New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies




Black Canadian Studies: A Move towards Diasporan Literacy


Jennifer R. Kelly

University of Alberta



Journal Extract: Culture Jamboree Wednesday 24 February

As part of the festival, students also put on a display of various dances that are viewed as representative of their culture of “origin.”   The rationale for this sharing of cultures is based on the liberal premise that by sharing, one is opening oneself to a process of acceptance.  However, what was interesting about the display was the way in which some cultures were represented via “folk” culture, with representation based upon specific ways of dressing, specific forms of movement: a representation of a tradition, history, time and effort. For others, in this case the self-identified black students, representation was much more problematic. How can black culture be represented? Is it located within the continent of Africa? Is it located in the US? Or is it not located anywhere? At times reinforces a hierarchy of culture in terms of the ways in which this “culture” is represented.

I was particularly interested in the ways in which the sense of the “relational” affected the reading of the cultures.  I watched the Scottish dancers in relation to an African-Canadian group of girls:


Observation Notes made on site:

3rd dance, Scottish dancers.  Dressed in traditional Scottish dance costume — waistcoat, kilt and leggings. The dance is choreographed, energetic, and looks professional. Well received by audience. Bagpipe music.

4th dance is by a group of black girls.  The music is sort of ?? traces of Caribbean rhythm.  Five girls dressed in everyday clothes, tones to black and white. Some dressed in trousers, Capri pants, or shorts.  Mainly moving and “winding.”  The winding part brings cheers. Also notice that some of black boys are barracking and shouting comments, particularly the young man with the cornrows.



The research journal extract above was generated during one of my research projects undertaken with school youth of African descent. It describes my thoughts while observing a school-organized cultural event that encouraged representation of cultures.  Evident in the narrative is a tension around issues of representation of blackness within the public sphere. I was struck at that moment of observation by the ways in which black Canadian culture is problematic both in terms of representation and also the ways in which dominance can be reinforced rather than negated through the process of “sharing”.  Also of import in the observation is the actuality that under pressure to identify a sense of black unity, from very heterogeneous experiences, many youth fall back, for identification, on music and dominant representations constructed and produced through U.S. based youth culture and media. What the event sparked for me was a query: how does one represent a black Canadian culture? For many self-identified black students, with limited knowledge and understandings of black Canadian culture there is no automatic or easily accessible culture that represents blackness.  


As a field of enquiry black Canadian studies has the potential to analyze the issues highlighted in the above research journal entry. Drawing on black British cultural studies and the work of theorists such as Hall and Gilroy, we are able to recognize that meanings attributed to an event (i.e. culture fest) are not fixed and that meaning is constructed relationally. So if we want to develop an understanding of culture it requires more that just providing an “open” space where cultures can be presented since re/presentation also takes place.  This process of re/presentation draws on history in order to re-inscribe meanings of power and to give some forms of folk culture a sense of longevity and stability.  So we find that the Scottish dancing undertaken by some students is read very differently from the dance undertaken by the black students. Thus, we can recognize that just allowing students to present their cultures is not enough.


Now while black Canadian studies has started to make a name for itself through the work of theorists such as Rinaldo Walcott and writers such as Dionne Brand and George Elliott Clarke nonetheless I feel that we can extend the spheres of theorisation, imagination and representation more directly to the field of education in Canada. Black

Canadian studies, if one dares to lay claim to any finite definition, can be viewed as a diverse field that is unified through a heterogeneous exploration of the lived experiences of peoples of African descent residing within a nation-state called Canada. Implicated in such scholarly work are issues of nationalism in general and more particularly how a sense of blackness can be imagined within the descriptor Canadian. Such an ability to examine the lived experiences of those of African descent allows for movement from specific forms of analysis that tend to pathologize black cultural formations as inherently dysfunctional or exotic to one that recognizes the ways that one’s lived experiences and the ways that one makes meaning out of such experiences operate within a socio-historical political context nested within power relations. For me, black Canadian studies can illustrate how the empirical links to the conceptual and vice versa.  Cognizant of, and in agreement with, Stuart Hall’s postulation of the death of the innocent black subject; there is also a need to recognize the political and to assert at times a  “strategic essentialist” position.[1] Such a position “retains a strong interest in the hidden histories and continuities in Black cultural production without recourse to narrower, pathological and biological notions of cultural purity”.[2]


Conceptually, Gilroy’s work suggests that one should view the formation of culture as rhizomatic “routes” rather than “roots.”  Such an understanding of culture recognises the various ways in which culture is syncretic rather than absolute. So it is that in this contextualization and recontextualization of movements of peoples across geographic borders “diaspora becomes a word of choice in the second half of the 20th century. It focuses not only on African roots and cultural continuities but also routes and ruptures and cross cultural exchanges — equally constitutive of black diaspora”.[3] Black Canadian studies articulates a hybridity that recognizes heterogeneity rather than biological sameness.


