As a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, Afua Cooper was part of the Black and academic community’s activism that led to the establishment of the James Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia 15 years ago.
Last August 1, the award-winning poet, author and historian assumed responsibility as holder of the rotating Chair in the university’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. She beat out two American scholars for the tenured and senior academic position that has been vacant for the past four years after David Divine was seriously injured in a vehicular accident in March 2007. Divine was forced to step down because of multiple permanent injuries.
Jamaican-born Cooper said she was hesitant to apply for the job at first because of the Chair’s faculty location.
“After expressing my concerns, I was encouraged by various people in the academic community who felt the work I have done in social history deals with a lot of historical sociology,” said Cooper who has a PhD. in Canadian History and the African Diaspora with a focus on Black 19th century communities in Ontario.
“It made sense because the Chair is one in Black Canadian Studies and that’s my field and what I have been doing for the past two decades. It’s something I have a very solid background in.”
The six-year appointment could not have come at better time for Cooper. Opportunities for Black professors landing tenured positions at Canadian universities are rare and there is a Black Canadian Studies vacuum in most Canadian institutions of higher learning.
“I was really beginning to examine my relationship with the Canadian academy and, to put it in a larger context, the unfair treatment given to Black Canadian Studies,” said Cooper who has published five volumes of poetry. “It’s OK to say you do African-American Studies and even Caribbean and African Studies but when you do Black Canadian Studies, people would ask if such a thing exists or if it is some kind of sub-area of Black American Studies.
“It’s difficult for people to conceptualize such a thing. The university system has not given it the respect it deserves. They see it as some unworthy thing which to my mind reflects how Blacks are viewed in Canada because it is knowledge that is produced about us and it seems it’s not validated, valued or seen as something worthy of scholarly inquiry. Most people who get a PhD. in any aspect of Black Canadian Studies ironically end up in the United States teaching because there is very little here.
“A Black professor in this city even told me that when students approach him and say they want to study Black Canada, he advises them to also study something on African-America because that is where they might end up. It’s sad when you have to say that to students…For me, I had started to see myself in a way like W.E.B. DuBois who was booted out of academy, but who kept up a very extensive publication profile, writing, studying, producing and being involved in his community while also being at the cutting edge of Black scholarship.”
Cooper said she had two offers from U.S. universities at the same time that there was an opening for the James Johnston Chair.
“I figured Canada is where I live and Black Canada is what I studied and I needed to make my contribution here,” she said. “In addition, I am excited about the position because of the person who it is named after. He had a very stellar and active career.”
Johnston, who died in 1915 at age 39, was the first Nova Scotian of African descent to graduate from Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Law.
A consultant to the Ontario committee set up to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery in 2007, Cooper brings a considerable wealth of experience and knowledge to the distinguished Chair.
Her interest in slavery, abolition and women studies led to her doctoral dissertation on anti-slavery crusader Henry Bibb and the publishing of The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, a national bestseller that was nominated for the 2006 Governor General’s Award.
The Dub Poets Collective co-founder and former Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair in Simon Fraser University’s Women’s Studies Department also co-authored We’re Rooted Here And They Can’t Pull Us Up; Essays in African Canadian Women’s History which won the prestigious Joseph Brant Award. She’s currently writing a series of historical novels for young people, documenting the experiences of enslaved children from the Black Diaspora.
In her new job, Cooper plans to create a Black Canadian Studies web portal designed to help students and researchers find primary source material related to Black Canadian history, interview older generations of Black Canadians to get a sense of their experiences and invite suggestions from various stakeholders in Canada’s Black community.
“This Chair comes with a lot of responsibility,” she said. “It’s multi-pronged and multi-dimensional. Because it has been inactive for the last four years means that I am almost starting from scratch. For that reason, I will not be teaching in the first year. That time will be dedicated to giving the Chair profile and visibility.”
She said the interview process, which was delayed by five weeks because of her husband’s sudden death early last October, was the most rigorous she has experienced.
It lasted three days and involved interviews by the 10-member search committee, the university’s senior administrators, the Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology and members of Halifax’s Black community. She also made presentations to graduate and undergraduate students as part of the process.
The day before she was scheduled to leave for Halifax for the interview, her husband of 18 years died of a massive heart attack.
“I was at home when two female police officers came knocking on the door,” recalled Cooper who taught Sociology at Ryerson and York University and History at U of T. “When they delivered the bad news, I was totally devastated. It was just out of this world and a very difficult period for me and our two children. I contemplated not going through with the interview but friends, including Dr. George Elliott Clarke and representatives of the Black Canadian Students Association which I formed, called and advised me to give serious thought to the decision I was going to make. They also said they would support that decision.
“In the end, I realized this was an opportunity to do some of the work we have been talking about for decades. It was also an opportunity for a change of scenery since there was a lot of grief and sorrow around here for me and the girls.”
Eldest daughter Lamarana, who graduated from Jarvis Collegiate Institute, will pursue Literature & Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University while 15-year-old Habiba will enter a local high school.
Cooper and her children relocated to Halifax last Sunday.
The first James Johnston Chair was lawyer, linguist and educator Dr. Esmeralda Thornhill who was appointed to the Faculty of Law in 1996. Divine was installed in January 2004 to the School of Social Work in the Faculty of Health Professions.
Two years ago, the Michaëlle Jean Chair in Canadian Caribbean & African Diasporic Studies was launched at the University of Alberta.