Dr. Afua Cooper is Halifax's newest poet laureate
May 10, 2018
On sabbatical after six years as the James Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Dr. Afua Cooper is re-energizing her creative expression through poetry as Halifax’s newest poet laureate.
In the role, the award-winning poet, author and historian will serve as an ambassador and advocate for literacy, literature and the arts while reflecting the community’s vitality through appearances and poetry readings at civic events and other cultural activities.
The appointment is for two years.
“We are very pleased to appoint Dr. Cooper as our next poet laureate, a position which gives voice to the various groups that make up our community through spoken and written words,” said Halifax’s Mayor Mike Savage.
In paying tribute to family members for her achievements, Cooper singled out her late paternal grandmother Georgiana Cooper who raised three children after becoming widowed at age 30.
“I think she’s responsible for me becoming a historian and poet,” she said. “From the stories she told when I was growing up and as I became an adult and started writing poetry, I saw these as real gifts and nuggets. She didn’t tell us folk tales as she was not into that. She was more into factual things. The stories my grandmother told of days gone by when she was growing up have always been in my mind and imagination. So when I started to write poetry, I wrote about historical events, my family and being raised in Westmoreland.”
Cooper, who has a PhD in Canadian History and the African Diaspora with a focus on Black 19th century communities in Ontario, has been a Halifax resident since August 2011.
“I like this city because it’s not as hectic as Toronto which I love, it’s very multicultural, it’s easy to get around and you can catch your breath here which I like,” said the city’s seventh poet laureate. “The arts scene here is vibrant which I appreciate and there are communities that I have become a part of. Being the poet laureate is a nice way to engage the community. I am going to use the opportunity to not only shine the spotlight on me, but on other people to hear other voices.”
Cooper’s term as the James Johnston chair ended last August.
As a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, she was part of the Black and academic community’s activism that led to the establishment of the chair 22 years ago.
Cooper accomplished a lot in her term.
The third chair holder developed a minor in Black and African Diaspora Studies that will allow students to discover and analyze the history, culture, and sociology of Black Canada and the wider African diaspora.
She also founded the Black Faculty & Staff Caucus and was instrumental in the creation of the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA) summit that provides a platform for scholars and other delegates to reflect, discuss, dialogue and engage with issues critical to the praxis of community, empowerment and leadership in Black Canada.
The BCSA was launched in Vancouver in 2009 when Cooper was the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair in Simon Fraser University’s women’s studies department. The inaugural conference took place in May 2013 at Brock University in St. Catharines where African-American abolitionist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman lived for a few years in the 1850s before moving to Auburn, New York.
Subsequent conferences have taken place at Dalhousie and Brandon University in Winnipeg. The next conference will be held on May 28 and 29 at the University of Regina.
Cooper is also leading the Lord Dalhousie Panel on Race & Slavery mandated to gather historical facts relating to the university’s founder statements and actions related to slavery and race. It will then interpret those facts in light of their past and present contexts and recommend actions Dalhousie could take to respond to them.
“The university was founded in 1818 in a time when Black people were at the bottom of the social and racial hierarchy,” said Cooper who taught sociology at Ryerson and York University and history at U of T before moving to Halifax. “That was reflected in the outlook of the founder who was also Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor.
She said the report will be released shortly.
Cooper brought a considerable wealth of experience and knowledge to the rotating chair.
She was a consultant to the Ontario committee set up to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery in 2007 and her interest in slavery, abolition and women studies led to her doctoral dissertation on anti-slavery crusader Henry Bibb and the publishing of ‘The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal’, a national bestseller that was nominated for the 2006 Governor General’s Award.
The Dub Poet Collective co-founder was also the recipient of the 2012 Beacon of Freedom Award for authoring ‘Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom’.
The award is presented annually to a book that introduces American History, from colonial times through to the Civil War, to children in a historically accurate and engaging style.
Wheatley made her literary debut at age 19 to a welcoming audience in London in 1773.
Unable to get her work published in the United States despite her talent which was recognized by her owners who provided their slave with her own room to pen her poems and frequent readings in the living rooms of New England’s elite, Wheatley – her original name was Penda Wane – found a publisher in England.
She, however, returned to the United States to be with her ailing mistress. The mistress and her husband, John Wheatley, died four years apart. Before passing away, the family patriarch granted his slave freedom.
The first James Johnston Chair was lawyer, linguist and educator Dr. Esmeralda Thornhill who was appointed to the Faculty of Law in 1996. David Divine, who was installed in January 2004 to the School of Social Work in the Faculty of Health Professions, was forced to step down early after suffering serious injuries in a 2007 vehicular accident.
The next chair will be in the department of medicine & community health studies.