions about African peoples.”
The remaining three entanglements are less about Lord Dalhousie, personally, and more about the broader society in which Dalhousie University was initially founded: that much of the economy and wealth in 19th-century Nova Scotia was dependent on the West India trade routes, leveraging resources harvested from continued slavery; that prominent Halifax families with links to Dalhousie University’s earliest years received financial compensation when the British government ended slavery in the Caribbean; and that some of the university’s early leaders expressed racist ideas: Inaugural President Thomas McCulloch, though a staunch abolitionist, used racist ideas at times in his satirical writing, while Hugo Reid, who served as Dalhousie College principal briefly in the 1850s, wrote a tract against abolitionism.
Dr. Cooper says she hopes the report’s findings help show how the issues of today are built on legacies of yesterday. “The world we see now didn’t just happen by an act of magic—something came before, and often times that something that came before was wrong to certain communities, to certain to individuals. And that led to systemic barriers that continue through today,” she says, referring to the recent report on police street checks in Halifax as one contemporary example of anti-Black racism’s continued impact.
Research and recommendations
The Scholarly Panel that set about considering Lord Dalhousie’s legacy was a mix of scholars of various backgrounds: law, ethics, sociology and, of course, history. They were tasked not only with identifying the historical facts and placing them in context, but with making recommendations for Dalhousie University to address this legacy.
Those 13 recommendations fall under three broad categories: expressing regret and responsibility for the institution’s and its founder’s connections to slavery and to anti-Black racism; showing recognition for the historical realities of Black people’s lives in Nova Scotia and the valuable contributions they have made; and embarking on repair, taking concrete steps to address the legacy of slavery, particularly through teaching and research. The recommendations include encouraging renaming of campus and community spaces in honour of individuals of African descent; enhancing, expanding and supporting teaching and research of Black Studies; and strengthening Dal’s relationships with the African Nova Scotian community and building stronger educational links to the Caribbean.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that as we write our next chapter, that we embrace the values of inclusion and diversity.” —Candace Thomas, Chair, Dalhousie Board of Governors
“I think it’s important for the readers to know that the committee doesn’t want this to be another report that goes on the shelf and gathers dust,” says Dr. Cooper. “One of the objectives of this report, in a way, is to help right this broader wrong, and enacting these recommendations would be a major step in repair.”
Candace Thomas, chair of Dal’s Board of Governors, is a descendant of those early African Nova Scotian settlers, and believes the university has a moral obligation to consider this history and those who were part of Dalhousie’s story through the years of racial injustice and slavery and beyond. “We also have a responsibility to ensure that as we write our next chapter, that we embrace the values of inclusion and diversity that will make future generations proud of what we’ve accomplished and proud to be a part of this community,” she says.
Much of this work will take time; “systemic change does not happen overnight,” as Dr. Balser notes. But some of it is happening with higher velocity, like the university’s apology, the in-development African Nova Scotian strategy and the recent naming of a street on Sexton Campus after Mathieu DeCosta, a colonial-era French translator who was the first named African in Canada—exactly the sort of recognition and celebration of individuals of African descent called for in the report.
Nor is it work starting from a blank slate: Dalhousie has a long history of initiatives—sparked by calls to action from the community—that seek to live up to its obligations to African Nova Scotian communities. Several of these, like the Indigenous Black & Mi’kmaq initiative, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, the Black Student Advising Centre and the Transition Year Program, directly intersect with the legacy of the Breaking Barriers report 30 years ago.
Dr. Cooper hopes this new report will lead to a similar legacy; that rather than an admonishment for what happened 200 years ago, the report shows how Dal—through its efforts in teaching, research and community engagement—can make a big difference in helping right the wrongs of the past. “Dalhousie is a major influencer in the Atlantic Provinces. Universities can, and do, make a difference in the lives of individuals and in communities. You don’t necessarily have to be a student in that institution for that institution to make a difference in your life, and our recommendations focus on the positive difference Dalhousie can make.”
An interview with Afua Cooper, poet laurate and senior academic by Sandra Erika Gómez Osorio for Nexus magazine. In 2015, Dr. Cooper was in Cali as a guest speaker in the Feria Internacional del Libro y la Cultura, FILCA. This interview has been updated and edited for this 25th issue of Nexus magazine (January – June 2019). The article available here…
At the urging of researchers who spent more than two years piecing together Dalhousie University’s historical entanglement with the Atlantic slave trade and North American slavery, the school has offered an apology to Black Nova Scotians.
The research panel, lead by Dalhousie history professor Afua Cooper, released its final report into the university’s founder and namesake on Thursday night. The 132-page tome details how George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, actively tried to expel Black refugees from Nova Scotia, and used the proceeds of slavery to establish what is now the province’s largest university.
The report makes 13 recommendations, including an apology, “with the aim of fostering reconciliation between the university and the African Nova Scotian community and people of African descent more generally.” Read more…
This weekend’s weekend video is of Dr. Afua Cooper reading a version of her poem, ‘Negro cemeteries.’
Afua Cooper is a poet, educator, and historian, and currently the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University. She is also the current Halifax poet laureate.
Her groundbreaking book The Hanging of Angélique: Canada, Slavery and the Burning of Montreal, focuses on the historical events surrounding Angélique, a Canadian slave woman who was hanged in Montreal in 1734 for setting her owner’s house on fire and burning down a large part of the city as a result.
Negro Cemeteries is from Coopers fifth book of poetry, Copper Woman and other poems, published in 2007 by Natural Heritage Books.
In January of 1792, 1,100 Black Loyalists sailed in 15 ships from Halifax Harbour to Sierra Leone where they founded Freetown. These people were the first large group of former slaves ever to return to Africa. Many descendants of these families still live in Freetown and are proud of their Nova Scotian roots. Visit Black Halifax to see the performance…
Written and performed by Dr. Afua Cooper (visit Black Halifax web-site for the full performance video)
2nd International conference of the Black Americas Network October 17-19, 2018, Center for InterAmerican Studies (Bielefeld University)
50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the raised fists of African American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and the release of James Brown’s seminal “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, the upcoming international conference “Black Power: Movements, Cultures, and Resistance in the Black Americas” pays tribute to the long-lasting legacy and continued relevance of the Black Power Movement. Reaching beyond US borders, Black Power inspired the emergence of new movements, styles, musical genres, and transnational networks of solidarity among Afro-descendants in the Caribbean, Latin and North America. Read more…
Afua Cooper’s childhood in Kingston, Jamaica, was idyllic. She lived deep in the midst of an oral culture, surrounded by storytellers and music. Life was a mix of school, running races in the streets with neighbourhood children and watching films at the Institute of Jamaica.
Children had their own world, separate from the adults around them, but kids weren’t oblivious to the world of grown-ups. Despite the distractions of the nearby beach and music lessons at the institute down the street, young Afua was consumed by a curiosity about politics and history.
Her political education began at about age 10, hanging around her uncle’s corner store. The shop sat on a side road that lead to the town’s main street. People would stop in all day long to buy cans of soda and sweets. The old men would gather at the tables and chairs along the sidewalk to play dominoes, gossip, and discuss world events.
They talked about South Africa under apartheid and the executions of black activists, about the injustices visited on black people by a regime that was upholding white supremacy. Afua says it was in that moment, exposed to the brutality faced by black South Africans, she realized she was connected to a broader global history.
Afua says, “It was a real shock to my system to think (apartheid) was happening. So it was a kind of coming of age or coming into consciousness of the plight of black people worldwide that such a system existed. It changed my world.” Read more…
The seven collections featured in Under a Northern Star speak to critical themes in African-Canadian history and are connected to each other in more ways than seemed possible at first glance.
What is brilliant about these collections is that each one speaks to the historical experience of African Canadians in different parts of the country at different time periods. Moreover, each one tells a story of the important contributions Blacks made to Canada as pioneers, enslaved persons, explorers, citizens and settlers. Of great import is that these collections lay to rest the myth of Black people just “came off the boat,” but reveal that they were a part of what became known as Canada from its very inception. The collections reveal the multi-layered history of Black Canadians, and explore, in depth, Black people’s vast achievements and their contributions to Canadian society…. Read more at Library And Archives Canada site
Afua Cooper, one of Canada’s most versatile poets, is of Afro-Caribbean origin. Hers is an oracular voice. She comes in the tradition of the shamaness, the warner, the four-eye woman chanting flaming words. This poet incorporates African riddims and the musical vibes of the Black diaspora in her poetry which has a strong sense of history and place, underscored by a feminist sensibility. She has published four books of poems including Memories Have Tongue, one of the finalists in the 1992 Casa de las Americas literary award. Her poems have been included in numerous anthologies worldwide, and have also been recorded on cassettes and CD’s.
Afua has read at universities, schools, libraries, churches, community centres, and daycare centres, and performed at music and poetry festivals nationally and internationally. She also read in the Harbourfront Reading Series. Afua is now working on a manuscript of poetry ‘Oracles’ and a CD ‘In Motion.’… Read more at Canadian Poetry Online | University of Toronto Libraries
In addition to her literary work, Afua has completed a doctoral thesis in Canadian history at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation is a biographical study of Henry Bibb, a 19th century African American abolitionist who lived and worked in Ontario. She is the co-author of We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History University of Toronto Press, 1994, which won the prestigious Joseph Brant award for history. Her scholarly endeavours have made a vast contribution to gender studies in African North American history and historiography. Afua lives in Toronto with her family, and teaches sociology at Ryerson University.
Afua Cooper’s works copyright © to the author.
Historian Afua Cooper is on the show this week to talk about racism, slavery and Lord Dalhousie, the university’s namesake. She’s the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dal. She has a few things to say about the statues coming down. Plus, Tim and Terra discuss the latest rally at the Cornwallis statue, the Bloomfield property and the Chronicle Herald.
Visit Halifax Examiner to listen to ExaminerRadio 125: Rally ‘Round The Statues…
Canada’s 150th birthday has prompted much looking back at our history. And one of the things Canadians have long been proud about is our status as the final stop on the Underground Railroad, a safe refuge for American slaves fleeing bondage.
This is true, and we should be proud. But let’s not be too proud — after all, the colonies that became Canada also had slavery for more than two centuries, ending only 30 years before U.S. President Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
When Britain took over New France, about 7 per cent of the colony was enslaved, or around 4,000 out of a population of 60,000. Two-thirds were indigenous slaves, known as Panis, and the other third African, who cost twice as much and were a status symbol. The British did not set them free. Read more… b
How much do we know about black history in Canada? Who were the key figures? What do we lose when we don’t include black stories in our history?
