Black Canadian Studies students awarded for best papers at HERA conference

Arshad Desai, Andrea Davis and Aysha Campell with the bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, Founder of Chicago
Arshad Desai, Andrea Davis and Aysha Campell with the bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, Founder of Chicago
Aysha Campbell, Andrea Davis and Arshad Desai
Aysha Campbell, Andrea Davis and Arshad Desai

Two students in the Black Canadian Studies (BCS) certificate program at York University took home top accolades at the annual Humanities Education and Research Association (HERA) conference.

Aysha Campbell and Arshad Desai, who attended the event with BCS program coordinator and Department of Humanities Chair Andrea Davis, earned the HERA Undergraduate Research Prize – valued at $1,000 – for producing the best undergraduate papers at the conference this year.

Both of the York students’ papers discussed Canada’s liberal democracy and its historical ties to Black freedom, or lack thereof, by critiquing and deconstructing mainstream narratives.

Aysha Campbell
Aysha Campbell

“Receiving the award demonstrated the importance of having discourse around Blackness in Canada,” Campbell said. “My paper gave me the opportunity delve into African-Canadian history and investigate the ways in which Black communities managed to triumph in spite of the colonial state, not because of it.

“I’m so glad that Andrea Davis saw something in me and encouraged me to enter the competition,” she continued.

Desai echoed these sentiments, crediting the BCS program for encouraging him to write a paper re-assessing the popular image of the underground railroad and challenging the belief that Canada’s past excludes slavery and racism.

“Attending the conference and presenting my work on anti-Black racism in Canada was very significant for me,” Desai said. “I’m proud of my paper and believe it is my best piece of academic work.”

Like Campbell, Desai was grateful to Davis for her mentorship, support and encouragement.

“I would also like to thank Michele Johnson, for whose class this paper was created, as she has constantly challenged me to become a better African historian,” Desai elaborated.

Arshad Desai
Arshad Desai

Campbell and Desai presented their work in a panel format, creating a space for discussions with peers and scholars representing several colleges and universities from across the United States and Canada.

“The format and topics at the conference fostered academic exchange and growth,” Desai said. “I was able to connect with researchers from across the United States who have very different interests and backgrounds. Their panel discussions critiqued conventional norms and I was exposed to so many ways of challenging systemic discrimination through academic research and discussions.”

“The atmosphere was very welcoming,” Campbell added. “It allowed for easy networking with others.”

Arshad Desai, Andrea Davis and Aysha Campbell with the bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, Founder of Chicago
Arshad Desai, Andrea Davis and Aysha Campbell with the bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, founder of Chicago

Offered within York University’s Department of Humanities, the Black Canadian Studies program gives students the opportunity to earn a 32-credit certificate while simultaneously working toward any other degree. The program encourages students to explore questions related to Black Canada through humanities and fine arts perspectives, and through the specific study of Black cultures and histories. The diverse curriculum is curated to provide students with well-rounded knowledge, including various experiential components.

Campbell and Desai’s accomplishment at the HERA conference was a special milestone for BCS, which is less than two years old.

“This recognition is extremely gratifying not only because it recognizes the excellence of the work produced by students in the program, but also because it positions Canada as an important site of inquiry for Black Studies in the Americas and globally,” Davis said.

“I hope the program’s students take away a deepened understanding of the historical, cultural and expressive productions of people of African descent in the Americas through the lens of Black Canada, and that they are able to apply that understanding to other academic and professional contexts so they can create better futures.”

HERA hosts an annual conference to promote the worldwide study, teaching and understanding of the humanities across a vast range of disciplines. The annual proceeding fosters work that expresses the importance of research embracing various aspects of the human condition, both past and present. The annual prize competition for undergraduate papers was established to celebrate the contributions of young scholars in the field.

Additional information on Black Canadian Studies at York University can be found on the certificate program’s website.