Increase of Black studies programs at universities lauded

Afua Cooper

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

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

By all accounts, students are leading the charge for Black studies curriculums at Canadian universities, and “I’m happy, but I’m not grateful. Let me put it that way,” said Afua Cooper, a Black studies professor at Dalhousie University.

“Because if it took white society and academia so long to recognize that, you know, the Black experience is … worthy of scholarly inquiry”

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

Melanie Knight

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

“It would be odd to have it housed in one department,” said Knight, who was part of a working group that included professors Cheryl Thompson and Anne-Marie Lee-Loy.

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

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

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

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

York University offers a Black Canadian studies certificate, which can be pursued independently or as a companion to an undergraduate degree. Two years earlier in 2016, Dalhousie University put forward its Black African Diaspora minor, allowing students to concentrate on history, culture and sociology courses about Black people in Canada as well as the African diaspora.

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

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

Katherine McKittrick

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

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

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

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