Tuesday, May 16 at 7 p.m. ET. – A live roundtable discussion moderated by Amanda Parris, host of Exhibitionists on CBC Arts and Marvin’s Room on CBC Radio.
President, Ontario Black History Society
James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, Dalhousie University
President, Black Canadian Studies Association
Chair of Department of Humanities, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, York University
Associate Professor of Black Cultural Studies
Associate Professor, Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and African-American Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Foundation: Several U.S. colleges have uncovered links to slavery and racial oppression in their institutional histories and Dalhousie’s story has its own uncomfortable chapters. Although Lord Dalhousie founded the university with a philosophy of openness, his legacy also includes documented statements supporting the return of freed slaves, who he deemed “incapable of industry,” to their masters.
Dr. Cooper is investigating the founding ideologies of higher learning institutions and how they were informed by contemporary ideas about race. With the Lord Dalhousie panel, she aims to establish the historical context behind the university’s founding ideology and Lord Dalhousie’s views on race, as well as advise the institution on how to address its complex history in the present day. She serves as chair of the panel of distinguished scholars, which will publish a report with recommendations on future actions in August of 2017.
“We are in a time when people want to learn the whole story.”
Inspiration: “We’re looking at how academies helped to further racial and gender inequality. This is what propelled us to look at Lord Dalhousie’s legacy, because he was a man who didn’t want Black people in the province and a school was established in his honour.”
Why it matters: With Dal’s bicentennial on the horizon, Dr. Cooper and the panel are conducting a vital exploration into the history of the university and the ideals that have shaped it. A complete and clear-eyed understanding of what inclusiveness meant to Lord Dalhousie in the 19th century will, as the panel’s terms of reference state, inform how the university responds to this legacy “in order to build a stronger, more inclusive university that fully reflects our history, our values and our aspirations.” As Dr. Cooper says, “We are in a time when people want to learn the whole story.”
Here’s My Canada \ Voici mon Canada
Here’s My Canada was a multilingual, nation-wide contest inviting Canadians to express what Canada means to them in a 30-second video. Here’s My Canada was a project of Historica Canada and was a Canada 150 Signature Initiative. Here’s My Canada was made possible through funding from the Government of Canada and the Bank of Montreal.
Afua Cooper appointed Editor of the Henry and Mary Bibb Series of Black Canadian Studies, University of Regina Pres
Dr. Afua Cooper, Associate Professor in Dalhousie’s department of Sociology & Social Anthropology and the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies has been appointed Series Editor for the Henry and Mary Bibb Series of Black Canadian Studies at the University of Regina Press.
This is the first series of its kind in Canada.
In 1851, Henry and Mary Bibb founded Canada’s first Black newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive. In honour of the Bibbs’ invaluable contributions to print culture, education and social justice, this first-ever Black Canadian Studies Book Series seeks established and emerging scholars who wish also to leave an indelible mark. Multi-discilplinary in scope, the series will be published and widely promoted by University of Regina Press.
Congratulations to Dr. Cooper on being selected for this new role!
‘Hanging of Angelique’: Untold story of slavery in Canada
Afua Cooper discusses slavery in Canada. CTV National News (Feb 2017).
Black lives matter—at settlement, Confederation and 150 years later
“I am standing in a place filled with monuments for the early explorers, pioneers, and heroic settlers. I cannot help but think that this memorialization is so one-sided, so monolithic, so homogenous. Europeans glorifying and idolizing themselves,” writes author, intellectual, poet and activist Afua Cooper in the preface to her 2006 book, The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. “Why is there no monument to the slaves? Those who had their lives, labour, and dreams stolen to build up a new colony and satisfy the greed of Whites?”
Cooper, currently the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, has spent a long academic and artistic career posing tough questions about the absence of Black voices in Canadian history. Why, she asked the Royal Ontario Museum in 1989, did it ignore the advice of the city’s Black community by going ahead with an exhibit on Africa that perpetuated anti-Black racism? (The ROM apologized in 2016.) Why, she asked Conservative MP Peter MacKay in 2012, did the Harper government ignore the experience of Black Canadians who settled in Nova Scotia after the War of 1812 in its 200-year commemoration of the event?
Why, she asked Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Halifax Mayor Michael Savage in November, were they “passing the buck” instead of trying to understand and address the root causes of gun violence among young Black men in the city? “We want these youth and future generations to have a chance to grow up and grow old. And I want to remind our politicians that Black people vote, and Black Lives Matter!” Cooper said in an open letter published by the CBC.
This last question deals with a live issue—racial inequality in cities across Canada—but one with deep roots in the historical experience of Black Canadians in this country. Roots that are frequently ignored in high-school and even university curricula. Monitor editor Stuart Trew spoke to Cooper at the end of March about the interdisciplinary minor in Black and African diaspora studies she launched last year at Dalhousie, her role in a scholarly panel looking at Lord Dalhousie’s history as it relates to slavery and race, and why Canada is more interested in a party for its 150th than what could be an exciting conversation about its historical legacy.
Tell us a bit about the new minor in Black and African studies.
We launched the minor in September 2016 and I created a new course—a core course for the minors—which is an introduction to African studies. I had 66 students, which was fantastic, and they all stayed until the end. It was a tremendous learning experience for both parties, for myself and for the students. I enjoyed teaching it. I enjoyed creating new knowledge. The challenge was, how do you create 400 years of content in terms of the Black presence in Canada. Because I do believe that less is more. I didn’t want to overwhelm students with all this information.
One of the things I had the students do—every single one of them—was get up for about two minutes and say why you were taking this course. Why are you interested in the minor or why are you interested in Black studies? What do you hope to gain from it? You could see people rolling their eyes. Nobody wants to do that! They just want to get their credit and go. But I had some really, really interesting results.
One girl said the course gave her a language to express herself and to comprehend what she was going through on campus. She’s a young Black girl, she came from the West Indies, she was an international student. And she said, “I didn’t know it was racism. I came from St. Kitts to study at Dalhousie and for two years it was as if I was wandering in the wilderness.” She said the course allowed her to name what was happening to her. She said, “I was at a point where I was going to pack up and go home,” and that was very, very profound.
Another girl of South Asian origin said she took the course because while she was growing up in New Brunswick she was called a nigger. And she said, “I’m Indian, my parents are from India, but I have curly hair and I have dark skin and the response of people to me is that they think I’m Black.” She said she grew up with the epithet nigger “being hurled at me and I wanted to understand what it was about Black people that people find so offensive.” She has been niggerized her whole life even though she wasn’t African.
I would get these heartbreaking responses, but they were really enlightening. A young White male from Halifax (in his second year at Dalhousie) said he went to a local high school and at the cafeteria all the Black kids stayed together, all the White kids stayed together, and he said “I knew there was something off about that.” But the teachers wouldn’t talk about it. “No one would give us an understanding as to why that was happening in this day and age,” he said, and “I felt this course provided me with an answer I’ve been grappling for since my teenage years.”
The young man said the kids are segregated in the cafeteria: “I don’t know why, I suspect it has something to do with race.” He didn’t’ know the history of that race relationship. It wasn’t taught in high school. My course is probably the only course he’ll get in his entire university career that speaks to that. We are really operating at a deficit in terms of creating graduates and students and individuals who have cultural literacy, one result of which is empathy. This program attempts to create empathy for other people among the students. And also to say that yes, Black Lives Matter. Black people matter.
I counter anti-Black racism. It’s kind of everywhere—the idea that Black people have lesser value than other people. There is a global anti-Black racism, not just in Canada and the United States. You see it all over the world. The people who are being shot down in the streets in Brazil are so-called mulatto and Black people. A friend of mind just came from Peru. He’s a successful businessman from Toronto, a young Black man, and he went to Peru to source fabric for sweaters and hats and so on. A Peruvian contact welcomed him at the airport. And when they went to a nightclub on one of their days off, they wouldn’t allow him in. They wouldn’t allow this Black man in. Because in Lima, Peru, the Black body is marginalized. His host said, “No, he’s not a local Peruvian, he’s from Canada.” The bouncer wouldn’t let him in, and my friend said it was so humiliating.
Europe is also a scary place to go to right now as a Black person. I was there in 2016. Nothing negative happened to me, but the rhetoric and the language that’s coming from certain national governments…. In Paris you see the African venders selling these trinkets in a place called Château Rouge, and then you hear a shout and you see some people running. The cops are running them down, and people have to show their ID, and if you’re “illegal” you’re taken to jail. And I’m thinking, “Oh my god, these people are running in the streets and the police are running them down and my two daughters witnessed this. It was crazy.” And people go through this every day.
I think our protection was that we were speaking English. People say, “Oh, they’re not from Africa.” They think we’re Americans. And that offered us some kind of protection, because we are cast into the Anglophone world, which is seen to be a world of power at least. We’re not from Senegal or Gabon or Ghana. Otherwise we could fall victim to whatever those people are falling victim to. Anti-Black racism is global. And the minor [at Dalhousie] is part of humanizing Black people.”
Hopefully this program in Black studies is still there for generations. It’s interdisciplinary. We’re drawing courses from across the faculty of arts and social sciences. One of the things we want to do, our major ambition, is to take some of our students to the African continent to study abroad. Maybe for two weeks on the chemin des esclaves (the slave route) in either Benin or Senegal, to give it an international dimension. We’re putting the proposal together now and aiming for 2019.
Distinct from the minor, you’re also chairing a research project looking into the legacy of George Ramsay (Lord Dalhousie) and the creation of the university almost 200 years ago.
That’s right. The lead researcher (Jalana Lewis) and I went to the U.K. in January where we did research in the National Archives in London, and the Scottish records in their archive, on Dalhousie’s time in Nova Scotia. We also did research at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa and the Nova Scotia public archives to look at Dalhousie’s administration when he was governor of the province from 1816 to 1820, after which time he left Nova Scotia to take the role of governor general for British North America. But while he was in Nova Scotia, that was when Dalhousie University was established in 1818.
We’ve been conducting research on the man, on his administration and on the university itself—a history of the institution and of higher learning in Canada. It’s been pretty intense. I think the core documents with regard to Lord Dalhousie and the Black community are the letters that he sent to Lord Bathurst in England, who was secretary of state for the colonies, concerning the Black refugee community that had arrived in Nova Scotia at precisely the same time Lord Dalhousie had arrived in 1816.
