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I just launched one of the first Black Canadian magazines. How is this possible in 2023?

I’ve just launched one of Canada’s first national black magazines, Black Maple Magazine. It should be impossible that such a statement could be true in 2023, but it is! Unlike the USA where African American magazines like Ebony, Jet, and Essence were established in the mid-to-late twentieth century, Canada generated no parallel Black media landscape. I’m not saying there are no other Black Canadian publications. Canada has several regional Caribbean newspapers, based mainly out of Toronto. But not all Caribbeans are black, so such publications also rightfully focus on the comings and goings of Canadian Caribbeans of all backgrounds. Furthermore, Toronto can no more stand in for Canada than New York City can for the USA. So, these wonderful newspapers are not and do not profess to be national. Meanwhile, the few other Black Canadian platforms that exist are news or celebrity oriented. Black Maple Magazine is incredibly unique, not just in Canada, but in the larger magazine ecosphere for how it bridges the academic and the popular; just as I have done across my twenty-two-year academic career.

Although Canada is of course a western nation created through European imperialism, unlike other nations, the dodged insistence of many white Canadians – including a former prime minister – that Canada has no colonial past has become a defining attribute of the Canadian brand that is marketed to the world. In Canada, black citizens often refer to this as our “national myth of racial tolerance”. This also plays out as the “lie of racial blindness”; a vexing double bind since one must first convince many white Canadians that racial blindness is not a desirable trait before you can convince them that Canadians do not practice it.

As an art history professor, I am perhaps not the obvious candidate to launch such a media undertaking. But my singular and often lonely path through Canadian academia allowed me to create a unique research and media profile in the rather stodgy discipline of art history. When I was hired by the University of Western Ontario, straight out of my PhD at the University of Manchester, I became the first black person in a tenured or tenure-track art history professorship in Canada. That was in 2001! For background on how ridiculous this was, you must understand that art history is ubiquitous in Canadian universities, either as standalone departments or as individual professors in other units.

To say that my path was difficult would be a mammoth understatement. I still suffer from PTSD from some of my experiences. As most black professors will understand on a visceral level, even as a senior academic with an international reputation I continue to be severely mistreated and discriminated against by faculty, staff, and students alike. Although my research and teaching were defined by innovation and rigour – methodologically, in terms of the art and visual culture that I researched, and through the questions that I posed – I was routinely conflated with my scholarship. What this looks like is the accusation that “she’s a black woman who researches black women” and this, therefore, supposedly made me biased. What was obvious to me, that was somehow not so to most of my white colleagues, was that all of them were white men and women who were researching white artists! The difference of course was that the whiteness of their mainly canonical artists was rendered invisible in their research because, well, white artists for centuries have had the privilege of being discussed outside of identity politics only as great artists. It’s a neat trick, no; to pretend that the global privilege of whiteness has historically not impacted artistic aspiration, training, access, or success? But that is precisely what most art historians have done and continue to do. I refused to participate.

In my book The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (2007), I painstakingly investigated the ways that race, sex, and class played a pivotal role in allowing white men unimpeded access to the necessary anatomical training – life drawing classes in art schools and anatomy classes in medical schools – to become neoclassical sculptors. For white American female sculptors like Harriet Hosmer and Anne Whitney, who were banished from both spheres, their wealthy families allowed them to circumvent the obstacles of sex and gender through private tutelage. Not so for the black and indigenous female sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who astoundingly, became a largely self-taught neoclassical sculptor.

But why am I elaborating upon the nature of neoclassical sculpture? Well, this research is indicative of how my scholarly path diverged from the norms of my discipline. Over my two-decade career, I have established myself as a leading international scholar of Black Canadian Studies, Black Diaspora Studies, and Transatlantic Slavery Studies. What makes me unique is that I approach the study of slavery through art history and have helped to build the sub-field called The Visual Culture of Slavery. Since the study of the 400-year history of slavery is dominated by historians, many forget that the European empires that carved up the Americas and enslaved and transported twelve million Africans across the Atlantic as the unfree labour for their imperial endeavours also created a 400-year archive of art and visual culture. These mainly proslavery artworks were designed to justify, entrench, and normalize the racial hierarchies and systemic brutality of slavery. But being a scholar of the visual, and one who has rejected the supposed inherent value of “high” art, has also allowed me to see the foundational connections between historical representations of black individuals and populations and the ongoing, systemic vilification of black people in modern and contemporary art, media, and popular culture.

In this too I am odd. If you ask an art historian what they research, many will cite a region and a century – think Renaissance Italy, eighteenth-century Britain, or nineteenth-century France. Others have bound their entire careers to the elevation of one artist like Picasso. In defiance of these obviously limiting practices, I charted a research agenda that was unhinged from the false boundaries of nation, time, and the cult of artistic personality. In so doing I liberated myself to think, research, teach, and write about the eighteenth-century oil portrait and the fugitive slave advertisement from the same epoch, the nineteenth-century marble sculpture and the twenty-first century film.

Black Maple Magazine was born from my desire to share these passions with the public. It began in 2012 as, a way for me to showcase my academic work and my passion for the field of Black Canadian Studies. But now, besides my ongoing research, BM research, and academic, cultural, and popular resources, Black Maple Magazine also boasts a jobs board, feature articles, interviews, a pop culture list, the self-care circle, and more. As someone who has lectured around the world to diverse audiences and done extensive media work, I know that both academia and mainstream media routinely underestimate the general public. Many people are hungry for content that both informs and challenges, and Black Canadians (and other Black populations) are hungry for media that acknowledges our very existence! Is this too much to ask in 2023? As brilliant and beautiful as African American culture can be, Black Canadians are not African Americans. At the same time, we are more than a little tired of being almost completely shut out of mainstream (meaning white) Canadian media.

In Canada, a nation where people of African descent have been present since the early 1600’s, where magazines have existed since 1789, and where the beautiful diversity of Canada’s 1.5 million strong Black population includes African Canadian, African Caribbean, continental African, African Latino, and other Black populations, isn’t it time for something that is truly ours? I certainly think so! That is why I invite you to explore Black Maple Magazine, a beautiful mashup of the academic and the popular. After all, they’re not exclusive, at least not in my world!