Erica Lawson’s research and teaching interests are wide-ranging: from motherhood studies to maternal grief, bereavement, and activism; critical race studies and Black feminist studies. Now, the Western professor will use a range of tools drawn from these topics to teach a new course.
Introduction to Black Studies is being offered as part of Western’s new minor in Black Studies through the department of gender, sexuality and women’s studies.
“I’m interested in Black liberation movements, going far back, and coming up to Black Lives Matter. We’ll be talking about Black intellectual traditions and looking at them in different ways – through poetry, music, sociology, feminist studies and literature,” Lawson said.
“It’s an opportunity for students to think more deeply, in a critically informed way, about the world we live in.”
Lawson’s current research focuses on how Black mothers turn the loss of their children into activism. “How do they support each other? What kind of social change are they pressing for? Are they making progress?” she asked.
Born in Jamaica, Lawson says she has always been interested in issues of race. “We had a lot of conversations in our family and in our community about what it meant to be a Black Jamaican, what it meant to be British subjects, and what it meant to be descendants of enslaved people.”
But it wasn’t until she was in her mid-20s that she began to consider the issues on a deeper level. “I took a long break between my undergraduate and graduate studies,” Lawson said. “I worked, and I read a lot. I read about Black and critical race theory, and feminist theory. After six years of being out of university, I felt like it was time for me to go back.”
She completed her PhD in the department of sociology and equity studies in education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She came to Western in 2008.
Lawson’s career changed course the day she watched Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The powerful documentary tells the story of a group of Liberian women whose nonviolent tactics helped press their government into negotiating an end to 13 years of civil war in the West African country.
“Their activism went a long way to bring the fighting factions to the table,” said Lawson, associate professor in the department of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. “The power of what they did really shocked me. I decided I had to meet them.”
Lawson reached out and built both a professional and personal relationship with Liberian activists Vaiba Kebeh Flomo and Cerue Konah Garlo. Since 2017, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant has supported their collaborative research into women’s leadership roles in the Liberian peace movement and post-conflict reconstruction.
Their work focuses on the ‘peace huts’ women implemented after the civil war. Here, women mediate disputes, provide entrepreneurial opportunities, educate girls and women about their rights, and support the country’s health-care system during crises like the Ebola outbreak and more recent COVID-19 pandemic.
For Lawson, understanding Black history is a process that also involves understanding the history of leadership and organization by Black women.
“As part of the course, I will be talking about how Black women organize to fight against racism. In a Canadian context, I will cite the examples of women like Rosemary Brown and Mary Ann Shadd. In a transnational context, I will talk about women like Angela Davis,” said Lawson.
Open to all Western students, the minor in Black Studies offers a variety of local, national and global disciplinary perspectives on Black history, culture and heritage. Among the focus areas are how race plays out in the U.S., including how government race policies generated resistance both historically, with the Civil Rights Movement, and currently with Black Lives Matter.