The War of 1812 had ended. These Black refugees, as they were called, had fought for the British. When the war ended, the British evacuated 2,000 of them to Nova Scotia. I’m not talking about the loyalists—that was 40 years in the past—and so these refugees were British subjects. They came to Nova Scotia and were promised the usual: land and seed, protection and citizenship and so forth.
What happened was that after the war there was an economic slump. And you know what happens in those situations: people turn on the immigrants, who are taking “our” jobs, etc. And that’s precisely what happened 200 years ago. Lord Dalhousie went on a campaign to get them out of the province. He even visited refugee settlements and said, “Look, I will write to your former masters in the south, I will say to them that you’re very sorry that you left, and I’ll give you a letter of recommendation, and you can go back to your master, he will forgive you, and you guys will continue on being slaves.”
It’s so preposterous what he did! And it didn’t work. The refugees said, “No thank you.” And he (Dalhousie) tried to get them to go to Sierra Leone, and convinced 95 of them to migrate to Trinidad. The long and short of it was that he wasn’t successful in turfing them out, but at the same time he was successful in marginalizing them socially, politically and economically. That’s one of the legacies of Lord Dalhousie. It’s almost like ethnic cleansing: get them out.
When Dalhousie University was established, even though it had this grand objective of being ecumenical, being open to all—meaning all White males—Blacks, even if they were qualified, and First Nations communities were not welcome. Looking 200 years into the future, an imperative of this project is next year’s bicentenary of the university. There will be, as you can imagine, celebration, commemoration and so on. But the president of Dalhousie, Richard Florizone, wanted to look at what it means to have 200 years of history in an institution of higher education.
What does it mean now that we have this consciousness of diversity and inclusion? How diverse or inclusive was Dalhousie University 200 years ago? It wasn’t. It excluded, as did many other Canadian institutions of higher learning, people of colour, and other particular people in particular communities. We’re writing a report with suggestions for outcomes, legacies. We’re going to be giving public presentations, the first in May or June. The university should be commended because it didn’t have to do this. They could have said it’s going to be all cakes and balloons and we don’t want to know about this stuff, about getting rid of Black people.
Do you think we’re going to get any more than cakes and balloons during the Canada 150 year, from the federal point of view?
Well yes, if you look at some of the criteria for these (Canada 150) grants, I thought, “Well, I’d better not apply.” I know people in Ontario who applied and had to change their project because they were told we’re (the government) not really into the bad history stuff, so if you could slant your project, it’s more about celebrating 150. Not about commemorating. That’s fine, if that’s what the government wants. But what do ordinary people want? What do certain communities want? I think people are free and have every right to construct a Canada 150 event that suits them.
It seems like if you can’t talk about your country’s history on an anniversary like 150, when can you talk about it?
Absolutely. It was also like that during the War of 1812 commemoration. When that was happening, I was in Nova Scotia and I put in an application—it wasn’t funded—that would look at the impact of the war on the Atlantic. And they weren’t interested. They were more interested in the Black community in Upper Canada, like Richard Pierpoint and the Coloured Corps. I wrote a letter to Peter MacKay, who was in government at that time, since he’s a Nova Scotian, and he ought to have known better. But when he made his speech about Black participation in the War of 1812, he just focused on Upper Canada and the Coloured Corps. It’s as if he had no clue that the refugees of the War of 1812 came here to the Maritime provinces, and the struggles they went to to establish themselves.
So you’re right: if we can’t talk about these issues at the commemorative moment, when can we? It almost makes the work illegitimate, or it delegitimizes our work. It’s almost like what we do, or who we are, is invisible. When a government minister gets up there and praises Canada and says, “Isn’t it wonderful that there was no slavery in Canada!” I’m thinking, maybe I’m just wrong! (laughs). Maybe all my research in the various archives across this country is just false information, fake news! I spend my entire life doing this and then someone gets up and in 30 seconds negates completely what I’ve been doing. I think, “Oh Afua, maybe you’re the one with the problem” (laughs).
It’s the government’s thing, their agenda. I think it would be very useful to say, “Let’s reflect on 150, but let’s also celebrate.” And let’s also remember that Nova Scotia did not want to join Confederation. It’s not the story that you hear. Joseph Howe, one of the reformer premiers, thought it was a bad idea. He thought Nova Scotia would be subservient, and that’s exactly what happened. He didn’t want Nova Scotia to be a part of New England either. Nova Scotia was bought out by the Canadas, by Ontario and Quebec, but didn’t think Confederation was a fantastic idea at all.
So let’s reflect on these things, let’s engage in discussion and pull out the old documents to look at what John A. Macdonald said and Joseph Howe and George Etienne Cartier, the people we call the Fathers of Confederation. And look at what we call civil society. What did journalists say? What were women’s groups saying? What were the First Nations communities saying? What were the Black intellectuals saying? That to me is infinitely more exciting.
There were Black intellectuals in Ontario who had opinions and ideas about Confederation. By and large they thought it was good because they were aware of the expansionist march of the Unite States to the north, and they thought, “Nope, that’s not good.” Confederation offered more protection, because of course they were looking at the security and safety of Black people. And they felt both would be undermined by an American regime.
Macdonald was a hugely problematic figure—for First Nations communities, for Métis communities, for Black communities, even though he had a Black barber. Like Lord Dalhousie he didn’t want Black people in the province. When we think of Macdonald’s National Policy we mostly remember building a railway from coast to coast. And we know that it led to the two rebellions by Louis Riel and the decimation of First Nations communities on the prairies, the decimation of the buffalos because you’re driving these rails across the country.
Another plank [of the National Policy] was immigration—to bring people in to populate the prairies. But Macdonald didn’t want Black people, even though a few decades before 1867 you had the Underground Railroad, you had African-American runaways coming into Canada and officially more or less welcomed. But under the new Canada, Sir. John A. did not think they were desirable immigrants at all. In fact, he said Black men were rapists and a threat to White womanhood.
If this is the moment we confederated, this is our first prime minister, this is his attitude toward the Black community, I think we would have such a rich discussion, but that’s not what the government wants. Imagine me putting together a proposal like that: I want to investigate John A.’s relationship to the Black community at this moment when Confederation was happening. It would never be funded! (laughs).
Other than the Dalhousie project and your new undergraduate program, are you working on anything else right now?
I’m writing a book called Slaves in Court, and it’s a fun book. I’m looking at enslaved Canadians who took their owners to court and sued for their freedom. Some of them lost. In fact, most of them lost. A few won. But these people, the audacity of taking your master to court and saying “wrongful ownership!” “He stole me! I was stolen!” (laughs).
You said once that when we suppress these stories they have a tendency to come back and “bust things up.” Could you give an example of what you mean by that?
Let’s fast-forward to today and look at the Black Lives Matter movement, not in America but in Canada. I happened to see something on TV where this man was trying to convince this Black man in the Black Lives Matter movement that things weren’t so bad in Canada. The poor man was saying, you know, “I live in Canada, I don’t live in the United States—what you’re saying is irrelevant.” I couldn’t believe there was someone trying to convince somebody that he wasn’t really oppressed. Maybe a little oppressed, but not too much.
The Black Lives Matter movement is one example of not listening to, in this case, the Black community. The Idle No More movement is another. We need to listen to all people who are here in this land, to all Canadians. We can’t let people say, “It’s not so bad. You have to wait your turn. Maybe 20 more years down the line we can listen to you.” Because things are going to bust up. People are going to block highways. People may get even more violent if you don’t listen, or if you make invalid what they have to say, their concerns.
I think we could have a real bust up in this country if you look at the state of Blackness. Forty-two per cent of the kids in Toronto who are received by child services are Black kids. And we have massive incarceration rates of young Black men. The federal system went through the roof between 2014 and 2015, according to Howard Sapers (former Correctional Investigator of Canada), by over 100%.
That’s a crisis for Canada, a crisis for the Black community. But it’s silence from the federal government. Silence, silence, silence. If you look at the indices that go toward making a good life and health and well-being for the Black community, you see the seizure of children by child services, massive incarceration rates, high-school dropouts, underemployment and so on. Everything that is going to rob a community of its well-being is present in the Black community.
Of course you have Black Lives Matter and Black intellectuals calling people’s attention to the issue. But there is no response from people in power, from people who can make a difference. So what can we do? What do we do? We take to the streets. We march. We protest.
As an individual, as a Canadian, as a member of the Black community, as an intellectual, as a scholar, I fight the good fight. And it is a good fight. And I bear the burden, but it is a righteous burden. First and foremost, for me it’s about justice. And justice is good.
This article was published in the May/June 2017 issue of The Monitor, Centre for Policy Alternatives. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.
At Ontario Underground Railroad Sites, Farming and Liberty: Slaves fleeing the American South established new lives in Canada
New York Times, 24 Feb. 2017 by Afua Cooper
The British North American provinces, or Canada, were among the most storied termini of the Underground Railroad. At least 30,000 African-American men, women and children — fugitive slaves — fled the American South and made their way to Canada. The overwhelming majority settled in the southwestern portion of Ontario, where many of them forged new identities as African-Canadians.
At the three Ontario museums featured here, the spirit of the Railroad is undeniably present. I have been visiting these places for more than 20 years, and each time I feel as if I am walking through living history.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site and Museum
This museum on the banks of the Sydenham River is dedicated to the life and times of one towering figure — Josiah Henson, a freedom seeker from Maryland. In 1830, Henson fled with his wife and young children, endured hunger and exhaustion on the Underground Railroad and finally made it to Dresden. He farmed, became a preacher and emerged as a leading abolitionist and community leader. He and other abolitionists, black and white, established the nearby Dawn settlement as a refuge for Underground Railroad immigrants, and also for free African-Americans who could no longer live in a place that was hostile to black freedom. Dawn became a self-sufficient community.
Henson is believed by many to be the prototype for the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Before Stowe published her novel, Henson had written his own story, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.”
The story of Dawn, told through museum exhibits, is interwoven with that of Henson. At least 500 freedom seekers made their home in Dawn, where Henson and his colleagues founded the British-American Institute, one of the few institutions where black youths could receive quality education.
The museum also has a display dedicated to the Middle Passage, the trans-Atlantic crossing from West Africa to the United States during which captive Africans were chained together in the holds of slave ships. It includes a display of whips, chains, branding instruments, thumb screws and shackles that were part of the daily regimen of slave torture and discipline on plantations. I ran my hands over the leg shackles and felt instant dread.
