Dr. Afua Cooper is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie, here in Halifax. She is a scholar, a poet, a performer. I first encountered her through her scholarship when I read The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. This historical biography not only tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a slave woman who was convicted and killed for the suspected arson that destroyed a large portion of Old Montreal, it tells one story from Canada’s history of slavery. Cooper pulls Angelique from the darkness of the archives, and Angelique brings with her a portion of Canadian history that has been all but occluded from cultural memory and dominant historical narratives of the nation.
It should come as no surprise that I have faith in words. I mean, I teach in a literature department. I have spent the better part of my life learning ways of seeing and being in the world through the written word, the spoken word, the language of bodies on stages or in various states of performance. I know words have power. I know that words spoken through bodies, through the hand holding a pen or the mouth speaking, have incredible and powerful potential.
And yet I am still amazed, humbled, grateful, and staggered when I have the opportunity to see word artists at work. Afua Cooper is one such artist who makes my heart skip a beat, my mind reel, and my conscience snap to attention.
Cooper is also an incredible poet. This past week I had the opportunity to see Cooper perform along with Shauntay Grant and Valerie Mason-John. These three women were performing their poetry in celebration of the launch of The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry, which is edited by Mason-John and Kevan Anthony Cameron aka Scruffmouth. She performed one poem spoken from the voice of Angelique, and another that again drew from the archive and told of the last request of a former slave to the Governor General asking that he be sent back home to Africa. As Cooper performed the whole room seemed to hold its collective breath.
Here is a video of Cooper at the 2008 Dub-Poetry Collective International.