Poet, historian, educator
Jamaican-born Afua Cooper is a pioneer of the Canadian dub poetry and spoken word movement. Her poems reflect what she calls her "historical, global, woman-centered, political, and social consciousness;" they have appeared in many journals and anthologies around the world, and in three books, the first of which was published in 1983. Cooper has also recorded her performances and her CDs sell around the world. One of them, Worlds of Fire: In Motion (2002) took the number one spot on CKLN's radio playlist; she has given hundreds of live performances and readings.
Cooper is also an influential historian who has taught history, women's studies, and Caribbean studies at Canada's Ryerson and York universities, and at the University of Toronto, where she teaches African Canadian history and women's history. She sits on the board of the James Johnston Chair in Black studies at Dalhousie University and is considered to be one of the most important scholars working in the area of black Canadian history. Already a leading and influential scholar specializing in the hidden black history of Canada, in 2000 she completed a PhD dissertation about the life of Henry Bibb, a fugitive slave from Kentucky who became an abolitionist in Canada. This led to her being named a "Kentucky Colonel," the highest award made by the commonwealth of Kentucky; the Canadian government used her work to designate Bibb a person of national historic significance. Cooper has written many articles and several books on Canadian history, one of which, We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up (1994) was awarded the prestigious Joseph Brant Award for history.
Inspired in School
Afua Cooper was born on November 8, 1957, in the Whithorn district of Westmoreland, Jamaica, one of nine children, five sisters and three brothers. Her father's name was Edward Cooper. Her mother, Ruth Campbell Cooper, was descended from a woman known as Alison Parkinson, who was born in Africa and sold into West Indian slavery. The name "Cooper" comes from William Cooper, the Scottish owner of the Whithorn sugar plantation and its slaves before emancipation in 1838. Afua Cooper attended Haddo and Petersfield primary schools, moving to Kingston at the age of eight. She told Contemporary Black Biography that it was there in Kingston in the late 1960s that she began to learn about Black Power and the South African apartheid regime from the men who played ludo and dominoes at her uncle's store.
Cooper attended Camperdown High School from the age of 12 and was inspired by her teachers there. She told CBB that unlike most other high schools Camperdown allowed its pupils to wear their hair in afros and dreadlocks. Cooper was a founding member of the African Studies club at the school. By the time of her graduation in 1975 Cooper had become a Rastafarian and she spent a year living with the dub poet Mutabaraka and his wife Yvonne Peters before marrying Courtney Powell. In 1976 she trained as a teacher and went to teach at Vauxhall Secondary School, but in 1979-80 the political violence that divided Jamaica made life there intolerable. After witnessing gunmen chasing students in the school yard Cooper decided to move to Canada in December 1980.
Joined Black Cultural Renaissance
After the birth of her son Akil in July 1981, Cooper worked as an instructor at Bickford Park High School in Toronto, but she was already beginning to perform her poetry at Toronto's spoken word venues, such as Fall Out Shelter, Strictly Ital, and Trojan Horse. Later she joined Gayap Rhythm Drummers as resident poet and percussionist, touring Canada with her poetry of pan-Africanism, social commentary, and radical feminism. Her first book of poetry, Breaking Chains was published in 1983, the same year that she enrolled at the University of Toronto to major in African Studies. Cooper told CBB that the critics described the book as a "feminist call to arms" while she calls it a "love chant." She was also performing with Lillian Allen, Clifton Joseph, and Devon Haughton as part of what she described as a "black cultural renaissance."
Cooper's marriage broke up in 1986, and in 1988 she became a Muslim. The same year she took up a residency fellowship at Banff School of Fine Arts and wrote two books of poetry, The Red Caterpillar on College Street (1989), for children, and Memories Have Tongue (1992), which was a finalist in the 1992 Casa de las Americas Award. In 1990 she toured Senegal and Gambia before returning to Toronto to begin her MA degree. Her dissertation, which began her career studying black Canadian history, was a study of black teachers in Ontario 1850-1870. In 1991 she married Alpha Diallo, with whom she has two daughters. After graduation Cooper intended to write a PhD thesis on women and Islam in Sierra Leone, but the civil war prevented her from studying there and she switched to studying Canadian history.
At a Glance …
Born Afua Cooper in 1957 in Whithorn, Westmoreland, Jamaica; married Courtney Powell, 1976 (divorced); married Alpha Diallo, 1991; children: Akil (first marriage), Lamarana (second marriage), Habiba (second marriage). Education: University of Toronto, BA, African Studies and Women's Studies, 1986; MA, Black Canadian History, 1991; PhD, Black Canadian History, 2000. Religion: Muslim.
Career: Began performing and publishing poetry in Toronto, 1983; teacher of history at University of Toronto, 1994-(assistant professor from 2004). historian/consultant with Parks Canada, 1999-; taught sociology at York and Ryerson universities, 2001-04.
Memberships: Dub Poets Collective; Canadian Historical Association; National Advisory Board on Black History; Writers' Union of Canada.
