The histories, experiences, cultural identities, communities and contemporary concerns of Black people in Canada are the focus of a new University of Guelph program.
The development of the program was led by Dr. Jade Ferguson, an English professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies, in collaboration with the Guelph Black Students Association (GBSA).
An award-winning English professor, Ferguson championed the idea, brought the committee together and was central in the design of this program’s curriculum.
“The new Black Canadian Studies program will introduce students to the culturally rich and vibrant communities of Black Canada and beyond,” said Ferguson. “The multidisciplinary program offers a wide range of courses, including community-engaged and experiential learning opportunities with the Guelph Black Heritage Society, and courses that attend to the past, present and future of Black lives in Guelph and beyond.”
Ferguson said Guelph’s history as a terminus for the Underground Railroad “sets the stage for thinking not only about the ways local histories, political and other forces shape the everyday lives of Black diasporic communities, but also about the ways these communities are shaped by transnational connections and global circulations.”
She added the program is fortunate to draw on the remarkable talents of U of G professors Dionne Brand, Lawrence Hill and Canisia Lubrin, authors who speak to the complexities of Black experience in their acclaimed works.
The idea for the program grew out of U of G president Dr. Charlotte Yates’s Anti-Racism Action Plan.
Strengthens commitment to inclusive learning
“It is critical that the University of Guelph’s academic programming represents the diverse lived experiences and needs of the University community and the broader communities we serve,” said Yates. “I am grateful to the students, faculty and staff whose hard work and advocacy has resulted in an intersectional and interdisciplinary program that reflects the important histories, realities and futures of Black Canadian communities.”
Indira Naidoo-Harris, AVP, diversity and human rights, said the new program strengthens U of G’s commitment to building inclusive learning environments.
“Education and understanding are key in embedding equity, diversity and inclusion in our institution,” she said.
“The new Black Canadian studies program is an important step forward towards appreciating and valuing Black history and culture and building a strong culture of belonging for everyone at U of G.”
Angel Culmer, GBSA president, is continuing the work of 2020-21 GBSA executive members Chioma Nwebube, Mechaela Alfonso and Briana Green-Ince on the development of the program. She said the minor is an important addition to U of G’s academic offerings “as it aids in relaying the largely unheard history of the Black community in Canada.
“A lot of people are unaware of this aspect of history, many of whom are of the community themselves. So, this new program would give them the opportunity to know their history, something which is pivotal in establishing self-identity.”
Culmer hopes that for non-Black Canadians in the program, it will provide an alternative to “whitewashed” history books.
“This is essential to addressing and uprooting the biased prejudices surrounding the Canadian Black community, and positively contributes to the University’s aim for equity, inclusion and diversity.”
Across Canada, university programs are being created and BIPOC faculty hired, said Dr. Kimberly Francis, a music professor in the School of Fine Art and Music and director of interdisciplinary programs for the College of Arts, who co-chaired the curriculum committee for the program.
A deep commitment to Black Canadian identity
The program involves faculty in disciplines ranging from literature, language, history, sociology and anthropology to political science, psychology, and music, giving students an opportunity to develop an interdisciplinary field of study of Black experience.
“This program is very much in response to contemporary circumstances and the growing interest in the Black experience,” said Francis.
“It is also part of the renewed commitment of the University to speak to the BIPOC student experience and particularly anti-Black racism. This really was born out of the zeitgeist of this time in the post-secondary sector.”
Among other topics, the program will cover creative expressions and literature, political and labour movements, and issues of language, law, immigration and health.
“There is a deep commitment to Black Canadian history and Black Canadian identity in the program,” Francis said. “That explicitly met the requests that the Guelph Black Students Association put forth. There will also be courses on Black philosophical thought, theorizing race and racism, research methods and an emphasis on getting students engaged with the community.”
Dr. Dorothy Odartey-Wellington, a Hispanic studies professor in the School of Languages and Literatures who served on the curriculum committee, said the program will focus not only on Black thought, cultures, histories and creative expression broadly but also on how these areas relate to Canada specifically.
“The program recognizes the centuries of Black presence in Canada and its contributions to Canadian society and knowledge,” Odartey-Wellington said.
As an interdisciplinary program, the minor will expose students to a diverse range of ideas and critical approaches that will broaden their perspectives in other fields of study and in their areas of employment upon graduation, she added.
“Black studies at the University of Guelph addresses the need to have programs that reflect, and reflect upon, diversity in our country and in our research and learning environments.”