Commentary, Opinion

Black history isn’t one uniform experience

As an African student attending McGill, I was initially shocked to see that McGill’s course list included classes with titles such as History of Colonial Africa or African Politics. While I am glad to have the opportunity to take any classes related to Africa, something I was not provided with in high school, I find it disgraceful that 21st-century institutions continue to frame such a large continent as one homogenous place. Working against the white supremacist centrality of Western Europe, Canada, and the U.S., some curricula and departments, such as East Asian Studies, have offered a range of courses focused on various countries, instead of grouping diverse countries into one concept. 

It’s a long-standing problem in the West that the continent of Africa is often spoken of as one indistinguishable entity. While most people at McGill (hopefully) are aware that Africa is a continent with 54 diverse countries, hearing this single-minded narrative is familiar to many Africans, especially in the classroom. Africa should not be taught as a single idea, but as a complicated and varied region with a range of accomplishments and unique ways of thinking, knowing, and being. 

When discussing Black history, the narrative is often dominated by only African and African-American history, which excludes the whole Black diaspora that encompasses people of African origin living in the Americas as a result of slavery or other forms of displacement and migration. Taking diversity in education seriously means offering several courses that allow for a wide range of study of Black people and their experiences, throughout various places and eras. Inclusivity does not simply stop at offering a few courses to meet the demand. McGill must first have courses that recognize and incorporate both the transnationality of global Blackness and the uniqueness of Black experiences, methodologies, and epistemologies, before reworking the constricting structures that prevent students from taking these courses.

Many African studies professors have themselves informally expressed problems with course names in the department. The many differences amongst African nations make it difficult to study the entire continent. Thus, professors often select certain regions to focus on. While this helps fix the problem of generalizing and essentializing life on the continent, it would be preferable for students to select their courses depending on the region they will be studying, as is the case for other departments. Modifying course titles to reflect the real geographical focus of the course would hold departments accountable while shedding light on the various gaps in African course content. When departments only focus on a few issues as representative of the whole––the Rwandan genocide or apartheid in South Africa, for example––they lose and misconstruct the multivocality of African politics, culture, and society.

On top of the undifferentiated study of Africa at McGill, Caribbean communities and Caribbean diaspora communities are also ignored. In Montreal, where long-established Black immigrants have historically been from the Caribbean, ignoring this crucial part of the Black diaspora undermines both solidarity across the world and students’ understandings of anti-colonial networks. One of the most significant cultural communities in Quebec is the Haitian community, and having a course studying their involvement in politics and their various accomplishments would provide students with a well-rounded understanding of the Black history of the province they reside in. 

In 2021, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario introduced a course on the Black Caribbean and its diasporas. Though the Afro-Caribbean diaspora is frequently excluded from these discussions across numerous movements, taking up, for instance, art and resistance in the Jamaican or Martinican diasporas would crucially revise our understanding of Black history, and the hardships and triumphs that still impact communities today. If McGill is truly committed to giving students a well-rounded education, the university must challenge the “comfortable” or “easy” approaches to Black History found in prevalent exclusive narratives.

A litany of voices were silenced throughout history, and ought to be heard today. The lack of Black history-related courses and accurate studies on Africa is evidence of the settler colonial and anti-Black underpinnings of the Canadian educational system. McGill must broaden its course offerings to reflect the richness of Black history on the African continent, and to bolster representation for all Black people. 

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