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“We unearth the unheard histories of Black Canadians”: CDN335 returns to U of T

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

“We unearth the unheard histories of Black Canadians”: CDN335 returns to U of T

Professors and students reflect on the significance of Black Canadian Studies

After being pulled last year due to enrollment challenges, CDN335 — Black Canadian Studies (BCS) returned under University College’s Canadian Studies (CS) program for the fall 2019 term. Taught by artist and researcher Audrey Hudson this semester, the course aims to interrogate “the constitution of blackness in Canada” and provide students with a “deeper understanding of diverse black communities.”

For Black scholars and students, CDN335 provides a space through which to learn and discuss histories that are otherwise overlooked in Canada. The course also mirrors a growing nationwide push to establish an independent space for Black studies in Canadian scholarship, as seen with the recently established infrastructures at other Canadian universities, namely Dalhousie University and York University.

Cheryl Thompson, who is currently an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Creative Industries, was the inaugural instructor, teaching and designing the course from 2015–2018. She told The Varsity on the significance of the course for Black students, noting, “[The] more you know who you are, the more you are going to love yourself.”

Conceiving the course

“While people of African descent have been in Canada since at least the seventeenth century, the histories of black Canadian presence have been overwhelmingly written out of Canadian histories, as well as histories of the black Diaspora and transatlantic slavery,” reads the introduction to the CDN335 syllabus.

Originally titled UNI335, CDN335 was first introduced in the 2014–2015 academic year under the CS Program Director Emily Gilbert, who is cross-appointed between the CS program and the Department of Geography & Planning. Gilbert returned to program’s directorship in 2018, after serving a first term between 2010–2015.

“I saw a real need for a course that would examine the experiences of Black Canadians in light of the renewed discussions of anti-Black racism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement,” wrote Gilbert in an email to The Varsity. “While one course will not bring about needed institutional change, it is a small start.”

For Gilbert, curriculum should speak to the diverse experiences, needs, and interests of the student body. However, when she began constructing the course, she observed a lack of BCS-focused courses across Canadian universities. “I think it is especially important to have courses and programs in Black Canadian Studies because historically universities have been unwelcoming to Black Canadian students, faculty and staff,” she reflected. “And I know this is still the experience of many.”

“I loved that course because I gave my students my knowledge of Black Canadian history, because I was given breadth to create the syllabus as I saw fit,” Thompson said. “It’s always good to teach a course that’s fully yours.”

“You might not even know of the course”

After running for four consecutive years, the course was not offered in the 2018–2019 academic year due to insufficient enrollment numbers. When Gilbert returned as the program director in 2018, she was determined to revive it for the following year, citing its uniqueness at U of T.

“The need to examine the experiences of Black Canadians continues to be highly important, especially as anti-Black racism persists on campus and beyond,” she wrote.

In the year preceding Gilbert’s return, there were several public incidents of anti-Black racism at the university. The most prominent story, which received mainstream media attention, occurred in fall 2017: a Massey College senior fellow resigned after receiving backlash for racist comments they made toward a Black student.

On the enrollment challenges that face the BCS course, Gilbert noted that while the course draws interest from students she has spoken to, it lacks visibility owing to its placement in a small University College program. Thompson agreed with this observation: “If you’re not in Canadian Studies you might not even know of the course.”

The President of the Black Students’ Association (BSA), Anyika Mark, added that students are not made aware of the course’s value beyond serving as a requirement for the CS program, or as an elective. CDN335 can also serve a half-credit toward major programs in which interested students may already be enrolled, like History, Caribbean Studies, and Diaspora and Transnational Studies.

This year, Gilbert focused on outreach for the course to ensure sufficient enrollment. She promoted the course on social media and reached out to other undergraduate departments and advisors to share the course with their students.

This year, the class ran with 11 participants out of a maximum number of 25. One of those enrolled, third-year CS and equity studies student Karel Peters, had reached out to Gilbert last year to express hope for the course’s return. “She made it happen, and worked very hard to do so,” Peters wrote to The Varsity. She “found a black professor to teach a black Canadian studies course, sent countless emails to various student groups to ensure there was enough enrolment to ‘justify’ to the university that students were interested.”

Thompson pointed out another structural barrier for enrollment: prerequisites from other CS courses, which may deter interested students. “When I taught the course, I had to exempt prerequisites,” reflected Thompson. “I tried to make the case that it should be an open elective.”

Gilbert acknowledged the problem: “We are working on changing this for next year so that the course is more available to more students.” As the CS director, she hopes that with further outreach enrollment for CDN335 reach nearer to full capacity so that the course can be offered every year in the future.

The instructors behind CDN335

Hudson, this year’s instructor, articulated how the course reflects the nuances, multidimensionality, and pluralism of Blackness in Canada — contrasting with the erasure of Black histories in conventional Canadian education.

“This course allows us to celebrate the amazingness of blackness in Canada but also to enter a dialogue that complicates our relationships to a nation that undervalues our community and continues to erase us,” wrote Hudson to The Varsity. “We unearth the unheard histories of Black Canadians.”

For Thompson, the course reaffirms the place of Black people in Canada. By teaching the diverse histories of Black Nova Scotians, Albertan pioneers, southern Ontario communities, as well as Caribbean and African diaspora communities, the curriculum shows that Canada is their country too.

Hudson noted that her classroom was ethnically mixed, although it was predominantly Black. “I think it’s natural that students want to learn about their own histories of being and building Canada,” she said. Thompson appreciated the diversity of her classroom, and she observed that the lack of BCS in Canadian education meant that both Black and white students were confronted with new material.

On people with racist attitudes, Thompson said, “a lot of their prejudices come from ignorance. They don’t know us.” But she also observed how the class provided an opportunity for transformation: “The more you know about other people, the more loving you are going to be towards other people.”

