Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling | Esi Edugyan's CBC Massey Lectures
The acclaimed novelist illuminates the Black experience in global culture and history in her six-part lectures
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James Baldwin wrote: "People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them."
But what happens when some people's stories get erased, neglected, forgotten in the making of our collective history? And how can we reclaim the stories of Black experience?
Those are the questions Esi Edugyan explores in her CBC Massey Lectures, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling. The award-winning Canadian author examines the relationship between art and race through the lens of visual art, literature, film and her own lived experience.
A one-hour television special featuring Edugyan's lectures will air on April 30 on CBC TV and will stream online on GEM. The special is an adaptation of her six-part lecture series, which aired on CBC Radio in January.
"I wanted to know the living, breathing people who have remained beyond our sight, occupying the shadows," Esi Edugyan writes in the book version of her Massey Lectures series, published by House of Anansi. It's her first major work of nonfiction.
"I am not a historian, only a storyteller with an interest in overlooked narratives, and I've always been curious as to why we sideline some stories and mythologize others. What social and political instincts inform our remembering; how much are our omissions the result of apathy, of indifference?"
The acclaimed novelist has won many awards, including two Giller Prizes for Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black — both of which were also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Lecture 1: Europe and the Art of Seeing
In 19th-century European art, Black people are presented as servants and curiosities, footmen, slaves, lady's maids and magi — a shallow representation of people who had full and rich lives.
"The African as magus is a saint and bringer of gifts; the African as savage inhabits a darkness so all-devouring only the light of Christianity can penetrate it. These images bear out across the long centuries of portraiture, and they amount to a verdict of sorts," she says in her first lecture.
"If one of the unavoidable eventualities of art is to act as social history, what story is being handed down to us? Black bodies are less living, breathing people than repositories for cultural anxieties. Blacks are an expression of status, of Christianity's reach, of white morality. They are rarely, until the twentieth century, just human beings, living human lives."
Edugyan points to several examples of problematic art in her lecture, including an 18th-century portrait by Johann Gottfried Haid of Angelo Soliman — a Nigerian who was taken as a child and brought to Europe through a slave-trading route.
Soliman was purchased by a Sicilian aristocratic family who educated him before he was given to an Austrian prince. He was deeply respected, moving easily through intellectual circles — playing chess with Austrian emperor Franz Joseph.
Soliman was a symbol of assimilation, but Edugyan points out his portrait highlights how he's viewed differently from other Europeans.
Edugyan notes Soliman appears regal and confident in his portrait, one hand tucked gently into his waistcoat in a pose commonly used to convey dignity and decorum. His placement against the storm-blackened sky almost suggests he is mounted on a horse.
"These are the Europeanized aspects of the portrait, and they are used to suggest the rational, the civilized."
Then there are other visual cues to differentiate Soliman: the land dotted with pyramids and palm trees of Africa, the walking cane with a golden lion, and his white turban, "its folds immaculately rendered, a stand-in for the "Oriental," the exotic. These signal his unbreakable link to Africa, to the world of the "other."
Edugyan says we must look beyond an image with an eye to what's missing to understand a more fulsome story.
"To look at a portrait is to be forced to build a human life out of our own imaginations. That is what makes it a fundamentally hopeful act. Every portrait is a plea, at its heart, for empathy," she says.
"When we sideline or hide away images of certain people, what we are cutting ourselves off from is some sense of their possible history and daily lives, their humanity."
Lecture 2: Canada and the Art of Ghosts
To some people, ghost stories may seem trivial — a form of entertainment around a campfire. But Esi Edugyan believes these stories are vital to how society builds personal and cultural myths.
"The stories we tell about the dead act as clarifying narratives to explain what has shaped us, and what continues to make us who we are," the author says in her second Massey Lecture.
"Ghost stories are at their core repositories of our pasts — both our personal pasts and our public, collective ones."
Edugyan adds the stories of the dead are also a graveyard — "a monument of words."
"But what if even the graves could be destroyed?"
This is what happened in Priceville, a village in southwestern Ontario, during the 1830s.
The town was built by Black settlers, some of whom fought in the War of 1812 alongside the British. They were promised rich, arable land by the Crown but the land was never legally assigned to them or officially charted.
