What do a portrait of 18th-century British nobility, a desecrated cemetery in Priceville, Ontario, and the 2018 film do? Black Panther have to do with each other?
In her 2021 Massey Lecture, Ghanaian-Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan explores the unknown past of black people in the West. It also discusses Afrofuturism, little-known ghost stories, and human migration patterns in six chapters.
Using visual and spoken elements, Edugyan weaves memories of her life as a first-generation Ghanaian-Canadian while re-examining the particular ways in which black people are inscribed – or excluded – from historical records.
A taped special will air Saturday, April 30 at 7 p.m. ET on CBC TV and will air on CBC Gem.
In an interview with CBC News, Edugyan said she wanted to explore black personalities and communities who have little-known stories, or whose stories have been marginalized or overlooked in some way.
“It felt like a great opportunity to approach this material through non-fiction and to be able to really approach it directly,” Edugyan said.
Interweaving a memoir and a lecture format, she said her goal was to “put two characters side by side at different points in the story, as a way to suggest a guideline or show how things have changed or haven’t changed.”
At the start of the lecture, Edugyan tells the story of Priceville, Ontario, one of the first black settlements in Canada, which was eventually purchased as a farm field. The town cemetery was destroyed to make way for a potato crop, wiping out the graves of the black community once buried there.
Later, she speaks about art that imagines African society without a history of colonization, offering a heartwarming anecdote about her father’s reaction to the Marvel movie, Black Panther (disbelief and delight in his vision of a futuristic – but fictional – African country).
Edugyan is the first black woman to give the Massey Lecture. Growing up on the prairies, she says black female writers in Western Canada were rare, leaving her with little to remember when it came to representation.
“I think maybe the whole lecture series is really about this idea of being seen and, you know, who’s being seen and what does it mean to be seen and what kind of power does that give you he’s got to be a figure that’s very easily seen,” she said.
The child of immigrants from Ghana, Edugyan’s parents and family figure prominently in the conference.
She offers parallels between her personal experiences and themes of belonging and identity in Canada and elsewhere.
“I knew I wanted to start from the place of my own experience as a way to get into those other stories rather than just stare at them dryly and then dissect them with a purely critical eye,” she said.
The series title is shared with Edugyan 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.