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UF’s David Canton reflects on his career in African American Studies

African American Studies Director David Canton smiles near the bookshelf of his Turlington office. (Photo by Camille Hagins)
African American Studies Director David Canton smiles near the bookshelf of his Turlington office. (Photo by Camille Hagins)

Education in Florida is changing. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent policies to change K-12 education have restricted educators from teaching African American Studies and resulted in strict statewide book bans — punishable by felony charge. As he looks to the collegiate scale, DeSantis pushes for further restriction, including proposals to ban critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

New to the University of Florida campus, Dr. David Canton leads the African American Studies program during a time when politicians ask: Why does this matter? With a career spent studying and teaching this field, Canton is passionate about the need for such studies.

History has always been a part of David Canton’s life.

“I grew up in a household where my dad was an avid reader of African American history," Canton said. "He read Black newspapers and would always talk about Black figures in history (Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X). So, I always had an inkling for current events — sports, politics."

Surprisingly, his nearly 22 years of time in higher education was not initially what he had planned for himself.

As a first-generation student navigating college, it took time for Canton to recognize his knack for history. Alongside mentorship from his professor, Joseph Windham, Canton decided to become a history major during his fifth year at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

“He was a young guy, just got his Ph.D. from Howard University, and the image of a professor in my mind was older guys with thick glasses — no swag, corny and stuff. He was a young guy, 37, played ball, looked kind of cool, so I thought I could be like this guy,” Canton said. “He used to work at the Atlanta Public Library in the evenings, and I’d go there to do research. We talked about all kinds of stuff. One day he said, ‘Yo Dave, why don’t you go to Ohio State and get your master’s in Black Studies?' First of all, I didn’t know what a master’s was.”

Although initially hesitant to pursue further studies, Canton decided to take Windham’s advice to simply attend a year and stay if he liked it. One year became two, and in 1994, he graduated from Ohio State University with a master’s degree in African American Studies, continuing to Temple University for a Ph.D. in American History. After 17 years of teaching at Connecticut College, he joined the University of Florida as a professor and the director of African American Studies in 2020.

The shift wasn’t easy. Canton’s previous position was a small liberal arts college where he was able to build relationships with students easily due to lower class sizes. UF was larger; to make matters worse, he arrived during the pandemic, with Zoom meetings his only option to meet students initially.

“It was a big transition for me,” he said. “Here, it’s taken me some time, but I’m developing that with students who are taking my classes, coming to our events, having conversations.”

For students in the African American Studies program, one of the relevant conversations being talked about is Gov. DeSantis’ policies. To fourth-year African American Studies minor, Anisa Isaac, this program is a necessary addition to students’ education.

“I think that African American Studies is something that just should be included in American History because it is American History," Isaac said. "The thing about African American Studies is that it is so interdisciplinary: Black people are part of every major field of study. It doesn’t make sense to [exclude] African Americans from AP programing and learning in general because it’s something that’s already not included in what we normally do.”

Canton shared similar feelings regarding the field. He explained that there are many misconceptions about African American Studies.

“People have to realize that African American History is not just facts and firsts. It’s about change over time but also continuity,” he said. “There’s a perception — a misperception — on African American Studies, women’s studies and ethnic studies that these are highly politicized disciplines that are there to indoctrinate students and tell students what to do and how to think. Whilst it’s quite contrarious. It teaches students how to think, not what to think. How to view things from African American perspective because we know in K-12 that you don’t get that in-depth analysis.”

The African American Studies program at UF is not limited to general Black history. With extensive offerings including research methods, Black masculinity, religion and African American politics and policy, the program extends to nearly all corners of Black culture.

Even something as unassuming as hip hop music can be examined with historical context in mind.

"People don’t look at music as a form of history," Isaac said. "I think a lot of people disregard it as an art form and as a historical talking point within the Black community. Rap and hip hop is just discussing the lived experiences of Black people throughout history."

In her sophomore year, she attended one of Canton’s more niche course offerings, a class on the History of Hip Hop Music and Culture.

Both inside and out of the classroom, Canton stays passionate. In his eyes, a large part of being a professor is “the lifestyle” and the passion — meeting others, reading books and sharing the knowledge he’s acquired. But, he’s more than just an academic. He’s a father, husband, mentor and friend.

Shandia Lewis-Booker, 20, recalls her time as Canton’s student assistant fondly.

“I used to be a social media assistant for the African American Studies program, and Dr. Canton was always a very humorous, outgoing guy,” she said. “I had a lot of good conversations about the Black experience, being at a PWI (predominantly white institution) and his experience as an HBCU (historically Black college and university) grad — how that is different and how it also connects. He’s a fun man.”

Canton is grateful for his opportunities to help students grow and gain their footing on campus. But, while you may catch him in his Turlington office from Mondays to Fridays, Canton stays busy, enjoying life beyond UF. He does a little bit of everything from NAACP meetings to Omega Psi Fi events, Pickleball with his wife and even a podcast with musician Jerry Beeks.

As he moves forward in his career, Canton is hopeful to continue sharing his knowledge and mentoring students. He’s passionate about African American Studies and strives to share his passions with those around him. Regardless of the push for new political policies, Canton believes that this field — and his heritage — are important topics for any student to know.

“Whether it’s during Reconstruction or during the Civil Right Movement, Black folks have been at the center of making America a democracy,” he said. “African Americans are a central player in making America a true democracy — a multiracial democracy.”

Camille is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.