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Brush up on your black history with this U of T prof’s online resource

Renée Hložek teamed up with U.S. colleagues to create BlackLight

A photo of participants, some carrying American flags, marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965

Americans marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 in support of civil rights. Photo: Peter Pettus, Library of Congress, IIP Photo Archive via Flickr.

At a time when news feeds are saturated with fake news, misinformation and intolerance, it’s important to stay informed and educated – but the challenge is knowing where to look.

One U of T professor is hoping to change that, at least in a small way. Renée Hložek, who teaches at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, has teamed up with colleagues from the United States to create a comprehensive resource on black history and culture called BlackLight.

The idea came about when Hložek was discussing issues of racism within her field with physicist Brian Nord at an astronomy conference in the U.S.

‘One of the biggest challenges is understanding the complexity of privilege’

“Lots of people had been working really hard to try and change this, but one of the things people often say, particularly people who want to be allies – white people – is that they don’t know where to go,” she says. “We figured if people were reading things and were being challenged, they could then go into their own communities and have conversations about it.”

Black History Month provided a good opportunity to kickstart BlackLight. Every day, new reading material, videos and podcasts are posted on the website and sent to subscribers’ inboxes, and each week there’s a new theme.

The project is curated by Hložek and Nord alongside science writer Lauren Biron and astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz.

“Every day, you have something that challenges your thinking especially around these really uncomfortable issues,” says Hložek.

One of the biggest challenges is understanding the complexity of privilege, says Nord.

“If we don’t try to understand where this privilege comes from, where the shared history has built up this privilege over time, then how can we understand the points of view that each of us endemically has?”

Nord says he has a degree of privilege as a man and a scientist.

“But I lack privilege in one other dimension – in the dimension of race,” he says.

Initiatives like BlackLight help ensure voices are heard

As a person of colour, Nord is no stranger to discrimination.

“Once every couple of weeks, I experience some kind of racism whether it’s at a bar and someone offhandedly refers to me as ‘mulatto’ or someone tries to touch my hair,” he says.

For Hložek, growing up in South Africa during the apartheid, she saw first-hand the toll widespread discrimination had on the country’s black population.

“I was seven when Nelson Mandela was freed and lived through the end of Apartheid,” she says. “As I think about my particular history in South Africa and moving around the world, I realize if one cares about issues but don’t take the time to read the writings and the stories of people of colour, black people and Indigenous people, in a sense you’re still projecting on your own framework.”

Initiatives like BlackLight can ensure that, at least in North America, those voices are heard, she says.

“We want to stress that black history in the U.S. is a shared history,” says Hložek. “It’s not just black and white history, it’s really a collective understanding of what has happened. It’s the sort of stuff where if people pretend it’s a narrative elsewhere, it can be quite damaging.”

Nord hopes the project is the beginning and not the end of people’s learning experiences.

Expanding the project to include Canadian and South African black history

“The end goal is that it not be an end goal – if they haven’t been exploring this before, that this is the beginning of their exploration and not just of the black experience but of themselves connected to that black experience,” he says.

Following Black History Month, Hložek plans on recruiting U of T students to turn the resources compiled into a searchable database. She would also like to expand the project to include Canada and South Africa.

“I’m new to Canada and one of the things I really want to do is build a better understanding of the kinds of issues that have happened here. I’d like to adapt some of what we’ve done with BlackLight to a Canadian context where it’s not only talking about atrocities in history but highlighting the readings and writings of people who care about these issues in the current Canadian context as well.”