Reflecting on the past, looking toward the future of Black Canadian Studies

In September of 2018, York University launched its Black Canadian Studies Certificate program, a move that reinforced the University’s dedication to Black studies in Canada and provided students with a more diverse curriculum.

Now in its second academic year, the certificate has welcomed 36 students as well as renowned Black diaspora academics, including current faculty member Professor Christina Sharpe and 2018-19 visiting scholar, Daniel McNeil.

Offered through the Department of Humanities in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, the certificate brings together undergraduate students from various disciplines to broaden their thinking and understanding of Blackness.

Andrea Davis
Andrea Davis

Black Studies located within the humanities “gives students a wider map to think about black people; black people’s lives; experiences that are the most comprehensive,” said Professor Andrea Davis, chair of the Department of Humanities and coordinator of the Black Canadian Studies Certificate. “It gives them that interdisciplinary lens.”

For students like Arshad Desai, a third-year honours History major, the certificate program has exposed him and his peers to new and refreshing concepts. Desai said the program has introduced them to “the important work of Black academics they would likely not encounter in other courses.”

Arshad also credits the certificate’s unique learning opportunities for encouraging him to become a more engaged student. Last February, together with the certificate program and York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute, he coordinated the first-ever “Writing and Researching Blackness in the Academy” symposium,  a one-day event featuring a blend of art, literature and panel discussions on the academic work of undergraduate researchers.

This year, Arshad and another student in the certificate program, Aysha Campbell, have been invited to present their work in the certificate at the peer-reviewed international Humanities and Education Research Conference in Chicago, Ill.


Andrea Davis poses with students enrolled in the Black Canadian Studies Certificate

Presenting students with ways to actualize their knowledge through hands-on learning is a goal of the certificate program. For instance, the course Griots to Emcees: Examining Culture, Performance and Spoken Word, is taught by spoken word artist Wendy “Motion” Brathwaite. It gives students a chance to produce rap, poetry, and spoken word pieces as tools of resistance. This past fall, the course culminated with its annual year-end showcase in which students performed their lyrical creations to an enthused crowd of poetry fans.

Eager to advance avenues for students, there are plans for a community placement program to be woven into the certificate. “This is an opportunity to help students take what they’re learning in those humanities courses and then apply them in practical ways outside the classroom so they can see their humanities training in action,” said Davis. The experiential education opportunity, which is currently under development, will have students placed in the office of elected officials to learn how they interface with Black communities.

The program is being piloted this Winter term with one of its first students undertaking a placement within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). The student will work alongside York University Professor and TDSB Trustee for Scarborough Rouge-Park, Anu Sriskandarajah to learn policymaking and governance. “This is a unique opportunity for the student,” said Sriskandarajah. “The placement allows [Black Canadian Studies Certificate] students to see first-hand how decisions are made that directly impact thousands of [TDSB] students.”

The placement student will be exposed to the inner workings of TDSB, attend Board and committee meetings, and, ultimately, witness theoretical learnings unfold in a real-world context. Sriskandarajah hopes that this placement experience will have a long-lasting impact on the student: “One of the goals of the placement is to inspire students to one day to pursue publicly elected positions or other positions of leadership.”

With aspirations of the certificate one day becoming a minor or major, Davis hopes that the certificate program will strengthen York University’s standing as a leader in the field of Black studies. “We need to establish ourselves as a primary producer of knowledge and students in Black Canadian Studies.”