Wed | Oct 16, 2019

Jamaica-born poet Afua Cooper appointed Poet Laureate of Halifax, Nova Scotia

Published:Sunday | May 13, 2018 | 12:00 AMNeil Armstrong
Afua Cooper

Jamaican poet, historian, and author, Afua Cooper, is the new poet laureate of Halifax, Nova Scotia - the province's seventh.

"We're very pleased to appoint Dr Cooper as our next poet laureate, a position which gives voice to the various groups that make up our community through spoken and written word," said Mayor Mike Savage in a statement.

As the 'first poet of the municipality' and also the city's ambassador for poetry, she will serve in that role from 2018-2020.

Cooper, who was born in Whithorn district, Westmoreland, says she would like to engage some of the newer communities in the city and to showcase these voices.

"Additionally, I am making it part of my mandate to have established a memorial for the Maroons of Jamaica, who were deported to Halifax in 1796.

"The Maroons built a lot of the roads in Halifax and Dartmouth and were part of the city's defence (in the preparation of war with the French). The French did not attack Halifax, nonetheless, the Maroons were on call."

The poet laureate said that she would also like to use the art of poetry and storytelling to bring attention to the black experience during the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

"The black story has not been told," she said.

In her first presentation at Halifax Hall on April 24, Cooper referenced a saying by philosophers, noting that this was the moment for her. She thanked her parents for giving her everything so that she could be there.


Grandmother's influence


Cooper, 60, acknowledged her father, Edward Cooper; mother, Ruth Campbell Cooper; her aunt, Elfleda Campbell, and her grandmother, Georgiana Cooper, her father's mother.

The author of the best-seller The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada and the Burning of Old Montreal believes that Georgiana Cooper was responsible for her becoming a historian and a poet. She told them stories when they were children.

"My grandmother, believe it or not, was 30 years old and was a widow. She had three small children, and so we didn't know our grandfather. And my grandmother took it upon herself to tell us stories about him and about public history. She didn't tell us folktales. She wasn't into that. She was more into the factual things."

She told them stories about the riots in Frome, Westmoreland, in 1938 when as a young girl, she saw the trucks passing by with soldiers who were on their way to quell the riots, "to quell the working people who had risen up for better salaries and better working conditions".

Granma Cooper talked about the people who were shot and killed by the soldiers - one of them was a pregnant woman.

She would fill Cooper's imagination with all these stories.

Cooper said Halifax is a meeting point, noting that "the world has met here in Halifax and the world continues to come here".

She said that she is thrilled to be part of the opportunity to engage the world in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) through poetry and spoken word.

"I want to thank all my African ancestors. I look out at the harbour there and I think of the many, many thousands and thousands of slave ships that brought all of our African ancestors to this side of the world, in the New World so-called.

"And created life for us that I could be standing here at this moment knowing that the woman and the man who were my original ancestors, at least to the new world, lay in the bottom of these ships and survived. And so I have a duty to them to let my tongue speak because they were not meant to survive."


Interdisciplinary presentation


Cooper performed her poem, Negro Cemeteries, about the "dead rising up and embodying flesh coming on the skeletons and they speak their stories".

Since moving to Halifax seven years ago, she became the co-creator of Black Halifax, an interdisciplinary presentation that uses poetry and spoken word to tell Halifax's 300-year-old African Nova Scotian history.

Cooper moved to Canada from Jamaica in 1980 to attend the University of Toronto, eventually earning a PhD in Canadian history in 2000.

Her dissertation is a biographical study of Henry Bibb, a 19th-century African-American abolitionist who lived and worked in Ontario.

She founded the Black Canadian Studies Association, which she currently chairs, and co-founded the dub poetry movement in Canada.

The former James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University will also be invited by organisations and other entities to read poetry. Her tenure as chair, which began on May 7, 2011, ended in August 2017.