Nova Scotia

Dalhousie's black and African diaspora studies adds to 'grand Canadian story'

Dalhousie University professor crafts new Canadian black studies curriculum.

Dr. Afua Cooper says new minor fills in 'huge chunks' of missing education

Afua Cooper stands by images of some of the great Canadians she'll be teaching students about. (Danny Abriel/Dal News)

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.

"That's problematic because then we don't know about Viola Desmond, we don't know about Rocky Jones, [and] all the quotes we use are from Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King," she says.

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."

This 1929 class photo from Salt Spring Island's Central School shows a degree of diversity that was impressive for the time. The community was home to one of B.C.'s most important black communities in the late 1800s. (Salt Spring Archives)

"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.