Afua (Ava Pamela) Cooper, educator, historian, performance artist, poet (born 8 November 1957 in the Whithorn district of Westmoreland, Jamaica), is considered one of the most influential and pioneering voices in the Canadian dub poetry and spoken word movement. Her poems are published in numerous regional, national and international journals and anthologies. Afua Cooper also has CDs of her performances that make her work well known to the global community. In addition to her renown as a performance artist, she is an internationally-ranked historian. She has taught Caribbean cultural studies, history, women's studies and Black studies at Ryerson and York universities, at the University of Toronto and at Dalhousie University.
Early Life and Education
Afua Cooper is one of nine children — five sisters and three brothers. Her parents are Ruth Campbell Cooper and Edward Cooper. In 1966, she moved from Westmoreland to Kingston to live with her aunt, Elfleda Campbell. She attended St. Michael’s All-Age School in Rae Town. Cooper then attended Camperdown High School (East Kingston) from the age of 12 where she was a founding member of the African Studies Club. Graduating in 1975, Afua Cooper was by then a Rastafarian, and she spent the year living with dub poet Mutabaraka and his wife, Yvonne Peters. In 1979–80, she went to teach at Vauxhall Secondary School, after earning a teaching diploma from Excelsior Community College. She later moved to Canada in December 1980 during a period of great political unrest throughout Jamaica (1979‒80).
Afua Cooper’s initial residency in Canada involved work as an instructor at Bickford Park High School in Toronto. While teaching, she began to perform her poetry at a variety of Toronto's spoken word spaces such as Fall Out Shelter, Strictly Ital and Trojan Horse. Shortly thereafter, Cooper joined Gayap Riddim Drummers as resident poet and percussionist, touring Canada with a brand of poetry infused with womanist perspectives and contemporary social commentary. (Womanism, while similar to feminism, designates a movement that arose in response to racial and gender-based oppression experienced by women of colour.)
Cooper also was performing with major dub poets Lillian Allen, Clifton Joseph and Devon Haughton during a period described by some cultural critics as a "black cultural renaissance." Her first book of poetry, Breaking Chains was published in 1983, concurrent with her enrollment in the African Studies and Women's Studies programs at the University of Toronto.
Afua Cooper is remembered for her opening of the Nelson Mandela celebrations held in Queen's Park, Toronto, in June 1990. It was there that Cooper performed her poetry to a crowd estimated at 25,000 who assembled in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Cooper has also been interviewed and performed live on CBC, CKLN, CIUT and CHRY radio. She has appeared on numerous television shows in her capacity as poet and scholar. In 1990 Cooper toured Senegal and Gambia.
After touring Senegal and Gambia, Cooper returned to Toronto to begin her MA degree. Her thesis, which began her career studying Black Canadian history, was a study of Black teachers in Ontario from 1850 to 1870.
Activism and Teaching
Cooper is a founding member of the Toronto Dub Poets' Collective (2002), which is the only grassroots poetry organization in Canada. In 1993, she was central in organizing the first International Dub Poetry Festival and Conference held in Toronto, which brought together over 87 dub poets from around the world. She also was one of the main organizers of the 2004, 2005, 2006 and the 2009 Dub Poetry Festivals. In addition to her performance and publication activities, Cooper advised Parks Canada on Black history and has curated several exhibitions at venues throughout Toronto. Afua Cooper was chosen by the editors of Essence magazine (October 2005) as one of the 25 women who are shaping the world.
Afua Cooper also established the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA), which was formed in 2009 in Vancouver, with a meeting of scholars and community activists from various parts of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. The BCSA was the result of a three-day workshop held at the Simon Fraser University’s Segal School of Business.
- Breaking Chains (Weelahs, 1983)
- Red Caterpillar On College Street (Sister Vision Press, 1989)
- Memories Have Tongue: Poetry (Sister Vision Press, 1992)
- We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History with Peggy Bristow, Dionne Brand, Linda Carty, Sylvia Hamilton and Adrienne Shadd (University of Toronto Press, 1994)
- Utterances and Incantations: Women, Poetry, and Dub (Sister Vision Press, 1999)
- The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto!, with Adrienne Shadd and Carolyn Smardz Frost (Natural Heritage Books, 2002)
- The Hanging of Angélique, The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal (HarperCollins, 2006)
- Copper Woman and Other Poems (Natural Heritage Books, 2006)
- My Name is Henry Bibb: A Story of Slavery and Freedom [historical fiction] (Kids Can Press, 2009)
- My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom [historical fiction] (Kids Can Press, 2009)
- “To Learn… Even a Little, The Letters of Solomon Washington,”in Hoping for Home, The Stories of Arrival (Scholastic Canada, 2011), 171–91.
- WomanTalk: Women Dub Poets (Heartbeat Records, 1984)
- Poetry Is Not a Luxury (Maya Music Group, 1985)
- Your Silence Will Not Protect You (Maya Music, 1986)
- Sunshine (Maya Music Group, 1989)
- Worlds of Fire (Soundmind Productions, 2002)
- Love and Revolution (Soundmind Productions, 2014)
- “A Glimpse of Black Life in Victorian Toronto: 1850–60,” Museum Division, City of Toronto (2002)
- “The Underground Railroad, Next Stop: Freedom,” Royal Ontario Museum (2002)
- “I’ll Use My Freedom Well: The Josiah Henson Story,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin Museum, Dresden, ON (2006)
- “Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada,” Archives of Ontario (2007)
- “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” Ontario Bicentenary Exhibit, Toronto (2007)
- “Black Communities in British Columbia: 1858–2008” City of Vancouver Archives (2009)
- “Freedom City: Uncovering Toronto’s Black History,” Toronto Public Library (2015)
- “Black Halifax: Stories From Here” (2015)
Honours and Awards
- Joseph Brant Award for History, Ontario Historical Society (1994)
- Marta Danylewycz Award for Historical Research (1995)
- Kentucky Colonel (Hon.), Commonwealth of Kentucky’s Award for Contribution to Kentucky History (2002)
- Academic Leadership Award, University of Toronto Black Alumni (2004)
- Harry Jerome Award for Professional Excellence (2005)
- Planet Africa Renaissance Award (2007)
- William Hubbard Award for Race Relations, City of Toronto (2007)
- African Canadian Achievement Award for Excellence (2008)
- Premier of Ontario Award for Excellence in the Arts (2008)
- Canadian Children’s Book Centre Best Book for Kids and Teens (2010)
- Beacon of Freedom Award, Colonial Williamsburg-Williamsburg Regional Library, Virginia (2012)
- Nova Scotia Human Rights Award, Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (2015)
- Halifax Regional Municipality Poet Laureate (2018-2020)
Donna Bailey Nurse, What’s a Black Critic to Do II: Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers (London: Insomniac Press, 2011).
Afua Cooper, “Voices Heard Over the River: Henry and Mary Bibb, and the Role of the Black Press in the Underground Railroad Abolitionist Movements,” in A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Freedom and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderlands, eds. Karolyn Smardz and Veta Tucker (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).
Kwame Dawes, Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001).
Valerie Mason-John and Kevan Anthony Cameron, The Great Black North. Contemporary African Canadian Poetry (Calgary: Frontenac House, 2013).
Winfried Siemerling, The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).
Lisa Tomlinson, “Memories Have Tongue: A Conversation with Afua Cooper,” in Jamaica in the Canadian Experience: A Multiculturalizing Presence, eds. Carl James and Andrea Davis (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2012), 106–14.
Emily Allen Williams, ed., Beyond the Canebrakes: Caribbean Women Writers in Canada (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2008).