Buxton National Historic Site and Museum
In 1849, a white Louisiana slaveholder and preacher, William King, freed his slaves and journeyed with them to Ontario, where he bought hundreds of acres of land. The former slaves and King founded Buxton, also known as the Elgin Settlement. Families of freedom seekers bought property from King and established themselves, and Buxton emerged as a vibrant farming community.
Today, although most of the black families are gone, some remain. Among them are Bryan and Shannon Prince and their children, descendants of some of the original families. Today, the Princes work to continue the story of the Buxton settlement. Ms. Prince, the curator, often does 19th-century re-enactments, while Mr. Prince, who describes himself first and foremost as a farmer, is an indomitable researcher and genealogist who has written several histories of the black experience at Buxton and in Canada. (One of them, “A Shadow on the Household,” tells the story of Maria Weems, a black teenager who dressed as a boy as she made her way to freedom.)
At the museum, several exhibits speak to the lives of the early settlers and the history of the African diaspora in Canada. A Civil War exhibit is excellent. A number of men from Buxton and the surrounding area went to the United States to fight on the side of the Union, and visitors can see some of the weapons used during the war, including rifles, pistols, balls (bullets), knives and swords.
A 19th-century barn is also part of the museum. A farm life display showcases hoes, axes, plows and other implements.
“We are a hands-on community museum,” Ms. Prince said, “and when people visit and are encouraged to pick up original shackles and to touch the logs on an 1850 log cabin that were handhewn, it is a memorable experience for them.”
The story of Buxton’s Underground Railroad freedom seekers is remembered every year at “Homecoming” on Labour Day weekend in September. Thousands of the descendants of original settlers from around the world converge on the site to honor their ancestors. The weekend offers Civil War re-enactments, a parade and a baseball game, a favorite pastime of Buxton settlers.
Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum
In 1845, Daniel Walls, a North Carolina slaveholder, died, leaving his slaves and plantation to his wife, Jane, and their four children. Walls had freed his trusted slave John Walls and instructed him to look after Jane and his family. The former slave and his mistress fell in love. But knowing that interracial marriage was illegal in North Carolina, and knowing that their love could result in their deaths, John, Jane and the children fled the state. In Indiana, the couple paused long enough to be married, and then hurried to Canada. They landed in Puce township, 25 miles east of the Windsor-Detroit border.
John Walls purchased 20 acres from the Refugee Home Society, which sold land at a low cost to African-American Underground Railroad immigrants, and built a log cabin, established a small farm, and, with his wife, charted a life of freedom. The Walls had six children together, and over time acquired an additional 180 acres. In Canada, John added the word “Freeman” to his name.
The Walls joined another 100 other black families and established a vibrant community at Puce, with several churches, schools, farms, a grist mill, a saw mill and shops.
Today, the Walls property is still in the hands of the family but is now a museum, run by Bryan Walls, a retired dentist and a direct descendant of John Freeman Walls, and Bryan’s wife, Anna. (Mr. Walls is the author of “The Road That Led to Somewhere,” a biography of John Freeman Walls.)
The museum has several buildings. One of them, the John Graves Simcoe House, is named after the first lieutenant governor of what was called Upper Canada, an abolitionist. Exhibits on the lower level include one devoted to black history in the United States and Canada.
The original log cabin of John and Jane Walls still stands, and inside is the original bed where they slept. When I touch the walls of the cabin, I feel the roughness of the original logs, and I am sure I sense the expectation and aspirations of John and Jane Walls as they begin a new life.
The Peace Chapel, a small wooden structure next to the creek that runs through the property, is also part of the museum’s offerings. Inside the chapel, behind the podium, is a four-foot cross made from bricks from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
The chapel is dedicated to the civil rights heroine Rosa Parks. In the years before her death in 2005, Ms. Parks and students from her institute’s “Pathways to Freedom” educational program were guests of the museum every summer. Ms. Parks trained her students in civil rights advocacy, Underground Railroad history and other subjects. Bryan and Anna Walls recall her sitting by the chapel, her eyes closed in deep reflection.
The property has a forested area, the historic walkway, where visitors can experience what it must have been like to travel along the Underground Railroad. On a day I took part, a conductor led visitors through the dense shrubs. We ran through the woods pursued by the howls and growls of hound-dogs (coming from loudspeakers on trees) causing our hearts to beat faster and faster, and giving wings to our feet, until we safely arrived at “freedom’s land.”
Bryan Walls said the museum is meant to have an impact: “I want visitors to leave this site feeling strong and empowered and ready to change the world.”
Why are politicians passing the buck as black men are killed?
Dear Mayor Savage and Premier McNeil:
The frequency of shooting deaths of black men in the city of Halifax has left members of the black community traumatized, shaken, distressed, bereaved, angry and afraid.
These feelings are, of course, compounded for the families of the victims and shooters.
Yet the response from officialdom is vexing and alarming. For example, Mayor Mike Savage — a senior and seasoned politician — seems at a loss. He’s stated he is looking to the black community for the answer.
Then the media descended upon newly elected north-end Coun. Lindell Smith to provide the answer! For sure, Smith represents a ward in which several of these homicides have taken place and he himself is a young black male.
But surely, if Savage does not have the answer, why would and should Smith have it?
It takes action, not just listening
Premier Stephen McNeil has also taken the same road as Savage, stating that the solutions are in the community. He also noted that his minister of justice is trying to “deal with the root causes.”
Both these politicians are passing the buck.
They are saying that a besieged, bereaved and under-resourced black community must know how and why its young male members are being killed, and must provide the solution for the shootings.
It is not simply about listening and knowing what’s on the mind of African Nova Scotians. It takes courage and commitment to address the root cause of the violence in the Halifax black community. And there are several causes.
End job market discrimination
Black Haligonians have difficulty finding a job, even a cleaning job. Even black youths with diplomas find it difficult to gain employment. I teach African Nova Scotian undergraduate students and many of them cannot even find a summer job.
Jobs are difficult to come by, and it seems to me that those that are available are reserved for whites. Just ask the premier why so many immigrants of all stripes leave the province.
Black people in Nova Scotia, especially young black males, are massively disenfranchised. They have very little access to basic opportunities. The mayor knows it, the premier knows it, the black communities know it. For these two white officials to pretend that they do not have a clue as to what is going on is disingenuous.
What would happen if the victims were white?
The African Haligonian community is now hemorrhaging, and yet it is called upon to solve its own problems. We do not see that happening to other communities when they are hit by a crisis.
Where are the counsellors and psychiatrists that should be called in to counsel the grieving families and children?
Where is the outcry from society at large?
Where is the outrage at the tremendous loss of life and potential?
Is it because the victims and perpetrators of the shooting are black that society has turned a blind eye to this tragedy?
Is it because black people are thought to be of no value and hence disposable?
If these acts were taking place in an affluent part of Halifax and the victims were white boys, would there have been more attention paid to this crisis, and preventative measures put in place?
Black Lives Matter
We see that Canada, both at the provincial and federal levels, is bracing for the devastation that they believe the drug fentanyl will cause among young people. Health authorities are now taking steps to implement preventive and rehabilitative measures to save the potential victims.
I wonder — are governments bracing for the fentanyl assault because these future victims are presumed to be white, and therefore of value?
I call on the mayor and premier to assume some responsibility for the loss of these African Nova Scotian men. I call on them to commit to improving health, financial, educational and employment resources to the African Nova Scotian community so that folks can once and for all banish this violence from their lives.
We want these youth and future generations to have a chance to grow up and grow old. And I want to remind our politicians that black people vote, and Black Lives Matter!
Light up city hall and the legislature to acknowledge the deaths of these men.
Afua Cooper, Ph.D., is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, Dalhousie University’s African-Canadian studies course emerges: 400 years of African-Canadian history in a Dalhousie minor
The marginalized study of African-Canadian history and culture has taken centre stage at Dalhousie University this fall. A new interdisciplinary minor, black and African diaspora studies, will offer a contemporary and historic view of black history in Canada. It’s an area that program creator Afua Cooper says has long been ignored. “It’s still a submerged area of study,” she says. “Frankly speaking, I would say people in the university system haven’t seen black studies as something worthy of scholarly inquiry.”
Many courses only focus on certain branches of black history, and it often tends to be about the United States. Cooper, who is Dalhousie’s James R. Johnston chair in black Canadian studies, finds many Canadians don’t know about our black history beyond this past century. In fact, the presence of blacks in Canada dates back to 1604 and the Port Royal settlement. It’s this 400-year legacy, along with arts, culture and other topics, that Cooper wants to focus on. “Students will learn about the long-lasting black communities all over this country and the struggles and triumphs of black Canadians,” she says. “They faced a lot of discrimination throughout these centuries: social exclusion, segregation, segregated schools.”
Having this branch of study is even more important today, in the wake of Black Lives Matter. “Students may say, ‘Why do we have to learn about Viola Desmond, because it was 1946 and she was protesting racial segregation,’ ” says Cooper. “That’s gone, but here we are with Black Lives Matter . . . there’s a thread from Viola Desmond and events before her that connects to this.”
While she has been successful with her endeavour, Cooper isn’t the only one who saw an education gap and pushed for change at Dalhousie. In 1970, the late Halifax lawyer and activist Rocky Jones and James Walker, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s department of history, helped establish Dalhousie’s Transition Year Program (TYP), which helps Aboriginal and black students prepare for university. “Our intention was to break a syndrome of discrimination and disadvantages that were affecting black kids’ educational opportunities,” says Walker.
In doing so, they set the stage for something much bigger—even though it took more than 40 years to establish. Walker says he and Jones thought about a black studies program and brought it to the attention of Dalhousie’s then-president Henry Hicks and Nova Scotia premier Gerald Regan when setting up the TYP. However, it didn’t go past the idea stage. “We didn’t draw up a plan, and it wasn’t as advanced as what is happening now,” says Walker. “There wasn’t someone who studies that area, like there is with the black studies chair.”
Now that the new program is established—as a minor with three required courses and electives totalling 12 credit hours—Cooper is looking forward to seeing what it can bring to the Dalhousie community. “We will see what the interest is from students and the community and take it from there, with the intention of turning it into a major,” she says.
A journey through Black Canadian history and beyond: Dal launches new minor in Black and African Diaspora Studies
By Matt Reeder – Dal News (June 20, 2016)
This fall, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) is launching an interdisciplinary minor in Black and African Diaspora Studies.
