Inside the Black Studies Program

Black Studies professors say Black identities are not singular—they are explosive and always redefined

Image by: Katharine Sung
The Black Studies program is new this year.

“The category of Blackness and Black Studies has an inherent hybridity to it because the onslaught of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade touched every single aspect of the lives of the people of African descent. Every single aspect,” Jennifer S. Leath, assistant professor for the School of Religion, said in an interview with The Journal.  

Queen’s launched the Black Studies Program this year, under the Department of Gender Studies. The program is offered at the minor and general degree level, currently requiring two core courses in an introduction to Black studies and Black feminism.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the program, the courses range from art history to English, French to philosophy, religion, gender studies, biology and geography. Professors from other Queen’s departments, like Leath, teach courses for the program.

All these areas of studies create an intersectionality that gets to the core of Black identity and demonstrates the same discursive nature of Blackness, Leath said.

Currently teaching RELS 255: Religion and Social Ethics, Leath expressed Black identity as something to be challenged and recognized.

She spoke to the importance of multiculturalism on ideas of Black culture and life, rejecting an essentialized Black identity. History, religion, and gender are the ways we construct and nurture ourselves, beyond a singular individuality.

Thus, for Leath, racial categories should not have a single identification. Instead, she wants to teach students to push against the current discourse and create a space for interrogation.

“I think a space that is often uncomfortable may feel unsafe. It is a space where unfamiliar ideas, unfamiliar concepts and unfamiliar people can be engaged.”

In her classroom, concepts are framed in a network of thought, carefully curated to create a stimulated, yet “unsafe” space, to push the limits of understanding and communication, she said.

“I want to help disabuse us of the idea that there is a neutral or raceless category like we see in religion and gender studies. These categories have histories steeped in a
bias and a whitewashed tradition.”

For Leath, our attempts to bring society together under notions of neutrality act as an erasure, harming Black lives and their past traumas. There’s a sense of cultural and social absence when we ignore the significance of our racial identities. Furthermore, to disregard and erase the violence Black people have endured demeans past historical experiences.

She invites students to come to the material through themselves, “through the truth of who they are.”

Leath encourages students to look at who they are in relation to the work because Blackness is a socio-cultural exchange. Black contact is historically violent and violating, she added, especially through cultural contexts from the transatlantic slave trade and enduring colonialism.

“We must think of a cultural and material reproduction that has often be without consent and been coerced and coercive [to Black people].”

She added everything becomes implicated in this grapple for power, and the subject of Black Studies must be interdisciplinary to see the complete transformation of the lives of people of African descent.

“You can’t speak of religion without music. You can’t understand the rhythms without understanding the dance. You can’t understand the dance without understanding the stories and the lineages and the genealogies.”

Daniel McNeil, professor in the Department of Gender Studies and History and the Queen’s national scholar chair in Black Studies, described the years of effort students and faculty members have contributed to convey Black life and culture at Queen’s.

It was important to bring together faculty from multiple disciplines into the program to imagine a creative and collaborative knowledge, which speaks to decolonial practices and studies of liberation. McNeil voiced the complexity of global Black communities and the need to create courses demonstrating the imagination and sensitivity of Black artistic practice.

McNeil said the Black Studies program allows alumni to feel proud of Queen’s and their efforts to address anti-racist commitments promised in the Scarborough Charter.

“One striking response we received was from a graduate of Queen’s, who reached out and said this is the first time she’s been proud of the university,” McNeil said in an interview with The Journal.

Queen’s Principal Patrick Deane signed and implemented the Scarborough Charter in November 2021 to act against anti-Black racism and promote Black inclusion in high-level education.

McNeil leads an intimate seminar on the Black Atlantic—BLCK 480: Special Topics in Black Studies—to discover how movement and relocation transformed political and cultural histories.

Projects such as a Black Studies Podcast are one of the few ideas he proposed to consider ways of learning outside the classroom in a creative and collaborative setting.

“Part of what we’re thinking through is how not all academics are intellectuals, and not all intellectuals are academics.”

The phone rings and the lilting voice of Michael Reyes, associate professor in the French Studies Department, answers the phone to speak with The Journal about Black voices in Haiti and the Caribbean.

Currently teaching FREN 343: Histoire culturelle et littéraire de la francophonie et du Québec, he posits Haiti as the starting point for French colonialism. He wants to know how to be critical of French colonialism and its practices, yet also encourage conversations in the classroom.

“When you talk about the inclusivity of Haiti, how do we make anticolonial critique inclusive?” he said in an interview.

Reyes posed this question to consider the ways we think of a post-colonial world and understand who the participants of these conversations are. In the first weeks of the course, he focuses on Haiti and Martinique, then transitions to women’s writing and literature to move away from political texts.

Though Reyes’ course is within the Black Studies Program, it is also offered as an elective course for French students, and he shows the journey of learning about a race through language.

“You have certain ideas about what France is, maybe an Emily in Paris idea, but there’s this whole other world of French with a global reach and colonial setting.”

He said students tend to appreciate the content in the course because they are confronted with the ideas and legacies of France’s colonial history.

