2023 Black History Month Research Panel

On February 14th, 2023, the History Anti-Racism Taskforce (HART) and the Tri-University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA) hosted a graduate student panel in honour of Black History Month. The panelists included: Abigail Opoku, a former MA student in the Department of History at the University of Waterloo; Arshad Desai, a second-year PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Toronto; and Tolulope Akande, a current MA student in the Department of History at the University of Waterloo. Dr Barrington Walker, from the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, chaired the panel. This article provides the opportunity to read more about these presentations and the panelists’ reflections on Black history research.

Tolulope Akande - "The colonial history of Nigeria and the Royal Niger Company"

Tolulope Akande

Tolulope (she/her) is a master's student in the Department of History at the University of Waterloo. She received her BA in History and a master's degree in Diplomacy from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. Her current research is concerned with juvenile delinquency and the Nigerian justice system. She focuses on the colonial roots of juvenile crime and its long-term consequences, using prison records from British colonial archives, available primary sources in Nigeria, and interdisciplinary scholarship. Her research interests are diverse and include African history, the history of prisons and punishment, colonialism, and legal history.

Arshad Desai - "To Be 'Un/silenced': The Interplay of Archives, Blackness, and Canadian History in That Happy Road."

arshad desai

Arshad Desai is a second year PhD student at the University of Toronto. He earned his BA and MA in History, as well as the Black Canadian Studies Certificate, from York University, and last year he was awarded the prestigious Canada Graduate Scholarship to Honour Nelson Mandela. His forthcoming publication, "To Be 'Un/silenced': The Interplay of Archives, Blackness, and Canadian History in That Happy Road" will appear in Statesman of the Piano: Jazz, Race, and History in the Life of Lou Hooper, co-edited by Sean Mills, Eric Fillion, and Désirée Rochat, in Fall 2023.

Abigail Opoku - "Writing Girls into African Histories: Female Education and the Colonial project in the Gold Coast"

Abigail Opoku

Abigail Opoku is a recent graduate (MA in History) from the University of Waterloo, with hopes to begin her PhD studies this fall. Her research interests span broadly under these themes: (West) African Studies, Histories of empires and colonization, Histories of Women and girls, and Colonial Education. She is particularly interested in the various encounters that took place in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) between Europeans and locals, and how such events shaped conceptions of childhood and ideas of gender. As such, her Master's Research Paper, “Changed Men would require Changed Women”: The Organization of Female Education in the Gold Coast before the 1930s, focused on the introduction of formal female education in the Gold Coast before the 1930s, emphasizing how gendered conceptions on both sides of the encounter influenced its organization, prioritization, and development. Her PhD project will continue this line of inquiry, arguing that female education was central to the consolidation of the colonial project in the Gold Coast.

Dr. Barrington Walker

Dr. Barrington Walker

I hold a PhD in History from the University of Toronto and am a professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University (Canada) as well as the Senior Advisor, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in the Office of the Provost and VP Academic. Before coming to Wilfrid Laurier University, I was an associate professor of History at Queen’s University (Canada). A historian of Modern Canada, my work focuses on the histories of Blacks, race immigration and the law. It seeks to illuminate the contours of Canadian modernity by exploring Canada's emergence as racial state through its histories of white supremacy, slavery, colonization/immigration, segregation and Jim Crowism. Much of my work considers how these practices were legitimized, and in some instances contested, by the rule of law and legal institutions.

Q&A with the panelists

Please Briefly describe the topic you presented on.

Opoku: My topic Writing Girls into African Histories: Female education in the Gold Coast and the Colonial Project makes a case for the relevance of girls as important historical actors whose education was used as a medium to entrench Western values and legitimize colonial rule. Using the Gold Coast as a case study, it demonstrated that although girls, by extension women, were restricted to some spheres in society, their roles were not unimportant to the vision of the colonial government.

Akande: To understand Nigeria, one must first comprehend its origins. In 1900, the British officially took over the administration of what is now known as Nigeria from the Niger Company, and British protectorates were gradually established throughout the territory over the years. The protectorates were merged into one Nigeria in 1914. This presentation went into greater depth about the capitalism that influenced the acquisition of Nigeria. The British government paid 865 000 pounds to take over the territories from the Niger company, a huge sum in 1900 to a company that had exploited the land's resources through unfair trade deals with the Kings and local chiefs of the territories now known as Nigeria. I contend that Nigeria was never intended to be a country that gained independence in 1960; rather, it was a business asset. As a result, the British did not travel halfway around the world to spread democracy, Christianity, or education; rather, Nigeria began as a business transaction between a company and a government. Today, the Niger company still exists under the name Unilever.