Awards: Casa de Las Americas Poetry Award Finalist, 1992; Joseph Brant Award for History, for We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History, 1994; Marta Danylewycz Award for Historical Research, 1995; Margaret S. McCullough Graduate Scholarship, University of Toronto, 1997-98; Federal Ministry of Heritage grant for historical research; University of Toronto Exceptional Student Award, 1998-99; John Nicholas Brown Center Fellowship, Brown University, 2001; Canada Council Research Grant, 2001; Commonwealth of Kentucky Award for Contribution to Kentucky history, April 2002; Canadian Federal Government Award for Contribution to Black History; Canada Council Writing Grant, 2003; Academic Leadership Award, University of Toronto Black Alumni, 2004; Harry Jerome Award for Professional Excellence, 2005.
Addresses: Agent—The Bukowsky Agency, 14 Prince Arthur Avenue, Suite 202, Toronto, Ontario, M5R 1A9, Canada; Office—Office: History Dept., University of Toronto, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada.
Cooper's doctoral dissertation was a biographical study of the fugitive Kentucky slave Henry Bibb, who lived in Ontario and became a well-known abolitionist. It continued her interest in telling the hidden or forgotten stories of black history and links with her work as a poet, where she often takes on the voices of slaves, migrants, and children. The significance of her work on Henry Bibb has been recognized by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and by the Canadian government. Partly as a result of her work a plaque honoring Bibb as a person of national historic significance will be unveiled in 2005; Cooper received a certificate of recognition for her work from the Canadian government.
By the time she completed her dissertation Cooper was already an established and award-winning scholar in the field of black Canadian history. In the 1990s she worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto, as well as holding posts at Ryerson and York universities. In 2004 she joined the history department at the University of Toronto, where she teaches African Canadian history and women's history.
Brought Black Canadian History to the Mainstream
Cooper's academic career has been as successful, and as pioneering, as her contribution to the poetry scene; she has been at the forefront of bringing the history of black Canada into the mainstream. In particular Cooper's co-authored book We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History (1994) combines her interest in black history with the issue of gender, examining the representation of women's lives; it won the prestigious Joseph Brant Award for history. The Underground Railroad (2002) was the first book to make the firm case for Toronto as a terminus for black Americans fleeing the United States. Cooper's third history book, The Hanging of Angelique (2006), explores the life of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a slave accused of starting a fire that destroyed a large area of Montreal in 1734. Her "confession," extracted under torture, was taken down by the chief investigator and, Cooper contends, form the first North American "slave narrative," putting a new perspective on the later slave narratives that contributed to the abolition of slavery in the United States and on the role of slavery in the development of Canadian society.
Cooper's work in both her poetry and her academic writing has been well received by audiences around the world. She is a founding member of the Dub Poets' Collective, the only grassroots poetry organization in Canada, she advises Parks Canada on black history, and has curated several exhibits at museums in Toronto; she sits on the board of the James Johnston Chair in Black Studies at Dalhousie University. Through her work in poetry and as an historian she commemorates 400 years of black Canadian history, telling stories that have never been heard before. In 2005 she was honored with the Harry Jerome Award by the Black Business and Professional Association, for her contribution to black Canadian life.
We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History, with Peggy Bristow, Dionne Brand, Linda Carty, Sylvia Hamilton, and Adrienne Shadd, University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Utterances and Incantations: Women, Poetry, and Dub, Sister Vision Press, 1999.
Doing Battle in Freedom's Cause: Henry Bibb, abolitionism, race uplife, and Black Manhood, 1842-1854 (PhD dissertation), University of Toronto, 2000.
The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! with Adrienne Shadd, and Carolyn Smardz Frost, Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 2002.
The Hanging of Angelique, HarperCollins, 2006.
Phillis Wheatley, America's First Black Poet, (Young Adult novel), Kidscan Press, 2006.
A Glimpse of Black Life in Victorian Toronto: 1850-1860, Museum Division, City of Toronto, February to September 2002.
The Underground Railroad, Next Stop: Freedom! Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, April 2002-03; Black Creek Pioneer Village, 2003-.
Breaking Chains, Weelahs, 1983.
Red Caterpillar On College Street, Sister Vision Press, 1989.
Memories Have Tongue: Poetry, Sister Vision Press, 1994.
WomanTalk: Women Dub Poets, Heartbeat Records, 1984.
Sunshine, Maya Music, 1989.
Poetry Is Not a Luxury, Maya Music 1990.
Dawes, Kwame, Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets, University Press of Virginia, 2001.
Journal of Women's History, March 1998.
"Afua Cooper," Dub Poets Collective, http://dubpoetscollective.com/afua.html (June 6, 2005).
"Afua Cooper," James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, http://jamesrjohnstonchair.dal.ca/johnston_6458.html (June 6, 2005).
"Lessons in Dub," Now magazine Online Edition, www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2002-08-29/music_feature_p.html (June 6, 2005).
Ryerson University Black History Month Newsletter, www.ryerson.ca/equity/dhps/BHMNEWSLETTER.doc (June 6, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was provided through an interview with Afua Cooper conducted by email in June 2005 and from documents supplied by her.
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