While the minor will be a natural fit for students in disciplines such as History, Sociology and International Development Studies, it is also open to undergraduates in Science, Commerce, Management, Computer Science and Informatics.
A deeper understanding
Program co-ordinator Afua Cooper says the minor — in development for a few years — will give students a deeper understanding of the long and diverse history of Black Canadians and their contributions to the country.
“The Black presence in this country is not just something that happened after 1945 as many people think,” says Dr. Cooper, who is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dal. “I want learners to have a sense that this is a community with a long history here.”
The program is built around a core course on the history, culture and sociology of Black Canada developed by Dr. Cooper specifically for the minor. That course will introduce students to some of the history of Black groups and individuals in Canada and connect those experiences to key issues facing those communities today such as racism, poverty and injustice. It will emphasize critical thinking skills — rooted in race and Black feminist theory — to examine the deeper meaning of Blackness and the concept of race, building awareness of how sex, gender, class and other identities impact individuals of African descent.
In addition to the core course, students are required to take one of two other key courses — “Philosophy and the Black Experience” or “The Idea of Race in Philosophy, Literature and Art” — and 12 credit hours from a list of approved electives.
As its name implies, the minor will also explore the rich history and culture of the African diaspora, which refers to those communities around the globe that emerged out of the forced and voluntary movement over time of peoples of African ancestry.
“At Dalhousie, we have the expertise for both components of this program,” says Dr. Cooper, noting particular strengths in history, political science, English and French.
Electives covering everything from the literature of the Caribbean to spirituality and other cultural forms will allow students to draw those broader connections. The bulk of courses are already on the books, but more will be added in the future. For instance, Dr. Cooper notes a new course on Black music in the African diaspora is being developed by Fountain School of Performing Arts Music Professor Steven Baur should be offered starting in 2017-18.
Dr. Cooper says she has plans to develop other courses specifically for the program as it evolves in the years ahead and hopes to offer an online component as well at some point.
“It’s my intention to see this evolve into a major,” she says. “It’s a good thing for Dalhousie.”
More info: Black and African Diaspora Studies (minor)
Dr. Afua Cooper says new minor fills in ‘huge chunks’ of missing education
There’s a “huge hole” in your education and Afua Cooper wants to help repair it.
The Dalhousie University professor became the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies in 2011, but soon noticed a problem.
“Dalhousie does not have a black studies program. I thought it was a bit of a paradox that we have a black studies chair, but not curriculum around black studies,” she told CBC News this week.
Cooper fixed that by spending a few years developing a new program. Starting this fall, Dalhousie students will be able to take an interdisciplinary minor in black and African diaspora studies.
“What we want to pay attention to is African-Canadian society and culture from the past to the present,” she explains.
That will include studying the mechanisms of slavery, colonialism, racism and state oppression.
Cooper says Canadians tend to “default” to the American experience and not think about what actually happens in Canada.
By starting with big themes, such as how to build a community that can resist oppression, the course will zoom in on case studies such as Amber Valley, Alta., Salt Spring Island in B.C., and Africville, N.S. Cooper calls it “pan-African, but more pan-Canadian.”
“We will address black people’s struggle for justice in all forms,” she says. “It’s not doom-and-gloom racism and that’s all there is to it. We’re [also] looking at resistance, how people build their lives, how people contributed to Canadian society in all kinds of fields — civil rights, the arts, media, academia, finance, sports, medicine.”
Cooper says knowledge nurtures humans and therefore black history should be part of every Canadian’s education.
For example James Robinson Johnston — whom her position honours — was barred from attending Nova Scotia public schools because he was black. Despite that, he got an education and in 1898 became the first black Nova Scotian to graduate from university.
‘Huge chunks’ of education missing
“Research has shown that when students come from a strong cultural background, or know about their heritage and are proud of their heritage, that they do much better. They have the confidence that’s required to be a good scholar and they do much better in school,” Cooper says.
“I see black students getting this knowledge as a kind of reparations, in the sense that black students often know very little, if anything, about their heritage.”
And white Canadians usually know even less.
“They can understand more about their own society. They can have an understanding of why part of their education is missing — like huge chunks of their education are not there — and have a better appreciation of the multicultural stories that make up the grand Canadian story.”
Cooper hopes the minor eventually grows to become a major offered at Dalhousie University.
An apology — and advocacy — that echoes: JRJ Chair Afua Cooper part of coalition involved in ROM apology
by Matt Reeder | Dal News (November 18, 2016)
She had quite the opposite reaction to it, in fact. She found it so disturbing on first visit that she returned for a second look with pen and paper in hand. A master’s student in history at the University of Toronto at the time, she then enlisted some colleagues and friends to join her on the subsequent visits to see if they shared her view.
“It showed Africans always in a subservient position,” says Dr. Cooper, now the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie. “What I remember is feeling a range of emotions: sadness, anger, frustration.”
She was so upset by the exhibit’s overtly racist tone that she was moved to protest, first through writing letters and sending petitions to the museum administration to open discussions about problems with the show. When those efforts failed, she and others who shared her sentiment took to the sidewalk outside the museum with placards.
A formal apology
Dr. Cooper returned to visit the ROM last week, 27 years after the protests she helped lead, this time as one of the individuals invited to attend a reconciliation event that included a formal apology from the museum for the exhibit.
“The exhibition displayed images and words that showed the fundamentally racist ideas and attitudes of early collectors and, in doing so, unintentionally reproduced the colonial, racist and Eurocentric premises through which these collections had been acquired,” the ROM said in a statement, which was read aloud at the event by Mark Engstrom, the museum’s deputy director.
The museum added that the exhibition “perpetuated an atmosphere of racism” and expressed “deep regret for having contributed to anti-African racism” that caused suffering for members of African-Canadian community.
Other museum officials, including its CEO and the chair of its board, attended last Wednesday’s event, as did several other members of the Coalition for the Truth about Africa (CFTA) that Dr. Cooper helped form in 1989 to lead the protests.
While museum officials insisted at the time that the show was created in an “ironic tone” and was actually meant as a criticism of imperialism, Dr. Cooper says the irony was lost on everyone, including the many white school-age children who went to the museum. To her and the many others, it was a perpetuation of the racist stereotypes of Africa as a dark and lost continent.
“People were devastated, I think because it was the modern, post-colonial age,” she says. “It felt like a throwback to 1885 Berlin conference when Africa was divided.”
Dr. Cooper says the protests had several significant impacts at the time. Four other major museums in North America that had reserved the exhibition cancelled it after the outrage, and the ROM itself began to consult closely with different cultural communities in planning its exhibits thereafter.
Advocacy work remains an important part of Dr. Cooper’s life and her mission as JRJ Chair at Dal. In the fall of 2014, she was motivated to renew CFTA’s efforts to push for a formal response from the ROM during an impromptu meeting with colleagues in Montreal. That’s when the idea of approaching the ROM for an apology arose.
“It means a lot to me, personally,” she says of the museum’s willingness to issue such a strong statement, adding that it has removed a burden from the African-Canadian community and allowed people to exhale. “It’s an acknowledgment that a wrong happened.”
Dr. Cooper is also pleased with a number of other initiatives that have arisen out of the two-year reconciliation process that led to the apology. The ROM has committed to taking steps to strengthen collaboration with African-Canadian communities by improving partnerships with Black educational networks, creating opportunities for training Black youth interested in museums, and by providing continued support of events and lectures centred on themes of Africa and the Diaspora.
Dr. Cooper hopes that initiatives such as these will ensure better representations of African history and societies in the museum of the future. Indeed, as she says of Into the Heart of Africa: “We could have used the same artifacts and told a different story.”
Trimble property recognized for role in Underground Railroad
It might seem unusual to honor the history of a place where slaveholders lived, but those places are also a part of the story of the Underground Railroad.
And that’s why, on Friday, Sheri Jackson, the southeast region coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, came to Bedford to add the Gatewood Plantation to the program.
The former plantation, now owned by Ret. Col. Glen Fisher, was where anti-slavery activist Henry Bibb and his first wife, Malinda, lived and worked for their owner, William Gatewood. Bibb first escaped the farm, but would get caught trying to return to take his wife and daughter, Mary Frances, away with him. This resulted in the family being sold to a plantation in Louisiana, from which Bibb also escaped. Eventually, Malinda and Mary Frances were sold to a Mississippi plantation; their fate has been lost to history.
So the plantation is significant because it also is part of Bibb’s story.
“We look at places people escaped from. … We look at their journeys, because a part of those stories are in different communities,” Jackson said. That means some of the sites added to the program can be in places that don’t otherwise seem connected to the UGRR.
For example, Bibb’s journey involved many attempts to escape and he was sold to people in several states, including Texas. His final escape led him to Michigan and finally to Canada.
“When we think about UGRR, we think about it being ‘somewhere else,’” Jackson said. “But it could actually be in your back yard, with the escape component. The stories are everywhere.”
Nancy Stearns Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County History Center, said the center and volunteers have been working on the Gatewood site since 2007, coordinating public and student-oriented programs several times a year with Jeannine Kreinbrink, president and senior archaeologist with K&V Cultural Resources Management in Union, Ky.
Bibb “wasn’t really well-known in today’s world, but he was really well-known in the 19th century,” Theiss said. Our objective then became to rise up Henry Bibb as a very important person – as a man who struggled, as an example of someone who appreciates democracy. His whole life story was one of sacrifice.”
So far, the center has hosted 36 public digs involving more than 360 volunteers who have helped to find artifacts on the site, and has hosted nine week-long field institutes with area high school students. Those have included 72 students each year, Theiss said.
None of it could have been possible without the blessing of Fisher, she said.
“It gives me quite an honor to have the students to come and dig for history,” said Fisher, who was presented with a certificate naming his farm to the network. “I’m so proud of being able to do this.”
Fisher said he has had the entire property designated as an agricultural district under the local Soil Conservation District office. With the designation, the farm “can never be subdivided,” he said. “This is always going to be a place you can come” to continue the work that’s being done.
Oldham County Judge-Executive David Voegele also spoke at the event; the Gatewood Plantation and most of the area now known as Trimble County actually was part of Oldham when Bibb lived there. Trimble wasn’t established until 1837.
“The younger generation today is going to have the benefit of a lot of documentation … that we have had to dig out one page at a time, one spoonful at a time,” he said. “I commend our History center for … bringing Henry Bibb back to life. We’re proud of our county’s connection to this site.”
