'Exemplary artist' David Woods receives honorary doctorate from Dalhousie University

Pamela Edmonds first met David Woods in the early 1980s through the Cultural Awareness Youth Group Woods had organized.

“I was one of the few Black students at Prince Andrew [High School] and I really felt kind of isolated there,” Edmonds said.

The youth group included Black students from several high schools throughout the region who would meet up to take part in Black history quiz competitions, political debates, and other activities.

Now the director and curator of the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Edmonds was one of several people on hand last week as Woods received an honorary doctorate at Dalhousie University’s fall 2022 convocation

“He was a mentor to me in that I discovered the possibilities of doing art, expressing myself, and it actually, I feel, led to my career today,” Edmonds said. “He’s a key person who’s been working behind the scenes and in a lot of ways is unrecognized.”

Originally from Trinidad, Woods is a researcher and historian of Black Nova Scotian and Black Canadian history. He moved to Canada as a teenager, before going on to earn a degree in political science at Dalhousie in 1981.

“A mental block experience while in my first year at Dalhousie University led me to becoming all that I am today: an artist, curator, storyteller, one of the main documenters of African Nova Scotian experience, and winners of awards in several art disciplines and career endeavors across Canada,” Woods said during his address to the graduating students at the convocation.

In his first year at Dalhousie, Woods was elected as a student council rep and also worked auditing classes in Black history and culture for Dalhousie’s Transition Year Program (TYP), which was aimed at assisting black and indigenous students from across Nova Scotia.

Woods said the very first paper he was assigned was 110 pages long and he turned it in two weeks late.

“When I finally handed in, I remembered my shocked professor looking at me and saying that I had submitted an essay that was the length of an MA thesis rather than the 10 double-spaced pages he had asked me for,” said Woods.

“By January of the first year, the anxiety of overwriting and continuous lateness of my essays overwhelmed me and I shut down,” he said. “Frustrated and having no one to discuss this with, I stayed away from my classes, hiding in shame during this time of uncertainty. Strangely enough, I suddenly turned to creative expression.”

Woods began creating poetry and paintings he described as “works of expression” that were inspired from his youth working as a summer day camp counselor in Preston. He said the works examined his life, questioned his future, and explored his personal and racial history.

“After six weeks of absence, I went back to my classes, not so much to continue my studies, but to explain to my professors why I had disappeared.”

Woods said he was told he had writer's block, which one professor explained to him as “a condition that sometimes affected overly driven students.”

Woods was given the option to submit his final papers and exams orally. Relieved, after a day of meeting with his professors, he said he returned to his apartment and broke into tears as he stared at the artwork he’d created over the previous six weeks.

When he was four years old, Woods and his four siblings moved in with their grandparents when their parents migrated to England to pursue their careers.

“This was an extended household as my aunt and uncle had also migrated to the United States and left their five children," Woods said. "Altogether there were 17 people in the house. I grew up extremely poor and completely ignored.”

He said he did well in school and had an uncle named Willie who took an interest in him and bought him books.

“These were works that talked about the different places in the world of great men and women of civilization. These were books that were books of art,” Woods said. “They were very advanced for my age, seven and eight. He seemed to have read something in my quietness and my solitude and my intellectual inquisitiveness and provided me with a library of works that spoke to my innermost interests.”

When Woods reunited with his parents in Canada he called it a “disaster,” saying there was a lot of abuse.

He said he was emotionally starved, but kept up his spirits by waiting until everyone was asleep at night when he would then write and paint into the early morning hours.

Woods said he went to Dalhousie with the goal of eventually attending law school.

“However, when that anxiety and overeating reoccurred in the second year, I was no longer interested in undergoing that torture, and I bolted to another life.”

Woods applied for a position with the former Black United Front (BUF) as the cultural program coordinator. That job required the candidates to design programs to teach Black culture to Black foster children who had grown up in non-Black foster homes deprived of their culture.

“During the interview, I convinced the interviewers that it was not only Black youth in foster homes that were ignorant of their history and culture, but that all Black youth in general at that time did not know much about their history and culture,” he said.

“I got the job and weeks later I headed out to try and convince the principals in the local schools and the students to buy into my new cultural project idea.”