Here I would argue that black Canadian studies should be able to draw on the concept of diaspora in order to tease out the experiences of black youth and to see the ways in which the concept can help us theorize curricula that might indicate the complexities of identity, identity-formation and location.  Diaspora offers the opportunity to re-theorize and articulate ideas of nation, nationalism and belonging within the field of education — particularly in terms of curricula in order to explore questions such as: Can sources of black identification be generated within the Canadian state borders to dissipate the existing hegemonic media influences on identity formation? In relating back to the journal entry and students’ experiences of schooling; diaspora helps us understand the intersections of ethnicity, class, religion and gender in identity-formation.  It also helps us explore to what extent youth have an “over integrated” or “pluralistic” sense of self in relation to their diasporan communities.  In other words, where and when do they use boundaries of blackness as markers of difference?  As well, the concept of diaspora, with its connotation of sameness and differentiation, provides a fundamental theoretical means to grasp the contemporary politics of identity and identification. 


By identifying with the unifying category of “black,” students have the opportunity to interact with other black students whose heritage lies within the continent of Africa and its diaspora and to learn, in however limited a manner, about blackness and its differing representations within the diaspora.  Having seen how students are beginning to learn about each other it would be useful for schools to support such informal learning through the more coherent concept of diasporan literacy.  As a starter, Black Canadian studies could provide a portal through which to begin to examine in a more serious way how exploration of topics such as diaspora and identity formation could be incorporated into the mainstream curriculum. Drawing on the work of Veve Clarke (2000) and extending it such a form of literacy encompasses the ability to read and comprehend discourses of African diasporan experiences (e.g. Brazil, Caribbean, Europe).  Diasporan literacy supports knowledge of the diaspora and an understanding of the heterogeneous nature of African Canadian identity. While such a form of literacy will enable all students, not just those of African descent, to garner a more complex understanding of black identification and the lived experiences of peoples of African descent such a development can also assist students with no affiliation to Africa to understand that identities in general are complex and heterogeneous rather than simple and homogenous. 


     As well, such a recognition and development of diasporan literacy can lead to classrooms where a complex understanding of “Black Canadian” can be achieved as alternative discourses to hegemonic mediated blackness is questioned.  Thus we might move forward with a project whereby:


  • the concept of community is made problematic
  • the issue of representation made more complex 
  • mediated blackness and hyper-masculinity is made problematic
  • And diaspora as dialogic is given a premium.






Jennifer Kelly is an associate Professor in the Education and Social Policy department at the University of Alberta.  She is author of Borrowed Identities (2004).








Works Cited


Abiaka, Nimmy, Tim Haslett and Paula Lee. Manthia Diawara

Biographical Sketch 11 October 1998.

<> (24 May 2006). 


Gilroy, P. “Roots and routes: Black identity as an

outernational project.” In Racial and ethnic identity: psychological development and creative expressions. Edited by Herbert W. Harris, Howard C. Blue and Ezra E.H. Griffith, New York: Routledge, 1995.


Clarke, V. “Developing diaspora literacy: Allusion in

Maryse Conde’s Heremakhonon.” In Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Frido. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1990.


Campt, T. The Crowded Space of Diaspora: Intercultural

Address and the Tensions of Diasporic Relation,” Radical History Review (83) (2002): 94-113.


Spivak, G. Outside in the teaching machine. New York:

Routledge, 1993.


[1] Gayatri Spivak, Outside in the teaching machine. (New York:

Routledge, 1993).

[2] Nimmy Abiaka et al., “Manthia Diawara Biographical Sketch,” 11 October 1998 <> (24 May 2006). 

[3] Tina Campt, “The Crowded Space of Diaspora: Intercultural

Address and the Tensions of Diasporic Relation,” Radical History Review (83) (2002): 94-113.