Also attending was author Afua Cooper, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Bibb and his life. She has written a biography of Bibb for young adults and is working to complete a full biography of her subject, set for publication in fall 2017.
“I have been working on the life of Henry Bibb and his history for the better part of 20 years,” she said. “My focus has been on his activism, particularly in Canada.”
She said his newspaper – the first black newspaper in Canada – has been essential for recreating the communities that he and other fugitive slaves, and their supporters, carved out of southwestern Ontario.
But Bibb’s “Voice of the Fugitive” also told hundreds of stories about the people he would meet coming off the ferry from Detroit to freedom.
For example, she said, in 1852 Bibb interviewed three young men for a story in his paper. As they talked, they discovered that the men were Bibb’s brothers that had been sold away from their mother after he had escaped.
Bibb’s mother was living with him and his second wife, Mary, in Ontario, Cooper said. “He took them to see their mother, and what a day of rejoicing and jubilation that was, and he printed that story in the newspaper. … Henry Bibb still lives.”
Cooper said she was excited to attend the ceremony and to visit the place where the man she’s been studying all these years lived.
“This is where it started,” she said of the plantation. “It’s certainly brilliant, it warms my heart.”
Newfoundland in the Black imaginary
“It’s not a topic that most people are aware of,” says Afua Cooper, a Halifax-based historian and poet who will deliver the keynote talk at the New-Found-Lands exhibition at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s on Saturday. “I think the thing with Newfoundland is that it has been left out of the black studies world. When people think black history, we think Nova Scotia and then we think going west.”
New-Found-Lands, which runs until Oct. 18, explores historical and contemporary connections between Newfoundland and the Caribbean diaspora. And that means exploring, among other things, black history in Newfoundland and the island’s connections with slavery.
“Newfoundland and blackness is a field that’s open to research,” Cooper explains. “Some of us know the story of the dried cod being sent down to the West Indies—and even after slavery that still continued, so much so that cod is Jamaica’s national dish—and then Jamaica sending rum to Newfoundland. I think many of us are familiar with this narrative. But other snippets are not known at all.
“I’m not saying that Newfoundland was a slave society as such. I’m looking at the place of Newfoundland in the black imaginary.”
That place took many forms. Newfoundland’s economy has in recent centuries been shaped by the fishery, and some of those brought to do the fishing off the Grand Banks were slaves.
“They fished so efficiently, and they would come to St. John’s to dry the fish, but they were so good at it that the whites banned them from coming to fish locally,” Cooper explains. “Because they were so excellent at it — and these were slave fishermen.”
Cooper has uncovered other tantalizing hints about Newfoundland’s role in black history as well. A purported conspiracy to launch a slave rebellion in New York in 1741, prior to the American revolution, led to the arrest of hundreds of slaves. While some of those accused were executed, others were transported to exile in Newfoundland.
“What did they do there?” Cooper wonders. “Were they in forced labour? Did they have to build public works?”
Much of Cooper’s work as a historian has focused on slavery in Canada. Her 2007 book The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal explored that legacy. The book examined the life and death of Marie Joseph Angelique, a 29-year old slave who was blamed for a fire in Montreal and eventually hanged for it, despite her protestations of innocence. The story of Angelique offers a moving and powerful depiction of a woman who resisted her life-long enslavement, but uses it as an entry point to explore the reality of slavery in Canada and the experience of black slaves. The hitherto little-known first-person accounts provided by Angelique and recorded during the 1734 trial, Cooper notes, constitute the oldest slave narrative in North America.
It’s raising awareness about these forgotten and suppressed histories that drives and inspires the work of scholars like Cooper.
“I think it’s important because we want to produce an inclusive history, not just the usual white-dominated narratives,” says Cooper. “When we produce an inclusive history, and if we look at the black experience in particular, we see that it’s a very long historical presence that black people have had in Canada.
“It’s a long history and it has been a history of oppression, a history of injustice, and it goes against the traditional understanding of Canada and Blackness. Usually when we talk about Canada and Blackness we just talk about the underground railroad, and slaves coming to Canada and finding freedom—hip hip hooray! But when you look at the full spectrum of history, the underground railroad is just a small part. But it’s been exaggerated. That’s not been the experience of most black communities across Canada.”
Coming to terms with racism
In recent years there’s been a gradual if grudging acknowledgement of some elements of Newfoundland’s racist past. In 2010 the provincial government issued an official apology to the Chinese community for the head tax imposed on Chinese entering the then-Dominion of Newfoundland prior to Confederation; a monument was erected off George Street to acknowledge the shameful practice and its legacy. The $300 head tax—the equivalent of about three years’ wages—was introduced in 1906 and charged to at least 334 people. The policy was abolished in 1949—two years after it was abolished in the rest of Canada—as a result of the province joining Confederation.
The dominant narrative one hears when it comes to Newfoundland and black history is the feel-good story of Lanier Phillips, a member of the American navy who experienced racism in the U.S., survived a shipwreck off the coast of Newfoundland during the Second World War, and spoke widely about the kind and friendly treatment he received at the hands of the outport Newfoundlanders who took him in and nursed him back to health. It’s an uplifting story, but does its widespread promotion to the exclusion of other narratives risk suppressing other very real experiences of racism?
It’s a long history and it has been a history of oppression, a history of injustice, and it goes against the traditional understanding of Canada and Blackness. — Afua Cooper
It’s kind of like the underground railway story: the slaves came to mainland Ontario and lived happily ever after,” says Cooper, referencing the 2012 Artistic Fraud play Oil and Water. “It’s a lovely play and I like it but it does leave you with that feeling, that message, that everyone was so nice; for the first time in his life [Phillips] never felt any racism. But our slave fishermen were chased out of Newfoundland by the British and the Newfoundlanders.”
When it comes to learning of Canada’s role in slavery, and the oppressed histories of black communities in this country, Cooper says “most people react with shock” and “simply do not know”.
“People are more familiar with the underground railroad, with Canada as a refuge, as a safe place,” she continues. “People have told me that I’m wrong, that Canada had no racism here. Or that there was slavery here but it was mild, it was not like American slavery. So I get that shocked response. In order to rescue the country’s reputation they say [slavery] was not that bad.
“It’s incredible that you can go to school, finish a university degree and never know that there was slavery in Canada.”
Cooper, who holds the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax and is a recipient of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Award, is launching an interdisciplinary minor in black and African diaspora studies at Dal this fall. She says she regularly experiences the surprise and skepticism of her students when she exposes them to black history in Canada.
Cooper, who is also the founder and chair of the Black Canadian Studies Association, is a strong advocate of the importance of expanding awareness of black history in the educational curriculum and integrating it at all levels. It’s not suitable to simply make it the topic of a single class or a small unit in a course, she says; it’s a complex history that needs to be given its proper space and explored in its full scope. Above all, she says, it’s a living history and demonstrates the importance of knowing and understanding history and its impact on the present.
“We’re in this period where some people don’t think the past is relevant, that we can just go along with our cellphones and internet, and we really don’t need to hear about the past. And so humanists like myself are constantly waging this battle every day to say the humanities are important, the humanities humanize us.
The ghost of slavery is still in our consciousness. It’s still in all of our consciousnesses, and we may not know it’s there but it’s there. — Afua Cooper
“History is important because when we know history as much as possible then we can make more informed choices, we can have more empathy, and so on. We see history now coming back to bite us, gnawing at our ankles. We just had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with respect to Indigenous people in our country, so it’s history coming back to us. And it’s living history, because there’s people alive who were resident in those schools. So history is relevant to us,” Cooper explains.
“Every day there’s a college or university in the U.S. who’s confessing that [their] school was built by slave money. Georgetown University is the latest one — the Jesuit college in Washington. They sold 272 of their slaves to keep their institution afloat. Talk about institutions being built on the backs of slaves. In this kind of public discourse you see where history is more relevant than ever.”
In addition to her work as a scholar, Cooper is also a poet and spoken word artist. For her, the creative world of the stage and the educational world of the classroom and academy are deeply connected.
“I think the research world and the academic world is a creative endeavour…it makes the world more accessible, more readable. And I use a lot of my historical research in my poetry. I have whole bodies of work about history,” she explains.
“I love poetry, I love performing. It keeps me sane and it gives me another way to think about things, to think through things. Let’s say you plan to sell a slave, and you don’t know what happens to that person, the woman who was sold across the river. What happened to her? Did she die? Did she live?
“II think the arts gives me that entry point into this person’s world that just straight research does not and cannot and should not.”
“We need the research, we need the facts, but we also need fiction.”
“Power becomes obvious when you fight back. When you resist you can see what’s working on you. And if you start fighting back, then you can see it at work in its full might.”
— Serbulent Turan, PhD candidate
Source: CBC News Radio ( **This episode originally aired April 14, 2015
There are 50,000 PhD candidates in Canada, toiling away on things few people understand. As part of our continuing series turning a young scholar’s work into radio, Tom Howell and Nicola Luksic profile Serbulent Turan, an emerging political scientist at the University of British Columbia. He is asking why people willingly put up with oppression and — on the flip side — what’s needed to spark a revolution.
Guests: (in order of appearance)
Serbulent Turan – PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia
Steven Lukes – Political and social theorist at New York University. Author of Power: A Radical View (1974)
Mohamed Abdelfattah – Freelance video journalist based in Cairo.
Click here for footage of the original Milgram experiments (Yale University, 1961)
Studying black Canadian leadership
By Ryan McNutt for DAL NEWS (June 5, 2015)
Last month, nearly 300 scholars, community members, activists, artists and others congregated on campus to discuss community, empowerment and leadership in black Canada.
The occasion was the second biennial Black Canadian Studies Association conference, hosted at Dalhousie by the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies. The event welcomed participants from across Canada, and from as far away as Germany and the United Kingdom.
Afua Cooper, the current James R. Johnston Chair, says the conference’s theme was meant to explore the question of black leadership, and at least in part to address the question of whether there’s a so-called “crisis” in black leadership in Canada.
“I think it’s fair to say the answer is a resounding ‘no’,” says Dr. Cooper. “We had leaders from all walks of life, around the world, and there is such an excitement about leading, whether in the academic sphere, the artistic sphere, the political sphere.”
Over the course of four days (May 21-24), dozens of presenters spoke about research into everything from community activism and political engagement to history and archeology, all centered on the experience of black Canadians.
