One on One with Professor Joe Mensah

One on One with Professor Joe Mensah


Joseph Mensah has been teaching at the York University in Ontario, Canada since 2002. he is made Full Professor, and also the appointed Director of Harriet Tubman Institute at York. He was born in Ghana.

Prof Mensah has written many books including Black Canadians: History Experience and Social Conditions, which was revised in a second edition in 2010. He has other well-known academic books, including edited books on Neoliberalism and Globalization in Africa (Palgrave, 2008); Economic Reforms in Africa (Palgrave, 2006) and co-edited book on Globalization and the Human Factor (Ashgate, 2004), together with numerous refereed journal articles and book chapters. As an intellectual, he is always putting out new ideas in various publications and is currently working on a SSHRC-sponsored project on how African immigrants balance their ethno-racial identity with their Canadian national identity.

Recently Professor Mensah sat with me for a chat

Liz Philbert: You were recently appointed to the Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migration of African Peoples as the Associate Director, can you tell us more about this Institute and what it does?

Mensah: As you know, Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), whom the Institute is named after, was an African-America abolitionist, humanitarian who helped a lot of Black slaves to escape to Canada through the celebrated Underground Railroad.

  • As the name suggests, we, at Tubman, conduct multidisciplinary research on both voluntary and involuntary migration of people of African descent across the globe. Formally established in 2007, the Institute seeks to broaden our understanding of the history of slavery and its consequences—especially as they pertain to the injustices, dehumanization, and exploitation of Africans around the world. Issues of modern-day slavery, human tracking, and international migration, involving Africans are now front and centre in our research initiatives.
  • The Tubman Institute is part several international research network, including the UNESCO “Slave Route project” and the UNESCO “Memory of the World” program that is trying to save endangered archives around the world. Our ongoing projects include a Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) sponsored by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada on “Slavery, Memory and Citizenship;” we also have “Breaking the Chain,” that examines Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad; there is also our SPACE program—Spotlighting and Promoting African Canadian.

Experiences—with which we highlight the contemporary experience of the African Diaspora in Canada—these are just a handful of our projects. The Institute is run under the very able Directorship of Professor Paul Lovejoy, a Distinguished Research Professor and Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History, with Professor José Curto and I supporting him as Associate Directors, together with our wonderful staff.

Philbert: What is your take on the whole idea of Black History Month (BHM) celebration in Canada, and is the Tubman Institute doing anything in particular to celebrate BHM?

Mensah: I think it is a remarkable opportunity for all of us to learn more about the history of Blacks in Canada. I think BHM is very useful; it helps broaden our understanding of the contributions that Blacks have and continue to make in Canada, and the challenge they face in the process.

  • Consider this: Canada Post just unveiled stamps for both Viola Desmond (1914-1965) and John Ware (1845-1905), two noteworthy Black Canadians, in commemoration of this year’s BHM.
  • We all see Rosa Park (1913 – 2005) as the “first lady of the civil rights movement,” and rightly so; but how many know that nine year before she refused to obey the bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama (in that faithful day in Dec 1955), Viola Desmond had refused to sit in the balcony designated for Blacks in a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. And how many who enjoy the Calgary Stampede now know of the contribution of John Ware to ranching, horse riding, and the cowboy culture in the Canadian Prairies. We now have schools, banks, and many other public and private institutions all celebrating BHS—and how can that be a bad idea.
  • The highlight of the Tubman Institute’s celebration of BHM comes in a program we call Performing Diaspora, by which we share the African diasporic experience with Canadians, through drumming, dancing, and theatrical performances by various African-oriented cultural troupes from across North America.

Philbert: As a Black intellectual in a big university like York, I suppose a lot is expected of you; how do you handle this pressure?

  • I won’t trade my job for anything else, at least at this stage of my life. However, it comes with enormous responsibility and pressure, not only per the very nature of the job, but also by the fact that there are not many Black profs around. York has done very well in hiring minorities, but there is still room for improvement. With this under-representation come excessive demands from the Black community, in general, and the many minority students, in particular, beyond my teaching and research activities. Many minority students need mentoring, counseling, and support (e.g., for reference letters and in dealing with various situations with other profs); and many are those who feel they have nowhere else to turn than to approach somebody like me. In addition, one is often pulled into various committees by virtue of one’s ethno-racial background. My strategy is to eschew “ghettoization” in the process.

  Professor Mensah has been one of HK magazine loyal advisors since 2008.      We thank him for his devotion & support!  

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