Desai: I presented on the interplay of archives, Blackness, and Canadian history in pianist Lou Hooper’s autobiography That Happy Road. He was a talented pianist and Oscar Peterson’s tutor; he worked with Rosa Henderson, Art Gillam, Monette Moore, Maggie Jones, and Ella Fitzgerald; and he lived next to Dr W.E.B. Du Bois in Harlem and remembered the mocking of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association parade. In spite of Hooper’s encounters with racism, That Happy Road illustrates his assertions of dignity. He seeks not only to be remembered for more than what was enacted upon him but to demonstrate all that he did.

What drew you to this topic and what are some of the key contributions of your work?

Opoku: I began thinking around this topic after doing some research for my Master’s Research Paper. It was interesting to see that although girls (women) in the Gold Coast were limited, in terms of roles, they still wielded some level of influence that the colonial government recognized as useful to their cause. Whether or not girls have always used their roles in favour of the colonial vision is another idea to interrogate. It just seemed like there was so much to learn about the colonial state and processes by centering girls in historical studies.

Akande: The most important election in Nigeria's history took place in February. This is the era in which every Nigerian is aware of our leadership choices and has taken responsibility to vote in the upcoming election. The outcome of this election affected not only Nigeria, but the entire West African region, and thus the rest of the world because Nigeria's resources fuel many countries. It is important to comprehend Nigeria's history and how capitalism has severely impacted the country's economy as a result of the colonial administrative structures that the political elite still adhere to. This presentation hopes to inform Nigerians of the need to vote for actual leaders that would respect Nigeria as the country that it is and not as a business to be exploited for personal gains.

Desai: I began researching this topic in Dr Sean Mills’ graduate seminar on Canadian History, where he introduced me to Hooper’s autobiography. It surprised me. It awoke me. It invigorated my thinking. In my presentation, I sought to focus on Black multiplicity, rather than the idea of the “exceptional” Black Canadian. The “fabric” that made up Hooper’s life in the early- to mid-twentieth century moved far beyond racism and inequality –€“ there was baseball, the military, music, family, and community. All of these elements contribute to the richness of Black life today.

How could your research inform changes in the curriculum at the elementary, secondary, or post-secondary levels?

Opoku: My main goal is that my research would lead to a re-examination of some educational practices in present-day Ghana, especially in relation to girls. I recognize that educational policies, especially concerning girls’ education, are very different and have undergone changes but believe that there are others that need to be closely evaluated.

Akande: The colonial history of Nigeria and the Niger company has been omitted from the Nigerian curriculum, possibly to avoid the involvement of Nigeria's local rulers in colonialism. The colonial narrative promoted by Nigerian educators is only on the surface. It is appropriate to understand this origin from the perspectives of perpetrators and victims and to include this study from secondary levels, as this would help the average Nigerian make better political and economic decisions. Incorporating this research into the curriculum allows students to examine Nigeria through the history from above and from below perspectives. God bless Nigeria!

Desai: My work moves beyond the idea of the “exceptional” Black Canadian to show the different histories of Black Canadians, whether it be Hooper living in rooming houses with railway porters, playing shinny on a frozen pond, participating in baseball on an integrated recreational team, or confronting segregation in housing, the military, and entertainment establishments. Hooper’s autobiography alongside other primary sources recorded by Black Canadians should be included in the school curricula for students to learn that Black Canadian history is Canadian history €“ not just an afterthought or an isolated individual. Lou Hooper’s autobiography in particular places him within the larger history of Canada across the twentieth century, which is how Black Canadian history should be integrated into all school curricula.

Anything else that you'd like to share?

Desai: Reading That Happy Road has given me space to ask in what ways can my archival work be both political and restorative. I use “political” not just in the sense of approaching archiving practice as socially transformative or ensuring the archive is reflective of society’s diversity but also in the sense of an intervention in the traditional archive to bring diverse and otherwise marginalised histories to the forefront. I want to encourage everyone – historians and non-historians alike – to consider how they can bring marginalised perspectives into their research and actively support marginalised communities within and beyond this nation we call Canada.This presentation emerges from a chapter I wrote for Sean Mills, Eric Fillion, and Désirée Rochat’s Statesman of the Piano: Jazz, Race, and History in the Life of Lou Hooper (McGill-Queen’s University Press, [forthcoming –€“ Fall 2023]).