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Shaping the future of Black Studies

As part of our coverage of Black History Month, Katherine McKittrick, the Canada Research Chair in Black Studies, talks about the evolution of the field and how we must harness this moment across academia.

[Photo of Dr. Katherine McKittrick]
Dr. Katherine McKittrick, Canada Research Chair in Black Studies
As part of its commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, Queen’s is dedicated to promoting and supporting initiatives that recognize the experiences and contributions of the Black community and to facilitating important conversations around the barriers, including racism, discrimination, and inequities, members of this community continue to face. As we celebrate Black History Month, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the experiences, accomplishments, and contributions of Black community members in Canada, abroad, and right here at Queen’s to dismantling these barriers.
 
Katherine McKittrick, professor in the Department of Gender Studies and the new Canada Research Chair in Black Studies, is an expert in Black Studies, Black geographies, and theories of anti-colonialism and race. She is also the director of a new undergraduate Minor in Black Studies (Faculty of Arts and Science), set to launch next fall. Dr. McKittrick recently talked to the Queen’s Gazette about the importance of Black Studies to understanding oppression and liberation, how the field is intrinsically interdisciplinary, and why building community is necessary for Black Studies to flourish and grow in Canada. 
 
How would you define Black Studies? What are the aims of Black Studies?
 
Black Studies is, for me, a field that is invested in understanding the political struggles against different kinds and types of oppression. I’d also add that Black Studies is a creative-intellectual project that builds on, extends, and seeks practices of liberation. The aims of Black Studies differ across time and location, but there is a consistent and sustained commitment to theorizing and enacting social justice within and outside the academy. 
 
Does Black Studies look at Black narratives and experiences as objects of study?
 
Recently, the Faculty of Arts and Science announced the hiring of seven new faculty members to the Black Studies program, including four Queen’s National Scholars in Black Studies. Their recruitment was the result of an intensive search with a focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, and scholarship that emphasizes global Black Studies. Learn more.
If we look to Black scholars, activists, and creatives, we notice that Black narratives and experiences have never been objects of study, per se, but that Black knowledge – how we know and experience and navigate the world – provides valuable information about how we might practice more ethical relationships with one another. What you will notice, across a range of Black texts and experiences, is a refusal of objectification that is always paired with a commitment to hospitality and conviviality, across racial identifications. I think it is important to emphasize that Black Studies emerges from Black thought but that it is also tied to projects of liberation that are global in reach and enacted by Black and non-Black communities. 
 
You've identified that Black Studies should move towards bringing non-academic and previously silenced narratives – that is, those told by Black writers, artists, musicians, and activists – into academic knowledge creation. What are the opportunities you see in this process?
 
Yes! One of the more meaningful threads in Black Studies is the commitment interdisciplinary scholarship and the willingness to work across different disciplines. For me, this has meant centering Black creative work in my research and thinking about how Black musicians, artists, activists, not only inform theory, but theorize in ways that cannot be captured by the academic form. Some of my central questions are, then, what does Black aesthetic theory look like? How is it practiced? And, what might it tell us about how Black creative methodology can undo racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression? 
 
Many people think of Black studies as connected to the humanities and social sciences. Why is it important that we consider them as interdisciplinary and how do we build these connections?
 
Black Studies has always been interdisciplinary, and, if you study the genealogy of the field, you will notice that Black scholars read widely and lean toward using a very rich set of texts and ideas to think through their research. You will see, for example, work that links together urban planning, musicology, and studies of health or research that focuses on archives, mathematics, and the complexity of slave ledgers. Some of my upcoming work, for example, studies the bass, and I think about how the bass line in Black music not only provides a steady and groovy tempo, it also provides a way to think about how sound waves (longitudinal waves) materially impact and shake our surroundings. There are also wonderful connections being made between the STEM disciplines and Black Studies. I just had two wonderful conversations with physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein where we think through how particle physics overlaps with Black liberation movements, and how making these connections has amazing potential for rethinking social justice
 
One of your current research programs aims to connect Black Studies to physical geography. How do you plan to explore the racial dimensions of climate catastrophe?
 
Right now, I am researching Black intellectuals Paul Gilroy, Édouard Glissant, and Sylvia Wynter, and thinking about how they attend to climate catastrophe in their writings. One of Wynter’s most important insights, for example, is how we can connect plantation slavery and forced Black labour to extractive economies and how this history anticipates our current global predicament. So, I am thinking about how these scholars not only provide us with clues as to how we can make connections between climate catastrophe and race-thinking (racism), but also how they provide alternatives to how we attend to, and care for, our ecological worlds. 
 
In the past years, some Canadian universities, including Queen's, have been formalizing their Black studies programs. What are the next steps in creating more room for and highlighting the importance of Black studies within universities across Canada?
 
We are witnessing an exciting moment in Canada: new programs, certificates, and institutes that focus on Black Studies. What is next? We need to create the conditions to sustain these exciting moments by building community. So, in addition to hiring Black Studies scholars and librarians, we need mentorship programs, academic and non-academic spousal hires, administrative support that overlap with Black Studies, and the assurance that Black and Indigenous Studies continue to be, together, part of the university’s commitment to anti-racism. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge racism at Queen’s and in Kingston – the exciting moment does not erase the struggles Black faculty, staff, and students continue to face. Finally, making connections between Queen’s and other universities that are committed to centering Black Studies would expand and complicate how we engage the field. 
 
For more information on Dr. McKittrick and the Black Studies Program at Queen’s, visit the website.