Celebrating Andrea Davis: Carving a space for Black Studies in Canada
When Andrea A. Davis first traveled from Jamaica to Canada in the early 1990s to take her master’s degree, she felt like she stood out.
“I remember just feeling overwhelmed the first few days of classes by what I thought was a sea of whiteness,” said Davis. “And feeling in a weird way hyper-visible in my classes because I was the only Black student for a while.
“When I tried to speak, I also felt inaudible. I felt like my voice sounded really loud because I thought I sounded different from everybody else, but students and professors also looked like they didn’t understand anything I was saying.”
Since then, Davis has greatly impacted the experiences of Black post-secondary students in Canada. An author and Professor of Black Cultures of the Americas in the Department of Humanities at York University, Davis teaches her students that Black voices are needed in academic spaces, and not just for insights about racism and anti-racism work.
“Black students at York in 2016 were asking for programs that reflected their histories and experiences. They were not really interested in a program about anti-Black racism per se, because those programs are not for Black students, they’re educating someone else,” says Davis. “Black students wanted something that could speak deeply to them, about not just their experiences but their thoughts and their ideas.”
Davis, inspired by her students, was a driving force for the development of the Black Canadian Studies Certificate, situated in the Department of Humanities at York. Introduced in 2018, the certificate was one of only two Black Studies programs in Canadian universities at the time.
“The idea is to value Black peoples’ thought, cultures and histories as valuable in and of themselves,” says Davis. “And for me that work is happening in the humanities. It’s the work in fiction, in poetry, in film, in music and dance — that creative aspect of Black studies that produced jazz and the blues and the amazing poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and is now reflected in the cutting-edge work of scholars like Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, Katherine McKittrick and others.”
Now, Davis is working on the development of what will be Canada’s second Black studies major — a program that will allow students to explore areas of arts, media, performance and design, as well as conversations around the great challenges of our time, like the climate crisis, conflict and poverty, while connecting with students in historically Black colleges and universities in the United States. Her goal for students completing these programs is that they leave with an altered outlook on their career and life.
“I tell students: ‘yes, I want you to graduate. I want you to get those degrees, but I want you to leave with something else that’s not quantifiable in that way.’ So, if you’re going to be a lawyer, what kind of lawyer are you going to be? If you’re going to be a doctor, how does what you have learned change your relationship with your patient?”
In her most recent book, Horizon, Sea, Sound: Caribbean and African Women's Cultural Critiques of Nation, she confronted the idea of Black studies as a medium for addressing other important topics, noting the powerful overlap of feminist Black and Indigenous movements.
“Black studies, protests and freedom struggles have that ability to create these other openings,” she says. “In this book I started to think deeply about how that possibility might look for a place like Canada. How could Black freedom struggles be knit to Indigenous sovereignty to make something possible?”
Davis credits one professor at the University of the West Indies for encouraging her to pursue a career in academia. Unaware that becoming a professor might be possible for her, she was content with teaching at her local high school. Upon completion of her bachelor’s degree, her professor asked what she would do next, and finding her answer unsatisfactory, he came back two days later with an application form and letter of support for a Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship.
“He saved my life in a way,” says Davis. “He opened up this whole other door for me that didn’t exist. And I try to do this [for my students].
“I think that university is such an important place and has such an important role to play in the transformation of our society because universities shape knowledge.
“I think it was when I started as a teaching assistant… and I saw how much they needed someone like them, someone who they felt comfortable with, who could create a space of learning that didn’t exist anywhere else. That was what made me think, there’s valuable work to be done here and I could step into that gap. That’s what really formalized it for me that this is the work I would do.”
A true changemaker, Davis sees the potential of post-secondary education to transform the world.
“I think that university is such an important place and has such an important role to play in the transformation of our society because universities shape knowledge. We teach the teachers, we shape societies, so if we don’t begin to dismantle those racist structures, those white supremacist structures, and open other ways of thinking about the world, then we cannot change the world.
“I tell students, and I write this in my teaching statement, that I’m a teacher activist — my activism is in the classroom. The transformative work I do is in the classroom.
“I teach a large first year course with about 200 students every year and I want to transform the life of at least 20 of those students and if I can do 20 each year, I think that is such important work.”
Andrea Davis receives the Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, at the Fall 2023 Convocation ceremonies. This is the university’s highest honour awarded to people who reflect Royal Roads University's vision and values and have achieved a significant record of success and community service.