"When the Black community attempted to purchase their homesteads, they were deemed squatters by land agents unmoved by their cause. They saw their land parcelled off and sold, sometimes amid scenes of ferocious violence," Edugyan explains.
By the 1930s, the original settlers of Priceville were forced out. Nothing was left but the graveyard.
A farmer named Bill Reid was given possession of the land where the cemetery had been, and although he knew about the graveyard's existence, he plowed through the burial grounds and planted potatoes. Reid was also known to use gravestones as stepping stones for his flooded basement and as flooring for his horse stable.
"These were ghost stories, told in half disbelief. But many did not want them told, and drove them back into the shadows. Few felt free to speak them openly," Edugyan says.
"But the stories would not die; they kept surging up."
Lecture 3: America and the Art of Empathy — What it Means to 'Pass'
Black people who pass as white — and to a lesser extent, white people who pass as Black — are a phenomenon that challenges our understanding of what's ingrained in our identity.
"We all construct our own identities," says Esi Edugyan in her third Massey Lecture.
"But we all understand, sooner or later, the limits of doing so — that there are ways in which our practical, economic, and physical realities are fixed. There is the makeup or the clothes, the false modesty or the self-aggrandizement; but there are also the inherited eyes, the stubborn shyness, the cycle of poverty, whatever it is that refuses to give way."
- Black LightCanadian cultural institutions have silenced Black voices for years. Can we write a new chapter?
The question Edugyan asks, is: what would compel someone to take themself from a place of societal advantage to one of lesser cultural and political capital?
In 2015, Rachel Doležal resigned as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the midst of controversy over lying about her race.
It was revealed that the professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, and a founding organizer of Spokane's Black Lives Matter protests, had been born to two white parents of German descent.
"To hear Doležal speak is to understand that she sees race as highly mutable, random, and fluid, which is certainly the case," Edugyan says.
Doležal writes, "Yes, my parents weren't Black, but that's hardly the only way to define Blackness. The culture you gravitate toward and the worldview you adopt play equally large roles."
As a teenager, Doležal took on caring for her adopted Black siblings, creating a close bond and becoming their defender. She calls herself a "cultural translator, helping them navigate the white world safely while trying to keep them connected to the Black one."
As Edugyan describes in her lecture, Doležal is what is known as "Black adjacent — meaning that she has lived so deeply within or alongside a Black community that she can be said to be more than an ally."
It is when Doležal's proximity to Blackness progressed to affecting Black hairstyles and darkening her skin that, Edugyan argues, Doležal crossed the line.
Lecture 4: America and the Art of Empathy — The Post-Racial Society
In the aftermath of Barack Obama's 2008 election, Massey lecturer Esi Edugyan says she was often asked if we'd arrived at a post-racial age. It was a question that baffled the author, and left her wondering whether people could really believe that a "bi-racial man in the White House could destroy all traces of a noxious past."
Then it dawned on her. What Edugyan realized is that the questioners were really expressing a deep longing for a post-racial society.
"A world post-race is a world in which everyone feels they can live as their freest self," Edugyan says.
Edugyan continues her exploration of "passing" in her fourth Massey Lecture and shares the story of Clarence King — "a complicated, ambiguous case of racial fluidity" that historian Martha A. Sandweiss lays bare in her book, Passing Strange.
In the mid-1880s, an African-American woman named Ada Copeland moved to New York City. She met a man named James Todd, a light-skinned African-American who was a Pullman porter. They married and had five children, living in a house in Brooklyn, N.Y.
But Todd was living a double life. In fact, his name wasn't actually James Todd. It was Clarence King. And he wasn't African-American, but a white man.
King never confessed the truth to his wife until he lay dying of tuberculosis. Copeland discovered his real identity through a letter he posted from Arizona where he was working at the time.
King was actually from a wealthy and well-established family. He was admired as an adventurer and volunteered with the U.S. Geological Survey of California, exploring southern California's deserts. King socialized with presidents, congressmen, and the foremost thinkers of his day, including Henry James and James Weldon Johnson.
Given the privilege that his world provided, Edugyan notes how unusual it must have been to leave gentlemen clubs "slipping from his tailored jacket into a Pullman porter's coat."
"In which identity did he feel most at ease?" the Massey speaker asks. "Surely he must have paused, in his more thoughtful moments, to recognize how men like James Todd made possible the comfortable existence of men like Clarence King?"