The conference also featured six different keynote speakers offering a wide variety of perspectives. Among them were Wesley Crichlow of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, speaking to sexual politics and black leadership in Toronto; community advocate Munira Abukar on her experience running for council office in Toronto; Jamaican sports leader who lead the Jamaican delegation to six Olympics games; and Montreal’s Délice Mugabo on anti-blackness in Quebec islamophobia.
The conference’s opening keynote was Gervan Fearon, current president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University in Manitoba.
“He’s the first black person in Canada to head a post-secondary institution,” explains Dr. Cooper. “He talked about his own trajectory as a researcher, a professor and then going into administration. It was one of those moments that summed up what this conference was about. Here, embodied in this person, is what I was hoping to achieve: discussing leadership and blackness and Canada, the possibilities and challenges.”
For Dr. Cooper, among the most powerful moments was Saturday’s plenary on “Reconstituting African Canadian Identity.” The panel, which Dr. Cooper moderated, featured George Elliott Clarke (poet and playwright), Michelle Williams (Dalhousie Law professor and director of the Schulich School of Law’s Indigenous Black & Mi’kmaq Initiative) Handel Kashope Wright (director of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Culture, Identity and Education).
“That was just magical,” says Dr. Cooper. “The turnout was amazing — over 100 people in the room — and the discussion and atmosphere was simply awesome. That’s the only word I can really think of. It was back and forth, great ideas were explored and people really appreciated it.”
Attending the conference on its final day, I found attendees eager to engage with the panelists’ thought-provoking papers. Particularly engaging was a session featuring Wilburn Hayden (York University) on the Canadian ethos of race, Ted Rutland (Concordia University) on geography of anti-blackness in policing in Montreal, and Christopher Stuart Taylor on his own work in diversity and inclusion within the Ontario Public Service.
The weekend closed with its final keynote from Lynn Jones, who shared lessons from her 30-plus years in the labour movement and her experiences as a community activist in Nova Scotia. The passion of the Dalhousie Transition Year Program graduate was infectious as she lit up the room with engaging stories and a call to action focused on reparations for black Canadians. With each personal milestone in her story, she repeated, “social progress,” a way of noting that it was only by believing she could enact change that change actually happened.
It was a lesson that is echoed in Dr. Cooper’s takeaway from the conference as a whole: that individuals who are wondering, “Can I do this?” — particularly in the academic sphere — need to know they can, and there’s support available to meet their goals.
“Sometimes as black scholars, our topic of choice isn’t really appreciated,” says Dr. Cooper, recalling experiences in her own PhD studies in which she was told outright that her work was not important because of its focus on black Canadians.
“We want to make it an area of scholarly importance. We want to centre this discourse to make it part of the intellectual thought of the mainstream curriculum. All these people who came — whether they’re senior scholars or someone who are thinking of doing an MA — they’re studying black Canada, and we want people to know this is important.”
Four centuries of history: Black Halifax interactive website launches
by Marie Visca for DAL NEWS (April 27, 2015)
Four centuries, one community, fourteen stories.
That’s the tagline for Black Halifax, an innovative, interactive multidisciplinary project that celebrates Halifax’s vibrant Black community. Through a collection of stories, poems, photographs and films, Black Halifax brings the African Nova Scotian heritage that has flourished since the 1700s to life.
“To explore Halifax’s black history, culture and heritage over the course of 300 years, it’s a very grand and ambitious project,” says Afua Cooper, one of the project’s founders. Dr. Cooper is also the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie, founded and chairs the Black Canadian Studies Association, and is a celebrated author and dub poet.
A visual tour
Along with Valerie Mason-John (award-winning author of eight books), Jacob Sampson (an actor from the Annapolis Valley) and El Jones (a spoken word activist and teacher), Dr. Cooper was part of a residency at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic during African Nova Scotia Heritage Month in February 2014. The positive response from the weeklong exhibit, which featured interactive workshops and presentations, prompted the four poets to memorialize the event with Black Halifax.
“When we ended that week’s residency, we had this feeling that it was kind of ephemeral,” says Dr. Cooper. “We kind of thought, how can we extend this project? How can we make it more tangible and far-reaching? And so this idea of Black Halifax was born.”
With the help of John Hennigar-Shuh, president of the Canadian Maritime Heritage Foundation, the team began to fundraise for and develop the project. They hired professional storytellers, writers, actors, website developers, and employed the help of Halifax-based film company Pink Dog Productions to create 13 video vignettes, each one speaking to a particular personality, event or location. The videos tell stories about the lives and accomplishments of various human rights activists such as Rocky Jones and Viola Desmond, individuals who changed race relations in Nova Scotia and gave rise to the Canadian civil rights movement.
Moments of history
The project also used artifacts from the Maritime Museum itself to influence stories. For Jacob Sampson, the museum’s William Hall corner was a source of inspiration. Hall was a black Nova Scotian who served as a marine in the British Navy, fought in countries such as Turkey and India, and went on to win the Victoria Cross, the British military’s highest honour, in 1858.
“Here’s this black man from Nova Scotia, and he was the first black to win the Victoria Cross, the third Canadian to win the Victoria Cross, the first Nova Scotian to win the Victoria Cross, and yet his story is relatively unknown,” says Dr. Cooper. “One of our objectives with this project was to take these invisible stories of Canadian history and of Black Nova Scotia, and make them visible.”
Dr. Cooper herself performs in one of the videos, telling the story of 1,100 Black Loyalists who sailed from Halifax Harbour to Sierra Leone to found Freetown. They represented first large group of former slaves ever to return to Africa.
In partnership with the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute, the Halifax group responsible for sponsoring and hosting the website, Black Halifax is continuing to raise money to bring more stories to life through film. Their next story will be on Portia White, the first Black Canadian concert singer to receive international acclaim despite being discriminated in her bookings.
Aside from Black Halifax, Dr. Cooper is looking ahead to hosting the upcoming 2015 Black Canadian Studies Association Conference in May. The national conference will discuss themes of black leadership and support the understanding of diverse Black communities in Canada, furthering the strides that Black Halifax has made towards itsmission.
“These weeks and months for African heritage are nice, but how I’m seeing it is that Black history should be for the 12 months of the year, not something that we celebrate for a moment and then forget about.
“All across Canada is this rich history that we haven’t really tapped into, and we want to put that history out there so that people can know, so that people can be proud, and so that we can see how we’ve all contributed to the development of this country. That’s my idea of celebrating history and celebrating Canada. So when you think of history, it’s not just Black history or white history or Chinese history — it’s our history.”
Learn more: Black Halifax website
Heritage, leadership and pride: The work of Afua Cooper, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies
By Ryan McNutt for Dal News (February 13, 2015)
Despite living only 39 years, the man left an impressive legacy in his hometown of Halifax. He had become the first Black Nova Scotian to graduate from Dalhousie and also the first Black Nova Scotian to be called to the province’s bar as a lawyer. He had been a community leader, a prominent lawyer and served his church as clerk and Sunday school superintendent. Little wonder, then, that an enormous crowd attended Johnston’s funeral, with people lining the streets between Cornwallis Street United Baptist Church and Camp Hill Cemetery to pay their respects.
A century after his passing, Johnston’s story will be brought to life as part of a new project called Black Halifax. Launching later this year, Black Halifax will be an interactive website that allows visitors to tour a virtual map of Halifax and connect stories from the city’s history with their physical location through a series of video vignettes. Each video reenacts key moments in the lives and experiences of notable African Nova Scotians.
The project’s subjects include personalities such as lawyer Rocky Jones, boxing phenom George Dixon and civil rights activist Viola Desmond, the honouree of Nova Scotia’s first Heritage Day next week. Ms. Desmond’s Black Halifax video will be launched at the North Branch Library on Monday (February 16) as part of the Heritage Day celebrations.
If Black Halifax is bringing Johnston back to life, so to speak, his legacy is already alive and well thanks to the work of the Dalhousie chair that bears his name. The James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie is one of several partners in the Black Halifax project, and it’s a project that the chair’s current occupant, Dr. Afua Cooper, is incredibly excited about.
“It’s the sort of interactive project where I hope to take more of my work in this context in the future,” she explains. “It’s linking important stories with the city and its history and geography.”
A busy three years
It’s been a little more than three years now since Dr. Cooper took over the James R. Johnston (JRJ) Chair, which was first established in the 1990s. Prior to her arrival, the chair was dormant for four years after its occupant, David Divine, had to step down following a serious motor vehicle accident.
Dr. Cooper, a historian, poet, and creative writer whose research focuses on slavery and the abolitionist movement in Canada and beyond, was tasked with reanimating the chair’s mandate, which encompasses teaching, research and public outreach.
“This is the only Black Studies chair in all of Canada, and it’s a national chair,” she explains. “It’s important because it recognizes the significance of Black Canadians — their history and their culture. And that history begins here in Nova Scotia in the early 17th century.
“I think Dalhousie has a crucial role to play, by hosting and supporting the chair here, in recognizing the presence of Black Canadians and their contributions to this city, the province and the country. Having the chair here offers a sense and worth to Black Canadians that their lives matter, that their history is important, and their contributions to society are important.”
She began her work as chair by reaching out to key individuals and groups — not only at Dalhousie, but across the Black community in Nova Scotia. Those relationships have been a key part of helping turn the chair’s mandate into reality.
“I see myself as a public intellectual, as an organic intellectual,” she says. “So I don’t see my work as something that stays within the academy; it has to be shared. So I’ve always been involved in the community or public outreach of scholarship. I see my scholarship as a kind of activist scholarship.”
In her first year, Dr. Cooper launched the James R. Johnston Chair Lecture Series, which has figured such speakers as Wilfrid Laurier University professor Carol Duncan, Senator Donald Oliver (left), the late Rocky Jones, British scholar, Hakim Adi and Dalhousie’s own Dr. Isaac Saney. The chair also hosts workshops and conferences, including a Black Studies conference at Brock University two years ago, and a workshop to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the role of African Canadians in the war held partnership with the Black Cultural Centre and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. On the research front, Dr. Cooper continues her work on slavery and abolitionism, with plans on completing a book on slavery and the law (emphasizing the Maritimes) before her time as chair is up.
Dr. Cooper also teaches two courses at the moment: one on social movements, with an emphasis on the civil rights movement in Canada and the United States, and the other on colonialism and the body.