“Black Studies will not be something that is just contained in one corner of the university, but something that spans across all disciplines and will benefit the university.

Students who are not in the Black Studies program gain an appreciation for the diversity of voices across the world because he plops the student in Haiti, then moves to Martinique, Algeria, Quebec and back to France to depict this network of people.

“There’s a global reach that isn’t ‘what France did to these places.’ But it’s how these places responded back.”

There’s a permeating feeling of hope and optimism when speaking with Sefanit Habtom, pre-doctoral fellow in Black Studies and PhD candidate in the Department of Social Justice and Education. She described the incredible labour of her mentors, and the resources they pulled on to cater a rigorous expertise of the program.

During her fellowship program, mentors and faculty have provided support in graduate dissertations and doctoral projects to facilitate and expand their network. Habtom and two others were the inaugural pre-doctoral fellows for the Black Studies Program and taught courses in the fall of 2022.

She had the opportunity to teach BLCK 380: Black Student Activism & Critique, an upper-level seminar exploring the histories and contemporary organization of students using theoretical texts written by Black scholars.

Theory was a key component to the course because she found that words of diversity and inclusion have become common buzzwords in thinking about Black student activism.

Thinking of her dissertation and taking advantage of the intimate class setting, Habtom designed discussion to think about meaningful activity within the contemporary world.

“Black Studies will not be something that is just contained in one corner of the university, but something that spans across all disciplines and will benefit the university,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

Similar to Reyes, Habtom expanded her course readings beyond the standard texts and included creative works in poetry, and audio-visual works to bring a sensory element to the content.

“What happens? What can be lost? What happens when Black Studies are institutionalized? [It’s a] very important question for us to hold onto.

Since Queen’s is currently the only program to offer a pre-doctoral fellowship in Black Studies, she was drawn to the department and the ways they compare and narrate Black History. 

“The Black Studies departments are meant to not only disrupt, not only name anti-Blackness, but also think beyond the kind of current conditions we live under.”

Her words reflected a futurity for Blackness. She spoke of the program as a “liberatory project” that emphasizes the voices Canada has to offer, separate from the U.S.

“I think there’s a familiar adage of history written by the conquerors or the victors. I want to counter that.”

The U.S. inauguration of a Black Studies program began in the late 1960s due to a widespread spike among students who sought to educate themselves and their community. They organized a social movement to fight for the space to express their innovation and study Black ideologies at higher levels of education.

For Habtom, these moments of resistance are moments of learning. She believes there will be more development and a sigh of relief after a long-anticipated change and resistance.

“What happens? What can be lost? What happens when Black Studies are institutionalized? [It’s a] very important question for us to hold onto.”

As the sun sets outside the windows of Robert Sutherland Hall, The Journal listens to the powerful voice of Bianca Beauchemin, post-doctoral fellow in the Black Studies Program and Gender Studies Department.

In her late teens, she felt unsettled.

It wasn’t until she began her Masters in Gender Studies under Katherine McKittrick, research chair in Black Studies and Gender Studies department, did she find a passion and space for Black feminism and intellect.

Her anxious past pointed to a clarity for future Blackness.

“There’s something about the futurity of Black studies that opens up a realm of possibilities that is unmatched,” she said in an interview.

She recalled a student symposium conducted in her student years that spoke of colonial intimacies, bringing solidarity to Black and Indigenous people. A defining text for this conversation was Christina Sharpe’s Monstrous Intimacies, which emphasizes the sexual aspects of violence.

Beauchemin said it’s messy and sickening, operating in a framework of power with a colonial script always in mind.

“I think there’s a familiar adage of history written by the conquerors or the victors. I want to counter that.”

When she looks at history, there’s the problem of the archive, specifically the way we examine and articulate it—the different readings and practices telling you how to convey stories of race. Thus, she wants new histories to be told as she teaches GNDS 312: Black Feminisms.

She attempts to bring together theories of life with literary methodologies in poetry and creative writing to demonstrate the complexities of Black feminism.

It’s been almost a decade since Beauchemin entered Queen’s for the first time, and she said the progress towards anti-racism made since then should be acknowledged. However, the labour from the Black Studies department in anti-oppression is repeatedly taken advantage of.

“I think it’s interesting that even when the Black Studies Department wasn’t formalized, they would still come to the Gender Studies Department as a beacon of hope to tell them what to do. I remember the department taking a lot of that labour on, whilst the higher up people in the university, said ‘oh well this is not us.’”

What Beauchemin argues for is a complete cultural reset, where change is not only created on the backs of the Black Studies and other anti-oppression departments. She said the University and all its faculties should make efforts to change the institution.

Despite these growing pains, she said the department is headed in the right direction. It’s being funded appropriately, new disciplines are being brought in, and the small pocket of diversity from ten years ago has expanded.

On March 27, Beauchemin and McKittrick will hold a “Black Feminist Thought 101: Concepts, Grooves, and Key Thinks” talk and reading.

—With files from Anne Fu


black history month, black studies, Blackness, gender studies

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Queen's Journal

© All rights reserved.

Back to Top
Skip to content