The student experience: “We are here, and we’ve been here”

Peters described Hudson’s classroom this past fall as a collaborative learning space that validated Black presence and history in Canada. As for the space it provides for Black students to share their life experiences, Peters wrote, “We are here, and we’ve been here.”

Mark, who took the course with Thompson, wrote to The Varsity, “So many people don’t know how entrenched anti-black racism is in our country and that starts with not knowing our history.” She emphasized that anti-Blackness exists in Canada, as it does in the United States.

“Despite the image of Canada as an extremely diverse and unproblematic nation, minorities continue to feel the effects of racism, systemic oppression, and racial hierarchies present in Canada’s society,” Renee Rankine, a fourth-year CDN335 student in criminology, wrote to The Varsity.

On the difficulty of being racialized at U of T, Rankine noted, “You doubt yourself and your abilities, and if you combine that with the variety of academic pressures within the UofT community, it can be… very lonely.”

CDN335 provided a sense of community for Rankine: “Mingling, and forming friendships with fellow black students is an extremely refreshing experience, and hearing about the contributions of Black Canadians, offers a sense of pride.”

Peters, Mark, and Rankine all emphasized that CDN335 is not strictly a course for Black students. “[It’s] for everyone,” wrote Peters. “If you are a non-black person entering the space, be prepared to listen. This is a space where people are coming to learn about their history and unload any emotional trauma that accompanies those experiences.”

In light of the enrollment challenges faced by CDN335, Mark calls on non-racialized students to help support such courses to ensure they continue to exist. “For us to move on as a harmonious society, I think it’s super important that non-Black students learn about how anti-black racism is ever-evolving in Canada in order to help us stop it.”

Beyond U of T: the national picture

While one undergraduate course constitutes BCS at U of T, other institutions have established more formal infrastructures in recent years, reflecting the advocacy of Black scholars and students. In these programs, students can earn more than just one credit in the area of BCS.

In 2016, Dalhousie University received national coverage when it established a minor in Black and African Diaspora Studies, following years of effort from Associate Professor Afua Cooper. In 2018, York University launched a BCS certificate program, following student advocacy for a curriculum that includes students’ own histories and experiences.

“A program like Black Canadian Studies is necessary for all Canadians, for all of us, to interrupt the idea that Blackness is somehow separate from Canadian society as a whole,” said Associate Professor and Coordinator for the BCS certificate, Andrea Davis, in a YFile news story.

Aside from Dalhousie and York, there is also noticeable advocacy at Concordia University to offer a Black Studies minor. While these are significant steps in the expansion of BCS nationally, they do not currently offer students the ability to graduate with degrees that concentrate in the area of study.

Charmaine Nelson, an art history professor at McGill University, runs a BCS advocacy website that calls for stronger infrastructures that can offer degrees to students in order to increase Black-focused Canadian scholarship. Such dedicated spaces for BCS would require more resources: namely, standalone departments and staff, which Nelson notes are severely lacking in Canada compared to the US.

The future of BCS

In recent years, there have also been numerous calls for more investment in Black studies at U of T. In December 2015, the Black Liberation Collective (BLC) presented several demands to the university administration. This included calls to increase the presence and representation of Black administrators, faculty, staff, and students, and to develop a standalone African & Caribbean Studies Department. Currently, African Studies and Caribbean Studies exist only as programs at New College.

Following the university’s lack of response to the demands, the BLC protested by blocking traffic on campus on March 15, 2016 — contesting the university’s celebration of its birthday as “189 years of mistreating Black students and Black academics without speaking out.”

In November 2017, following incidents of anti-Black racism at the Faculty of Applied Sciences & Engineering (FASE), the BSA, the BLC, and the National Society of Black Engineers echoed these demands. They called, among other items, for an independent Black studies department and further recruitment of Black faculty and staff in the FASE.

“I think that an investment in these courses, in hiring more Black faculty and staff, is definitely a part of how students feel properly represented,” elaborated Mark. “Blackness is such a nuanced concept, and, to have an entire department for it, would greatly impact how Black students feel about coming to UofT.”

When asked about anti-Black racism on campus and community calls to invest more in Black spaces at the university, a U of T spokesperson reaffirmed the university’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion.

They pointed to recent examples, like the provost’s commitment to more hiring funds for Black and Indigenous faculty; the Department of History’s current efforts to hire a full-time, tenure-stream assistant professor in Black Canadian history; the Faculty of Medicine’s Black Student Application Program; and the 2018 hiring of full-time recruitment officer for outreach and support, who helps underrepresented students reach university.

Gilbert is encouraged by these developments and attributed them to the work of the Black U of T community. “It is important to recognize the vital advocacy of students and faculty through groups such as the Black Liberation Collective and the Black Faculty Collective, and the provostial Black Faculty Working Group,” she wrote.

“This momentum around new hires could help to build a program in Black Canadian Studies at UofT, especially if students make it clear that this is something that they want.”

Hudson not only believes that there should be more courses offered in the area of BCS, but that it should be a more common part of the university experience. “[CDN335] should be a mandatory class for all students, if we are going to cultivate more healthy relations with Black communities,” she wrote.

For now, there is no indication at U of T that there will be any sort of investment any sort of larger BCS space, such as a department or program. But whatever the future holds, CDN335 remains an intimate, nurturing space for those who experience it. Its value resides in the students who choose to participate, and what those students choose to make of it.

“Every week, I feel privileged to be learning with and from this group of students who have found our class a space to honour all of our lived experiences,” Hudson wrote. “They are interdisciplinary, intellectual, brave, gracious, bold, and eager to ascertain what Blackness in Canada means across the nation.”

“It is my honour to observe their contributions.”