Although King committed many offences, Edugyan points out his story illuminates "the ways we have constructed and continue to construct race."
Lecture 5: Africa and the Art of the Future
In 1994, cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term 'Afrofuturism' that defined not only a nod to African-American science-fiction, but as Esi Edugyan points out the word eventually took on "a kind of philosophy and personal ethos."
"The word 'Afrofuturism' likely brings to mind films like Black Panther and Get Out, movies in which the impact of technology on Black lives is writ large," Edugyan says in her fifth Massey Lecture.
"However one chooses to view it, it has clearly served to illuminate the conflicts and possibilities of imagined worlds as a means of getting us to confront the conflicts and possibilities of our own."
Dery also asked a poignant question: how can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out go about imagining a future for itself?
The question itself prompting a radical act, Edugyan says, because it suggests being able to imagine a future after Black histories have been "suppressed and extinguished."
"To have the full sense of what's possible for your future, you must have a sense of the past, a reality that was and remains difficult or even impossible for many people of African descent in the shadow of slavery and colonialism. So many ancestral customs have been lost, so many family bonds, rituals, languages, names," Edugyan explains.
"The search for lost cultural touchstones is a gesture towards survival: it is an Afrofuturistic act. At its heart it is the creation of a possible future based on a reconstructed, or reimagined, past. In this way, a war is waged against erasure."
The 2021 Massey lecturer suggests art as a defence against erasure and points to Ryan Coogler's 2018 film, Black Panther as an example of Afrofuturism. The fictional country of Wakanda, a kingdom in heart of Africa that has never been colonized, exists as the most technologically advanced society in the world.
"Divorced from all Western technological progress, it has, on its own terms and through its own ingenuity, developed technical marvels that far outpace anything seen elsewhere. What would an African nation spared slavery and colonialism look like?" Edugyan asks.
She says Coogler's answer is powerful, a world that is "almost beyond imagining."
"Had Africa's mineral wealth not been plundered, had its people not been enslaved and made subjects, the possibilities for its future would be limitless."
Lecture 6: Asia and the Art of Storytelling
"Storytelling is as old as humanity, and is one of the means by which we seek to define and understand ourselves," Esi Edugyan says in her final Massey Lecture.
"The meaning of stories resides in their ability to establish that life is less random than it can seem. Stories locate people within places, and affix histories — we know what he, she, or they were like because they existed there and at that time."
In this lecture, Edugyan focuses on the story of one man, Yasuke, a man of African descent who appears in the historical record solely between 1579 and 1582. The dates of his birth and death are unknown.
"Perhaps the problem of Yasuke is that he has always been forced to mean something."
Yasuke arrived in Nagasaki, Japan in 1579 by boat with a group of missionaries from Europe. Yasuke was guarding one of the most powerful Jesuits of his day, Alessandro Valignano.
Edugyan describes him as "a figure the like of which had never been seen on Japanese soil. A dark-skinned man, towering, so thick-boned and heavyset he had the immovable air of a maple."
When people heard of Yasuke, they croweded the streets to see this "unusual arrival." A riot ensued and many were injured or crushed to death. When the feudal ruler Oda Nobunaga heard of Yasuke, he demanded to see him.
At first glance, Nobunaga believed Yasuke's dark skin was ink and ordered him to bathe.
"But touching Yasuke, hearing him speak his rich, inimitable foreigner's Japanese, Nobunaga realized he was only a man. He threw a feast in Yasuke's honour, made him gifts of money, and requested that Yasuke train to become a samurai — an honour never before bestowed upon any foreigner," Edugyan explains.
Nobunaga and Yasuke became very close.
But Edugyan wonders: did Yasuke feel free to reveal his deeper self? What, in the end, did he mean to himself?
"We look to him now as a forgotten figure, and ask him to tell us something about the lives of people like him. But perhaps he himself could find no meaning," she says.
"Maybe he felt only the fact of life's randomness, its push and pull, the way the will of others had twisted things and dragged him into worlds he could never have imagined. The pain this had caused him, but also the wonder of it."
For the last six decades, it has provided a forum where contemporary thinkers can explore important issues of the time, including modern capitalism, the Indigenous experience and imagination, and the impact of debt on human societies.
Previous Massey lecturers include Martin Luther King, Jr., Noam Chomsky, Tanya Talaga and Margaret Atwood.
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