From there he organized a youth group that met on lunch breaks and after school. Woods said the youth organized provincial conferences, acted in plays, and organized Black History Month events in their schools for the first time.

At the end of the second year, Woods said BUF decided to discontinue the program. Woods said the students begged him to find another sponsor. He did and that group became an independent society named the Cultural Awareness Youth Group (CAYG).

“In a sense, creating CAYG was very much like me creating all the artwork that I did in my first year. Because in those youth, the ambitions that had been blocked had found its expression in all the activities that they were now doing,” Woods said.

Many of the participants, he said, went on to become “the who's who of leadership” in the Black community of today.

“They include several government officials, judges, lawyers, school principals, and university professors in their ranks, including Barbara Hamilton-Hinch, who's sitting over there, and Karen Hudson, who is a principal at Auburn High School,” Woods said.

Hamilton-Hinch and Hudson also served as references for Woods’ honorary degree nomination.

In 1987, Woods left the Cultural Awareness Youth Group to pursue a career as a writer. He formed a theatre company called Voices Theatre and started writing plays, several of which were selected as features for CBC Radio.

He wrote plays about Africville, Viola Desmond, as well as Dorothy Paris of New Glasgow who was hired by by the Quaker Oats Company to portray Aunt Jemima in the 1940s.

He said he also told the story of twin brothers, George and John Maxwell from Cape Breton, who worked on the fishing schooners on the Grand Banks and in the late 1800s. One of the brothers appeared in the novel Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling.

In 1990, Woods published his first book, Native Song, which featured many of the poems and paintings he created in his first year at Dal.

A professor at Dal invited him to speak to his class about the book, which was included in the first year English curriculum.

Native Song was added to the first year English curriculum at Dalhousie, also served as inspiration for Canadian jazz composer and bandleader Joe Sealey’s 1996 album Africville Suite, which went on to win a Juno award. Woods created the cover for that CD.

In 1998, Woods was asked to do his first art exhibition at the Anna Leonowens Gallery at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD).

“Because there had never previously been any exhibitions of African Nova Scotian art, I decided while I had the chance to do some research in the Black communities and went door to door to the 30 Black communities looking for art,” Woods said.

“The exhibition ended up showing over 150 pieces of work and representing over 150 years of African Nova Scotian art that had not been previously known.”

Pamela Edmonds, who spoke to the Examiner prior to the convocation, was working at NSCAD at the time and said that show broke attendance records at the gallery.

“It was one of the most incredible exhibitions and opening receptions I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been working as a curator for more than 20 years,” Edmonds said.

As a researcher, in the 1990s, Woods said he discovered the story of Canada’s first Black doctor, Dr. Clement Liguore, a Trinidad-born physician who opened a private hospital in north end Halifax and saved hundreds of lives after the Halifax Explosion.

Woods said he also discovered the story of Edward Mitchell Bannister from Saint Andrews, NB, who was the first person of African descent to win a major prize in North America, the Centennial Medal, in 1865.

“All of these stories had a consistent theme of an individual or an event of significance that had been ignored by history and by an accident had been brought to my attention, and through my passion and commitment to create an excellent work I was allowed to become a conduit for their public recognition to give them a second life.”

In 1996, Woods met and befriended Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond's sister.

“She was a great storyteller and I encouraged her to begin telling the story of her sister's life and her arrest in New Glasgow,” Woods said.

It was through Robson’s storytelling that Woods said helped lead to Desmond receiving a posthumous pardon and later being selected to be on the Canadian $10 bill.

Before her passing earlier this year, Robson also wrote a reference letter for Woods’ honorary degree nomination.

Dr. Afua Cooper, a professor at Dalhousie, was the first person to nominate Woods for to for an honorary degree.

“I nominated David because he’s such an exemplary artist and a community builder, and I felt this honour was well overdue, long overdue. He deserves this and more because he has been so tremendous for the arts in Canada, and to the community building artistic efforts in Nova Scotia,” Cooper told the Examiner following the convocation ceremony.

Woods said the award inspired him to complete a poem he had started writing back in the 1970s, which he read to conclude his speech.

“I am grateful for this honor, both for myself, as well as for the validation that it gives to all who are still locked in themselves, awaiting an opportunity to enter a more full life.

Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Halifax Examiner