Black studies at UW: There is still room for improvement Exploring UWs controversial history and the need for more Black faculty, courses


On Oct. 5, 1962, the Coryphaeus (UW’s student newspaper) published a profile on Frederick “Jimmy” Layode, the Nigerian winner of a scholarship offered by the African Students Foundation. The profile is light and cheery: Jimmy describes life in Nigeria as “just about as fast” as in Canada, purchasing his first winter jacket, and finding the Twist to be “just crazy — fun, but crazy!” The author says, “In meeting Jimmy one becomes acquainted with an interested new student and also has a most pleasant introduction to Africa. Try it sometimes!”

A decade later, on March 13, 1970, the Chevron published a supplement on Canadianization, emphasizing national values and Canadian faculty over others. It features poetry, editorial articles, and a page of point-by-point responses to potential rebuttals. One point reads: “As for the incipit death of nationalism: It’s never been healthier. And you should be glad.” 

In October 2021, PhD candidate Jonathan Zi En Chan was working with Professor Christopher Taylor to explore Black history at the University of Waterloo, when they discovered these key moments. This is the history we inherit at UW – where multiculturalism is touted, but only as something to be touted. While reading Jimmy’s profile, we are forced to contend with overhumouring for the white audience, the fascination with the experience of a Nigerian student which did not translate to care for Black lives, and the implicit view of Black students being “saved” by the university or academia in general. Although Black faculty have been present since the 60s, there has never been a tenured Black professor in the history department, which has the largest number of Black studies courses. 

What is the likelihood that an institution with a long history of upholding racial injustices is going to allow for meaningful criticism? This cynicism was challenged in a 2020 report from the Black Studies Implementation Team. The report was created by Vay, Kathy Hogarth, and Christopher Taylor to explore the potential for more Black studies programming. An appendix of Kathy Hogarth’s email to the president says: “We request that you commit to increasing the Black faculty yearly for the next two years by 100 per cent each year. Sadly that would mean only three hires next year.” She also mentions a deleted post from the university about a campus-wide ban of the n-word: “UW’s documented actions in relation to anti-Blackness must be in clear view. It’s almost as if UW is trying to deny or ignore that the gaffe was made. Gaffes are an inevitable part of getting innovation right. Please make the document available.” The email finishes by saying, “Before we can innovate together, we urge you to renovate, preparing a path for us to build together in solidarity into the foreseeable future.” 

Following these findings, in fall 2022 two diplomas were launched: Black studies and fundamentals of anti-racist communication. Since their launch, these programs have had waiting lists. These classes contain experiential learning pieces, including a speaker series that features historian Peggy Plet and political science professor Deborah Thompson. As an interdisciplinary program, there is something for everyone: from theatre to entrepreneurship to global politics, all with a focus on Black life and community. This spring, course offerings include pan-African global politics, Black feminisms, and introduction to anti-racist communication. As an activist, author, actor, and professor of Black studies, Vay said, “To me it just goes without saying, but it’s for everyone. We wouldn’t think of a university program in Italian being only for Italians.” 

Vay’s work in the program is based on active scholarship and living discussion. He described his teaching style as “a little bit controversial” and does not allow students to ignore or replace the n-word when it is used in Black English. “From my both academic and cultural perspective, it dishonors the author… Could you really quote a Chris Rock joke? A Dave Chappelle joke? And not have that there? Just, the whole point is kind of lost in some way.” Vay’s scholarship is informed by his cultural inheritance: “I have scholarship on the use of that word in particular, and I’m a Black man, culturally, and I maintain the position that that word is part of our cultural linguistic usage.” 

Much of his work is focused on code-meshing or “combining two or more dialects, language systems, or communication modes to effectively write and speak within the multiple domains of society.” He uses code-meshing in his classroom by having students “reflect on their own language use and how they use language and bring that into their assignments.”

As we catch the winds of a media frenzy about American critical race theory, it’s easy for Canadians to think of Black studies as an American solution to a uniquely American problem. Vay said when it comes to Black studies, “Canada is so behind [America]. It’s pathetic.” This contradicts how Canadians like to think of themselves. According to an Iposos poll, 40 per cent of Canadians believe racism is an “American issue.” This narrative is supported everywhere from elementary school classrooms to popular culture, which paints Canada as the destination for the Underground Railroad and ignores its history of active, systemic oppression of Black people. “Canadians stick their heads in the sand when it comes to issues — of not just racism — but Blackness,” Vay said. “They choose to cultivate a willful ignorance in order to perpetuate or advance this false idea that they are very multicultural, and welcoming of so many people. It’s just not so.” Vay says currently, there is a lack of current Black studies programming in Canada that “gives the space to sort of develop things, develop programs, that are unique in ways that the US may be stalled at. Our program in anti-racist communication is unique both on both sides of the border.” 

It’s rare to find something which is both so unique and obviously needed.