Outgoing director reflects on far-reaching impact of Tubman Institute

Harriet Tubman
Michele Johnson
Michele Johnson

Equity and social justice are defining values at York University. The Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas at York University is emblematic of this deep commitment. This Organized Research Unit (ORU), launched in 2007, is dedicated to overcoming injustice and inequity that are linked to the antiBlack racism that many persons of African descent face in Canada and internationally.

History Professor Michele Johnson, from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, has served as the director of the Tubman Institute for the last five years, having been interim director from 2012 to 2013. With her term ending next month, Johnson sat down with Brainstorm to reflect on her time at the institute and the impact of this ORU.

Q: How has the Tubman Institute evolved during your time as director?

A:  When I assumed the directorship, the Tubman, under the leadership of Professor Paul Lovejoy, had already earned an international reputation for its scholarship on the migrations of Africans, enslaved/forced and free. My directorship has focused on building on those strengths and encouraging the participation of researchers across a range of disciplines to contribute to the institute’s interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research agenda.

We have organized ourselves in six research clusters:

  • Labour, movement and mobility;
  • Expressive culture and belief systems;
  • Politics, economics and social justice;
  • Genders and sexualities;
  • Health and science; and
  • Theory, method and practice.

These themes have become the bases of our research seminar, the “Tubman Talks,” where York faculty, graduate students, and visiting and community-based researchers share their research.

“By granting a charter to an institute like this, York signals to our university and wider communities that the University is willing to support research around the difficult issues pertaining to systemic barriers to equity.” – Michele Johnson

Q: What are a few highlights of the work that is being undertaken at the Tubman?

A: One project, funded by the Social Science & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), was “Slavery, Memory, Citizenship” (SMC). It examined the history, contemporary experiences and memories of slavery, and the impact of these among persons of African descent.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

More recently, the Tubman has become home to another SSHRC-funded project: “Conjugal Slavery in War” (CSiW). This focuses on the contemporary experiences, impact and legal/policy implications of armed conflict in several African countries, where the abduction and exploitation of persons (primarily women) have resulted in traumatic circumstances for the women, their communities and nations. CSiW is helping to record memories of the conflicts and to generate discourse that might influence possibilities of remediation, reconciliation and reparations.

Members of the Institute also work with the British Archives and research partners in a variety of national and local archives (including Sierra Leone, Cuba and Jamaica) in the digitization and preservation of endangered archives.

The publication record of Tubman Research Associates has been prolific. As well as journal articles, monographs and edited works, the Harriet Tubman series, published by Africa World Press, offers almost thirty monographs.

Q: Tell us about a few innovative research programs.

A: Growing out of SMC, Tubman researchers have launched several projects. “Performing Diaspora” showcases the expressive cultures of persons of African descent. This includes jazz, drumming, HipHop, film and Afrocentric music, particularly in collaboration with our Artist in Residence, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale.

The “Spotlighting and Promoting African Canadian Experiences” (SPACE) Initiative has also emerged from SMC. It highlights the historical and contemporary experiences of persons of African descent in Canada. This initiative launched “Reading Black Canada,” which profiles the literary productions by and/or about African Canadians. As well, the “Tubman Youth Summer Program” offers an introduction to African diasporas to youth, 14 to 18 years of age.

Harriet Tubman Youth Summer Program, SPACE Initiative
Harriet Tubman Youth Summer Program, SPACE Initiative

Many of the programs and events linked to the SPACE Initiative are offered in collaboration with our community partners, including the Jane Finch Concerned Citizens Association, the Harriet Tubman Community Organization, Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services, the Black Farmers Collective and the AfroLatin American Working Group.

Winston LaRose, President of the Jane Finch Concerned Citizens Association
Winston LaRose, president of the Jane Finch Concerned Citizens Association

Additionally, the “Spiritualities Series” is a monthly gathering of practitioners of Afro-derived spiritualties who offer presentations and workshops about the inner workings and importance of these belief systems.

Q: How is the Tubman Institute emblematic of York University’s dedication to equity?

A: By granting a charter to an institute like this, York signals to our university and wider communities that the University is willing to support research around the difficult issues pertaining to systemic barriers to equity.

Q: Why is the work undertaken at the Tubman Institute important to all Canadians, all global citizens?

A: Persons of African descent continue to be among the most marginalized across many societies. In Canada, there is a tendency toward a national amnesia about the presence and contributions of various groups of Black people, including those who were enslaved, to this country.

We hope that the Tubman’s Research Associates are helping to complicate the discourse around the historical and contemporary presence of Blacks in Canada. Some of the research conducted by Tubman academics has made an impact in Ontario on policies that aim at achieving social justice. Some has influenced policy internationally in places including Costa Rica, Mexico and Brazil.

We hope that our research and programs will help to address the tide of antiBlack racism that has been historically, and continues to be, pervasive.

To learn more about The Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas, visit the website. To read more about the CSiW project, see the related Brainstorm article.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca