The Dearth of a Nation: Afua Cooper Blows the Whistle on Canada's History of Slavery and Gives a Voice to Unsung Heroes of the Past, from the Underground to the Ivory Tower

By Nopper, Sheila | Herizons, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Dearth of a Nation: Afua Cooper Blows the Whistle on Canada's History of Slavery and Gives a Voice to Unsung Heroes of the Past, from the Underground to the Ivory Tower


Nopper, Sheila, Herizons


[Graph Not Transcribed]

Afua Cooper is a poet and writer whose work includes Memories Have Tongue, Utterances and Incantations: Women, Poetry and Dub, and (with co-editors Peggy Bristow and Dionne Brand) We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History. Her forthcoming book. The Hanging of Angelique (Harper Collins, 2004) will chronicle the story of the slave woman, Marie Joseph Angelique, who was hanged after she was convicted of starting a fire that burned down part of Montreal.

Cooper was also one of the pioneers who, along with Lillian Allen, helped to establish dub poetry (rhythmic political poetry that emerged primarily in Jamaica, Canada and the UK in the late 70s) as an art form in Canada. In its musical dimension, she has contributed to compilation recordings that include Womantalk: Caribbean Dub Poetry and Your Silence Will Not Protect You. She recently released her independently produced debut CD, Worlds of Fire In Motion (see Herizons, Spring 2003). Herizons contributor Sheila Nopper spoke with Afua Cooper about the political issues and stories explored on her recording.

HERIZONS: A theme that runs throughout your new CD is that there is an umbilical cord to Africa that links you to the spirits of your ancestors, one that nourishes the flames of resistance against the racism that exist today for both women and men.

AFUA COOPER: That is a beautiful summary of my work. I come back to this theme of the African diaspora--of Africa's children abroad--because I see people of African descent in this so-called 'new world' still fighting a lot of terrible battles. It's something that I cannot escape from. In Ontario and parts of the United States, black men are victims of the prison industrial system. As we go out west (in Canada), we see Native men being incarcerated, and then, in the former Caribbean, South American and African colonies, we see people in those countries now being burdened by the debts from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. So we are in the postcolonial or neocolonial phase that they're calling globalization.

Your CD--and much of your work--honours the contributions of unsung heroes. Some have had limited historical documentation, but you are also uncovering voices that were never recorded in academic history books. This seems to me to be a feminist approach in that it acknowledges that the personal is political. How do you see it?

COOPER: We talk about diversity in Canada and we talk about multiculturalism, and we celebrate those things. But when you look in the halls of power--the academy being such a hall--or in other places of power, this diversity is not reflected, especially in the curricula and the faculty. So you may have a diverse student population, but when you're actually looking at the history and sociology courses, they're all very, very Eurocentric.... So it's important that these voices come up because you know (black) people my age in Canada went to high school without seeing their faces reflected in the textbooks. And my children's generation also come up and see themselves as invisible. And then if the grandchildren's generation is still invisible--this thing has got to stop! We have to make multiculturalism not just something that we talk about every Caribana, or whenever you dress up in your native clothes. It has to be a reality. It has to be something that we see. So it's my passion that I do this work, that I say, 'Hey, you know, Mary Bibb started a school in her home for black children in Ontario because black children could not get an education in the public school which was a segregated system. Mary Ann Shadd started a newspaper--one of the first women publishers in Canada.' Yet, when you read many feminist texts, her name is not there. What's going on? Why is it when we talk feminist foremothers, they're all white? What about the brown women, and the black women and the yellow women and the red women? …

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