Black History and the God of Redemption
Redeemer’s faculty and students explore issues of race and representation through the curriculum this term.
8 min. read
February 22, 2022

How can you have hope that our generation will be any different?”

It’s a question that was posed by a student to her professor in the middle of a moving lecture about marginalized voices. The lecturer was Dr. Jonathan Juilfs, associate professor of English. The marginalized voices were those of Black poets, particularly in the US.

Juilfs decided to give voice to these poets – and in particular, Amanda Gorman – as part of recognizing Black History Month, a time when we are invited to reflect on the history of Black people in Canada and beyond, and to honour their many contributions. Gorman is the first National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States and reader at the inauguration of US president Joe Biden in 2021. Juilfs describes her as a powerhouse and her work electrifying. 

After the violent death of George Floyd in 2020, Juilfs experienced grief and realized he needed to add something that addresses issues of representation to the syllabus for his Introduction to Poetry and Drama course. He took the class through passages and poems that challenged students to think critically about their role in societal change, knowing that their God is the God of redemption.

“Our God is identified as ‘the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.’ Can you see why a Black person might take some solace in a God who liberates?” Juilfs asks his students. “That’s what he does. There is freedom that can be had spiritually and in human community as well.”

Juilfs is not alone in his effort to teach about those who have been enslaved, silenced and forgotten. In the History of Western Music course at Redeemer, adjunct lecturer in music history Andrew Keegan discusses the lack of coverage of Black composers in major textbooks. He takes the opportunity in his introductory lecture for the class to address this issue.

I think that it is important to continue to learn and celebrate composers like Bologne today, rediscovering their musical works and giving them the recognition they were unjustly deprived of during their own lifetime and largely up until today.

“Part of my intro lecture in the Music History II course looks at the nature of the canon of Western Music as exemplified in all the main text books, including A History of Western Music that we currently use for the course,” Keegan says adding that female and Black composers, while very occasionally mentioned, don’t receive sufficient coverage.

Keegan’s introductory lecture has led two of his students to write their class paper on Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Joseph Bologne, a Black virtuoso instrumentalist and composer in Paris during the late 18th century, though much admired by Mozart, is given just six lines in the course text and is not even mentioned in other comparable texts.

Zachary Schenk, one of these students, has begun to research Bologne learning that he was the son of a plantation owner and a slave, a biracial man, who moved to France at a young age, studied music and became widely known.

“It struck me immediately that one of the most prominent composers and violin virtuosos of the 18th century was unfamiliar to me and to all the other music students in the class,” says Schenk. “Ultimately, I find it striking that he was turned down for the position of director of the Paris Opera due to the fact that several members of the opera thought it shameful to be subordinate to a man of colour. I think that it is important to continue to learn and celebrate composers like Bologne today, rediscovering their musical works and giving them the recognition they were unjustly deprived of during their own lifetime and largely up until today.”

Brittany Burdick, adjunct professor of art history, is also exploring the work of those overlooked and pushed aside in the Contemporary Art Worldwide course.  

“We are looking primarily at contemporary art from across the globe, focussing on the areas that have been historically left out of the art history canon,” says Burdick. “We finished two weeks looking at African art and are now looking at the art of Indigenous North America.” 

The class had a chance to explore several African exhibitions: Into the Heart of Africa at the ROM, Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist and Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary Art both at the Tate Modern and Global Africa Project at the Museum of Art and Design in New York.

Race relations is the topic of Dr. Timothy Epp’s current research, reflected in a number of the associate professor of applied social sciences’ courses this term. In Introduction to Sociology, he has introduced his students to W.E.B. Du Bois, an important early sociologist, who was also the first African American to attend Harvard. Du Bois’ work led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Epp has also introduced his students to Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Wells-Barnett, two African American women who contributed to the development of sociology. In his third- and fourth-year courses the class discusses peace movements, with an emphasis on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of the use of lethal force by police officers. Epp hopes to have a guest speaker on race and justice join his class later in the term.  

I hope that through presenting a myriad of stories, and discussing the impact of people’s choices throughout history, I can illustrate for students the real presence of hardship, turmoil, and ultimately, sin – and the ways that God has redeemed the lives and experiences of many people through his ever-present love and care.

In the history department, adjunct lecturer Nicole Benbow, is covering a variety of race-related issues in the Post-Confederation Canada course. While there is significant focus on Indigenous issues in Canadian history, Benbow is also taking the time to discuss minority groups including Black Canadians who participated in the First and Second World Wars and how this set the stage for civil rights movements in the 1960s. 

“I encourage students to be cognizant of the varying stories that are rooted in our shared past – stories of those who were oppressed and marginalized, stories of those who had power and influence, and stories of people who lived their lives in ways very different to us,” says Benbow. “I hope that through presenting a myriad of stories, and discussing the impact of people’s choices throughout history, I can illustrate for students the real presence of hardship, turmoil, and ultimately, sin – and the ways that God has redeemed the lives and experiences of many people through his ever-present love and care.”

Questions of diversity and learning the history of other cultures is intentionally interwoven throughout the history program at Redeemer. Students are also taking action in practical ways through courses like the core capstone and in partnership with CityLAB Hamilton. A recent capstone project had two senior student groups researching Hamilton’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) entrepreneurs.

Black history and related matters of representation are important topics to discuss but they can be intimidating to faculty and students due to personal experiences or politicization. A culturally sensitive approach to presentation becomes key. Juilfs doesn’t intend to let the challenge prevent him from discussing difficult topics like racism.

“The only thing that I fear worse than my lack of ability, is not doing it at all,” he says.

Teaching the next generation of culture makers and Christian leaders is his passion. As a self-proclaimed idealist, he answered those students who found themselves discouraged with his particular brand of optimism. 

“I think a new world is possible, but it will depend on how your generation responds.”

Teaching at Redeemer means he can offer hope in the face of societal challenges in a way that he might not be able to at another institution. “We have the language of transformation. The subject of transformation is critical for me in all that I teach. Romans 12 says to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. How do we live into that? We’re not allowed to live into our cynicism, God being who God is.”

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