Nova Scotia·Q&A

Recognizing Black expertise could encourage more interest in science, says professor

Professor Afua Cooper says Canadian schools need to do a better job teaching Black history year round.

Dalhousie researcher to lead symposium on using Black history to promote technology

Professor Afua Cooper is a historian, author, poet, performer and the Kellum Research Chair of Black History and African Diaspora Studies at Dalhousie University. (Courtesy of Afua Cooper)

A Dalhousie professor believes focusing on Black history could be a key element in getting more Black students involved in science, technology, engineering and math, also known by the acronym STEM.

Professor Afua Cooper, a historian and a Killam Research Chair of Black History and African Diaspora Studies at Dalhousie University, will be hosting a symposium at the university called Past Future African Canadian History, Arts and Culture in STEM from July 26 to 28. 

The main idea behind the symposium, Cooper said, is to bring together people working in Black history and STEM and to look at how Black studies are taught in schools. 

Cooper used Dr. Clement Ligoure as an example of how the accomplishments of Black people in history are often overlooked.

Ligoure, the first Black physician in Nova Scotia, worked around the clock treating the survivors of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. 

Ligoure wanted to be the doctor for the No. 2 Construction Battalion when they were deployed overseas but was denied the opportunity by the military, Cooper told CBC Radio Information Morning Halifax guest host Bob Murphy. 

This is a condensed version of their conversation that has been edited for clarity and length.

Historian and a Killam Research Chair of Black History and African Diaspora Studies at Dalhousie University, Professor Afua Cooper, will be hosting a symposium from July 26 to 28 called Past Future African Canadian History, Arts and Culture. Cooper spoke to guest host Bob Murphy about how the symposium is aimed at getting more Black students involved in science, technology, engineering and math.

Focusing on history, though, might not seem like an obvious way to address the lack of black students involved in science and technology and engineering and math. Why do you think it's important?

When you bring these two branches of knowledge together, then a lot of exciting things happen.

I'm saying let us break down the boundaries between disciplines, because when we break down the boundaries, we can see students in a more holistic way. 

Can you tell us a little bit about a steel pan drummer who's going to be coming to the symposium?

We have a steel pan drummer Hameed Shaqq coming from Toronto and his stage name is the Pan Piper.

The steel pan originated from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

A lot of history is tied up with the steel pan too, because during the times of slavery, Trinidadians, and so many enslaved people throughout the Americas, were not allowed to play their African drums.

It was a crime to play the African drums and and practise other African cultural forms.

What Trinidadians started to do, especially after the Second World War, was to use discarded oil drums because Trinidad is an oil producing nation.

People would take the drums, cut it and shape it, and created the steel pan and tuned it with musical notes. 

Hameed will be sharing the art and science of pan and also the history behind the steel pan, the history of resistance with respect to African people, because they took the pan and they created a new instrument which was found acceptable by the colonial forces.

We will have a presentation from the Centre for Sound Communities from Cape Breton University, and the centre will be looking at how we can teach music and decolonization.

This symposium is part of your larger project, The Black People's History of Canada. Can you tell us a little bit more about that project? 

This project came about last year, April, when we received $1,000,000 from the Department of Canadian Heritage to do the Black People's History of Canada.

Basically what we intend to do, and what we have started to do, is to research black history from coast to coast to coast, write curriculum, do lesson planning for all age groups from K to 12, upload all the data that we have found. The data will be available for everyone, for teachers, learners, parents, and the public at large for free.

It's a huge topic, but I'm very excited about it. We have several researchers already working across the country doing research on Black history, on various themes, and we will be writing curriculum. 

A principal aim is to make Black history essential within Canadian history studies, not something that happens only in Black History Month. Not something that happens because you have an enthusiastic teacher who said, I'm going to teach that, but something that's mandated within the curriculum.

And, you know, we know it's going to be work because in Canada, curriculum or learning and teaching is a provincial matter. We don't have a national curriculum.

Do you have a message for anyone wondering 'should I be coming out to the symposium?'

There'll be a lot of new findings on the history of Blacks in Canada and the history of Blacks in Nova Scotia.

We have Graham Nickerson from New Brunswick, who will be talking about how you map stories in terms of geology.

[There are] lots of exciting things that are happening now. People are looking at the built environment and even the natural environment for Black history.

It's really pushing the boundaries of what we know as Black history by engaging disciplines like archeology, geology and even agronomy.

There will be music, there will be poetry, and it's just going to be a really fun and exciting time. 

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

(CBC)

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With files from Information Morning Halifax

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