< News | Thursday, March 17, 2022

From resilience to resistance: Placing Black Canadian history at the forefront of academia

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University of Toronto historian Funké Aladejebi is on a mission to place Black Canadian history at the forefront of academia. With two recently published books, she emphasizes the dynamic roles Black communities and women had in shaping Canada’s national identity in the last 200 years.  

Released this month by University of Toronto Press, Unsettling the Great White North: Black Canadian History, is co-edited by two history professors, Aladejebi and York University’s Michele Johnson. The idea for the collaboration sparked out of their desire to demonstrate the work being done to document Black Canadian life in academia. 

The book – which brings together dozens of collaborators across academic disciplines – shares and celebrates Black Canadian history and studies, and fills the knowledge gaps of the achievements and impact of Black communities nationwide. 

“The challenge that we had teaching African Canadian history was the constant requests from students about whether or not there was any new scholarship on Black Canadian history,” says Aladejebi, an assistant professor in the department of history. 

“Our desire in putting this volume together, and getting so many different contributors, was to talk about the depth and the breadth of the field and to talk about the ongoing innovation in scholarship that has taken us to where we are now.” 

The four-year project consists of 21 chapters contributed by 23 scholars across Canada. Aladejebi notes that the goal of the book was not only to promote the scholarship around Black Canadian history but its complexity from all disciplines and research lenses, including sociology, gender and women’s studies, and geography to challenge and re-examine what we think we know about Black life in Canada.  

“The book thinks about citizenship, it thinks about labour, it thinks about education, gender, settlement and prison industrial states,” Aladejebi says.  

“We leaned on trying as much as possible to give as much diversity to these stories, but to also talk about the way that anti-Blackness gets structured in Canada.”

U of T historian Funké Aladejebi places Black Canadian history at the forefront of academia

University of Toronto historian Funké Aladejebi is on a mission to place Black Canadian history at the forefront of academia. With two recently published books, she emphasizes the dynamic roles Black communities and women had in shaping Canada’s national identity in the last 200 years.

The book encapsulates the history of the 19th century through a discussion of abolitionists such as Mary Ann Shadd, who, in 1851 opened a racially integrated school in Windsor, Ont., and was the first Black female newspaper publisher and earliest female journalists in the country. 

It also puts a spotlight on modern-day changemakers including Howard McCurdy, a politician, civil rights activist and academic who was Canada’s first Black tenured professor and Corrine Sparks, the first African Nova Scotian appointed to the Nova Scotia judiciary and the first Black woman to become a judge in Canada.  

In documenting regional experiences and settlement across Canada, the establishment of diasporic associations and landmark institutions like jazz clubs were critical spaces in shaping Black life.  

With a unique look into the history of settlement in the Prairies, one of those landmark institutions is the Shiloh Baptist Church. Established in 1912 by the first (and only) African American farming community in Saskatchewan, the church was built by African Americans fleeing segregation in Oklahoma. Its cemetery is the resting place of 37 original settlers and their descendants. In 2019, the church was declared a heritage site by the provincial government.  

From examining legislation, settlement in the Prairies, segregation in Canada’s school systems and diasporic communities, the robust collection of scholarship re-writes and challenges the narrative of multiculturalism and Black acceptance in Canada.  

“I think the work really does embrace its title of unsettling” Aladejebi says.  

“It unsettles what we think Black Canada is supposed to be. It unsettles where we think Black Canada is going. It unsettles these broader ideas of resilience, of resistance, and it really tells a more complex story.”

 

Aladejebi: ‘I hope my work thinks through the incredible richness of Black Canadian history.’

 

As a historian and educator, Aladejebi’s research focus is on the twentieth century, specifically oral histories, Black Canadian history and Canada’s education system.  

Released last year, Aladejebi’s book, Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers, outlines the role of Black women in Ontario’s education system in the 1940s and 1980s, and how they were placed at the center of building the foundation of anti-racist and multicultural education in Canada. 

As mediators between communities and institutions, teachers both participated in and led the launch of extracurricular programs designed to foster equity and inclusion and provide spaces for Black students to thrive. 

“Black women made it a point to give weight and space for Black life and to talk about these ongoing legacies and Black contributions into a curriculum that largely ignored their experiences,” Aladejebi says. 

In addition to countless academic works that examine these systems, Aladejebi provides companies and higher-education institutions with gender and racial inclusion support initiatives. 

Reflecting on the impact she hopes both books will have, as well as her scholarship, Aladejebi hopes to be able to provide the next generation of scholars with the tools to encourage multidisciplinary collaborations to tell the stories behind Black Canadian history and to ensure its place at the center of scholarship. 

“Part of my desire in doing this work for the next generation of scholars is to give them the language to better understand both institutional and political structures, as well as the historical continuities of anti-Black racism and systemic forms of discrimination that deeply impact persons of African descent,” Aladejebi says. 

“I hope my work thinks through the incredible richness of Black Canadian history and Black Canadian studies and gets people excited about doing this research.” 

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