Esi Edugyan exploring Black figures and communities whose histories have been marginalized


Esi Edugyan

What do an 18th century portrait of British nobility, a desecrated cemetery in Priceville, Ont., and the 2018 film Black Panther have to do with one another?

In her 2021 Massey Lecture, Ghanaian-Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan explores the undiscovered the past of Black people in the West. She also touches on Afrofuturism, little-known ghost stories and the patterns of human migration in six chapters.

Using visual and spoken elements, Edugyan weaves memories from her life as a first-generation Ghanaian-Canadian while re-examining the particular ways that Black people are written into — or excluded from — the historical record.

In an interview, Edugyan said she wanted to explore Black figures and communities who have little-known histories, or whose histories have been marginalized or somehow overlooked.

“It seemed to me that this was a great opportunity to approach that material through non-fiction and really being able to tackle it directly,” Edugyan said.

By interweaving a memoir and lecture format, she said her aim was to “put two figures alongside each other at different points in history, as a way of suggesting a throughline, or showing how things have changed or haven’t changed.”

Early in the lecture, Edugyan recounts the story of Priceville, Ont., one of Canada’s first Black settlements, which was eventually bought as a farmer’s field. The town’s cemetery was destroyed to make way for a potato crop, erasing the graves of the Black community once buried there.

Later, she expounds on art that imagines African society without a history of colonization, offering a warm anecdote about her father’s reaction to the Marvel film, Black Panther (disbelief and delight in its vision of a futuristic — but fictional — African country).

Edugyan is the first Black woman to give the Massey Lecture. While growing up in the Prairies, she says Black female writers from western Canada were few and far between — leaving her with little to hold onto by way of representation.

“I think maybe the whole series of lectures is really about this idea of being seen and, you know, who’s seen and what does it mean to be seen and what kind of power does that confer upon you to be a figure that’s very easily seen,” she said.

A child of immigrants from Ghana, Edugyan’s parents and family loom large in the lecture.

She offers parallels between her personal experiences and themes of belonging and identity in Canada and elsewhere.

“I knew that I wanted to start from the place of my own experience as a way to kind of enter these other stories rather than just look dryly at them and then dissect them with a purely critical eye,” she said.

The series title is shared with Edugyan’s 2021 non-fiction collection, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling. Notable past Massey Lecturers include Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Atwood and Tanya Talaga.