“I’m not sociology. I’m human.”

May 14, 2022
Shelina Adatia, PhD Candidate, University of Ottawa

Hosted by the Film Studies Association of Canada, the annual Martin Walsh keynote lecture was delivered by renowned filmmaker, writer, and artist Dr. Sylvia D. Hamilton. In her lecture, Field Notes from the Black Atlantic, Dr. Hamilton captivated the audience through her focus on Black women’s lived experiences and cultural memories as she guided us through a series of five field notes accompanied by short videos. As part of these notes, she made reference to her films, including Black Mother Black Daughter, Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia, Portia White: Think On Me, and The Little Black School House.

Her work, which uses oral testimony, sound, and music, honours the erasures of Black Canadian culture and history — her goal being “to create work that will be a buttress against ignorance and forgetting, work that shows the complexity of our humanity.” Accordingly, one of the most compelling field notes she presented read as follows:

“I’m not sociology. I’m human.” 

As Dr. Hamilton explained, the statement came about from her research into people descending from Africa into Canada — specifically, Black people in Canada being examined through a sociological lens, as if they’re not complex human beings. Dr. Hamilton thus stated, “I talk publicly about sociologists who tried to claim expertise on our lives and tried to study us as specimens.” This messaging is not only reflected through the lived presence she creates through her films, but also through her interactions with academia. For instance, in her conversations with funding agencies, Dr. Hamilton challenges the narrative of Black people being a sociological construct, “treated as subjects and problems to be written out.”    

In speaking of the public’s reaction to her work, Dr. Hamilton noted that overall, audiences in public presentations of her films, across both Canada and the United States, have responded very positively. Although there has been some pushback in confronting the fact that Canada did previously have a system of publicly segregated schools, most people have questioned why they never knew or learned about it. Dr. Hamilton’s work thus challenges our notions of Canada, as we learn and unlearn its history.  

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