“It looks at the body, the human body in history,” she explains. “I engage with the topic of colonialism to see how colonialism has shaped our understanding of the body, particularly the black body, and how such understandings have changed in the past two centuries”
A busy, eventful year ahead
Two-thousand-and-fifteen is primed to be a big year for the JRJ Chair. In addition to the launch of Black Halifax, the chair is hosting the second biennial Black Canadian Studies Association Conference at Dalhousie from May 21-24. Following the first conference two years ago at Brock, this year’s theme is “Community, Empowerment & Leadership in Black Canada.”
“It’s not just leadership in the narrow sense of politics leadership,” says Dr. Cooper, explaining the theme. “It’s leadership in education, leadership in sports, in arts and culture, youth and leadership, women and leadership… The idea is to take [leadership] away from the image of one man or one woman out in front and everyone follows that person; leadership has to come from each individual. How do we ignite leadership within ourselves and have a collective form of leadership?’ We want to showcase Black Canadian leadership from a variety of perspectives, including a global perspective.”
The conference will thus be local, national and international in scope. Already, participants are coming from Germany, the United States, Brazil, Australia, Nigeria and Jamaica.
The topic of leadership and community for the conference ties in directly with the activism of James R. Johnston as Halifax’s premier black leader in his time.
Dr. Cooper is also working with partners across Dalhousie in developing a Black Studies minor program at Dal that will be multidisciplinary, encompassing courses from several different departments.
The JRJ chair currently lives within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, but it has moved across the university throughout its 20-plus year history. Dr. Cooper’s successor may be from Medicine, Management or another Faculty, but what she hopes they inherit from her is an ongoing dialogue with communities at the university and beyond.
She uses, as an example, last fall’s lecture by Social Work Professor Wanda Thomas Bernard. Titled, “Killing Us Softly,” the lecture explored the health impacts of racism in Nova Scotia. The lecture was well-received, and it left the audience eager for more opportunities to engage with the subject. Audience members informed Dr. Bernard of this, and she in turn created a full series of events (panels and lectures) informed by racism and mental health, taking place this term.
“I want the next chair to inherit a conversation,” she says. “What I hope to leave for the next chair is a sense of continuity, and to have a structure of support in place that a new chair can put his or her own stamp on.”
Dr. Afua Cooper is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie, here in Halifax. She is a scholar, a poet, a performer. I first encountered her through her scholarship when I read The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. This historical biography not only tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a slave woman who was convicted and killed for the suspected arson that destroyed a large portion of Old Montreal, it tells one story from Canada’s history of slavery. Cooper pulls Angelique from the darkness of the archives, and Angelique brings with her a portion of Canadian history that has been all but occluded from cultural memory and dominant historical narratives of the nation.
Brent Clough, James Bond movies and the independent nation of Jamaica have at least one thing in common – they all came into being in 1962.
In August 2012 Brent returned to the island to help celebrate the nation’s birthday and but also tried to find out what 50 years of post colonial life has meant to Jamaicans. From a history of indigenous genocide, African slavery, competing colonial powers, some immigration and plenty of more recent emigration, the Jamaican motto is ‘Out of Many, One People’. The truth is that most Jamaicans are descended from African slaves. It’s a Black country which takes pride in stories of wave after wave of rebellions against the colonial system, one of the most important being the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 which was brutally suppressed by the Governor who had a slightly kinder reputation in Australia, Edward John Eyre. August 2012 is a better time to be in Jamaica. Usain Bolt and a bunch of other great Jamaican sprinters are running in the Olympics, many expatriate Jamaicans have returned home and a party spirit’s in the air. But for locals memories are still fresh of the deaths of more than 70 people in May 2010 when the downtown Kingston suburb of Tivoli Gardens was invaded by Jamaica’s police and army as they attempted to arrest and extradite the notorious gang don, Christoper ‘Dudus’ Coke. Surviving and even celebrating in the face of overwhelming adversity is a Jamaican specialty. The Caribbean island may have the world’s highest rate of public debt and plenty of problems with corruption and crime but it also has the fastest runners on earth, untold cultural riches and the indomitable will to survive. In this mix, we’ll join a range of Jamaicans as they recall some of the best and worst aspects of 50 years of national independence.
Producer/interviewer: Brent Clough
Narrator: Hopeton Gray
Additional production: John Jacobs
Special thanks: Dr. Carolyn Cooper, The University of the West Indies, Dr Ifeona Fulani, Dr Afua Cooper, Dr. Erna Brodber, Dr. Marvin Sterling, The Honourable Lisa Hanna, Herbie Miller, The Institute of Jamaica, Tony Rebel, Queen Ifrica, Melinda Brown, Chris Smith and Salt from Rotktowa Gallery, Jesse Hype, Meena Troublemaker and Russid DJ Rasta Kruger.
‘How are we going to bring such a branch of knowledge to the forefront?’
by Katie McDonald for Dal News (May 16, 2011)
Dr. Afua Cooper came to Dalhousie University with a mission: Make the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies a centre for excellence.
And by the sounds of it, she’s halfway there.
Dr. Afua Cooper was officially announced as the new James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. The announcement was made earlier this month at The Promise Land’s fourth annual public symposium’s closing banquet and is Dalhousie’s third appointment to the chair.
One of a kind
“I’m very excited about being the new James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian studies. It’s really the only chair of its kind in Canada and provides an opportunity to really think about Black Canadian Studies, to conceptualize and re-conceptualize what it is and what it means.”
Dr. Cooper received her BA in African Studies and Women’s Studies from the University of Toronto in 1986 and her MA in Black Canadian History from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in 1991. She returned to University of Toronto for her PhD in Black Canadian History which she obtained in 2000.
The position will involve research, teaching and collaboration with the Black community, locally and nationally. One of Dr. Cooper’s priorities is to create a web portal that unifies Black Canadian studies for people to view online. Her goal is to create a web version of all digital formats of Black Canadian history and to create a dialogue for this area of inquiry.
“People want to know, what is Black Canadian studies? What are we going to do with it? How are we going to bring such a branch of knowledge to the forefront?” she asks. “It’s been a branch that’s been marginalized and subjugated, and as chair; it’s imperative I bring this to the fore.”
Dr. Cooper says research will be a huge part of putting Black Canadian history on the map. Not only does she plan on merging Black Canadian studies in one central area via a website but to go beyond the archives and interview older generations of Black Canadians.
“I want to look at the roots of Black Halifax by doing an urban study from inception to present time. I want to trace the history of Black people in Halifax from the very beginning,” she explains. “This will be a study in sociology, urban anthropology and ethnography.”
As part of this urban study, Dr. Cooper would like to pursue a study in the sociology of slavery in the Maritime Provinces.
Aside from the various research elements, the chair has a community component as well. Before its establishment, there was no organic link bridging the community and the academy. When the chair was founded and eventually established, it was a broad coalition of people that got together: academic, intellectuals, housewives, businessmen—people from all walks of life. The whole idea was for it to have an academic component and as well as a community component, she notes. Therefore, the chair must be open to suggestions from the various stakeholders in the Black community.
About James R. Johnston and the chair
The J.R.J Chair in a national, tenured, senior academic post covering all of Canada based at Dalhousie University honouring the distinctive historical presence of Black people in the community.
Dr. Esmeralda Thornhill, the first J.R.J Chair, was appointed to the Faculty of Law in 1996. The second chairholder was Professor David Divine who was appointed in January 2004 to the School of Social Work in the Faculty of Health Professions. This year, Dalhousie University is pleased to welcome Dr. Afua Cooper as the third appointed J.R.J Chair in Black Canadian Studies.
James Robinson Johnston, 1876-1915, was the first Nova Scotian of African descent to graduate from the Faculty of Law at Dalhousie University. He became a renowned lawyer in N.S. and a leading humanitarian.
First lecture features “Rocky” Jones, Halifax lawyer and human rights advocate
By Ryan McNutt for Dal News (November 17, 2011)
Afua Cooper began her tenure as the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies in August, and she’s moving quickly to increase the chair’s profile.
“Our mandate is vast, but at its core, it’s about knowledge mobilization—research, teaching, publishing—of black Canadian studies,” explains Dr. Cooper. “Further, it is also to serve as a bridge between the Dalhousie community and the broader community—specifically the black community here in Halifax and across Nova Scotia.”
The chair is also the first black studies chair in Canada, giving it a national mandate in addition to its important local role.
Next week, the chair is hosting its first two major events to mark the launch of Dr. Cooper’s tenure. The first is a memorial service dedicated to the chair’s namesake. James Robinson Johnston (1876-1915) earned his Bachelor of Letters degree from Dalhousie in 1896, followed by his Bachelor of Laws in 1898. This made him the first African Nova Scotian to graduate from university, and in addition to a noted career in criminal and military law, he was also a strong advocate for civil rights.
“It’s a chance to recognize a true community leader,” says Dr. Cooper. “I don’t think he really has the profile that he deserves, given his accomplishments.”
The service takes place on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 3 p.m. at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. Mr. Johnston was an active member of the church – he played the organ, organized choirs and raised funds to help pay off its mortgage.
“Rocky” Jones’ living history
The second event is the inaugural lecture in the chair’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which will be ongoing throughout its tenure. The lecture will be delivered by Burnley “Rocky” Jones, Halifax lawyer and human rights advocate, speaking on “The Struggle for Human Rights in African Nova Scotian Communities, 1961-2011.” The lecture takes place Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 7 p.m. in the Potter Auditorium of the Rowe building.
“[Mr. Jones] doesn’t often share his experiences, so this is a remarkable opportunity for the community to hear about the living, current history of African Nova Scotians,” says Dr. Cooper. “The lecture series was established, really to bring together Dal and the community to investigate some topics in black Canadian studies, and this is will be a wonderful start.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Cooper works to build out the chair’s mandate. She’s working on establishing its research program and has spent the fall reaching out to black Nova Scotian leaders in Halifax—secular and spiritual—with plans to travel the province for more community consultations in the months ahead. The chair is also starting plans for events to mark Black History Month in February.
“Through our work, we hope to make black Canadian studies visible in our community in a very real way, and hopefully these lectures can help with that.”
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Amanda speaks with Dr. Afua Cooper on the histories of African, Caribbean, and Aboriginal people in Canada. The Canadian education system offers little representation of the history of these populations and what little information is offered erases any perspectives from women. Following the interview is Dr. Cooper’s dub poetry piece titled “Negro Cemeteries.”
Originally aired February 28, 2009. Listen to the podcast here…