By Sahar Fatima
As George Floyd took his last breath under the knee of a white police officer last May, the world was his witness.
Videos shared to social media captured the 46-year-old Black man’s traumatic death outside a Minneapolis, Minnesota shop, highlighting the systemic police brutality that continues to terrorize Black people.
Alongside the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman shot by police in her Louisville, Kentucky home last March, Floyd’s case sparked massive outrage and Black Lives Matter protests around the US, Canada, and the world.
After a summer of reckoning, during which every industry and workplace was forced to examine its treatment of Blacks and other minorities, this year’s Black History Month and the celebration of Black excellence feels more significant than ever.
At University College, the legacy of Black excellence is rich and ongoing, with renowned alumni changemakers and current faculty members and students leading in their fields while working to fight inequity.
“For me, Black History Month is every month because my history and my story doesn’t go away and just come back for 28 days a year,” says award-winning playwright and director Djanet Sears, who has taught drama as an adjunct professor at UC for more than two decades. “It’s important because without it, it gets overlooked completely, but it does reflect the space given to Black people to tell their stories.”
Sears has spent decades reclaiming space to tell her story in a career marked by firsts. In 1990, her play Afrika Solo became the first published by a Canadian woman of African descent. In 1997, she helped launch the first AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival. And in 2006, Sears directed a production of her critically acclaimed play Harlem Duet for the Stratford festival, marking the festival’s first play written and directed by a Black woman with an all-Black cast.
Looking back at how hard she had to struggle to fight for her experiences to be heard and taken seriously, Sears says, “I wish someone had told me to keep writing despite what people tell you about your work.”
It’s advice she would give to young Black creatives today: Don’t let racism and the daily battles defending your humanity distract you from pursuing your own success.
“Keep producing your art. People will say it’s insufficient. People will not like it; it matters not. Keep doing your art, expressing your stories in the way you are moved to express them. That is your calling that you must honour.”
Sears and other Black Canadians “have left indelible marks on our country and college, with their courage, leadership, and resilience helping shape our respective identities and cultural fabrics,” UC Principal Markus Stock wrote in a statement. “As recent global events have demonstrated, often tragically, celebrating and promoting Black history remains crucial.”
He said the college was committed to bringing more Black students and scholars to the academy.
“Though national celebrations for Black history take place in February, University College is focused year-round on upholding the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion upon which we were purposefully founded,” Stock said.
One such effort is the Black Canadian studies course, which returned to UC’s Canadian Studies program in the fall 2019 term after skipping a year due to low enrolment.
“An interdisciplinary course that interrogates the constitution of Blackness in Canada,” according to the course description, the class included 28 students (three more than capacity) that semester.
“We don’t learn about Black history in school, and so I aim to provide an overview of the contributions made by Black Canadians,” says the course’s new instructor, Audrey Hudson, who is also chief of education and programming at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “I bring a nuanced view that is rooted in the arts that students may not have learned before. I also bring a grounded view of what it means to be in relations with Indigenous communities.”
Last summer’s events made Hudson more sensitive to how her students may be feeling during an unsettling time, Hudson says.
“We were in a health pandemic, economic crisis, and a moment of revolutionary social change. I took a moment of pause to enact radical care and map out a syllabus that pushed my intersectional roles of power, and to question how I was going to be accountable to the Black community.”
Hudson’s class was “amazing,” says Kerry-Ann James, a cinema studies student and actress. “It felt like we were introduced to a different side of Canada, one that’s always overlooked or buried.”
She especially enjoyed an assignment to write letters of appreciation to Black activists currently working on the ground.
“I think this Black History Month is celebrating this reorientation to what we could do in the future to make the world more livable, and appreciating the people who are working in the present,” James says.
She would qualify as one of those people. As UC’s equity and diversity program assistant, James runs UC Student Life’s Instagram account, holding live conversations with community activists and leaders, such as Ekua Cudjoe, who created a community of Black runners.
James also hosted a virtual Queering the Future summit this month, exploring how Canadian laws impact Black and other queer communities. As an actress, James appeared in the Netflix show Grand Army, which shows students grappling with issues such as rape culture, racism, sexual identity and more, bringing her equity-minded goals to her work as an actress.
With plans to start graduate school in September, James is well on her way to joining a long list of influential Black alumni who have left their mark on Canada and the fight for equity. They include, but are not limited to, the below trailblazers.
- Eugenia Charles (BA 1946 UC) was the first woman lawyer in Dominica and served as prime minister of the country from 1980 to 1995, the first woman in the Caribbean to hold the position.
- Dr. Douglas Salmon (BA 1951 UC) was Canada’s first Black surgeon and went on to become the country’s first Black chief of general surgery at Centenary Hospital in Scarborough.
- Julius Alexander Isaac (BA 1955 UC) was the first Black person to sit on the Federal Court of Canada after being appointed by former prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1991.
- Austin Clarke (1959 UC) was an award-winning writer who published 11 novels, six short story collections, and five nonfiction books. In 1963, Clarke interviewed Malcolm X on CBC Radio.
- Romain W. Pitt (BA 1959 UC) was an Ontario Superior Court judge and the first Black lawyer named to the court. Pitt, with Eric Lindsay, also created the first partnership of Black lawyers in Canada. He was a founding director of the Caribana Caribbean street festival in Toronto.
- Jeffrey Fasegha (BCom 2020 UC) is a new graduate who was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship last fall to study at Oxford University this year. As an undergraduate, Fasegha researched social enterprises in the energy industry in Nigeria, where he was born, founded the Black Career Conference, co-founded Black Rotman Commerce, and held other leadership positions in student groups with a focus on equity for marginalized people. He was also honoured with the 2020 African Scholars Outstanding Recent Alumni Award.
As pioneers, community leaders, and great thinkers, these Black UC alumni and their stories and contributions won’t fade away with February.