It feels like I have had this Massey Lectures book forever, always next on the to-read list, always another nonfiction book slipping in and taking its place but finally, finally I’ve sat down and given Esi Edugyan the time she deserves here. Out of the Sun is a great example of what the Massey Lectures can be: give someone the platform to talk about whatever they want, basically, but in a way that is interesting and gets you thinking, and that is exactly what Edugyan does here.
At first, this collection of five lectures is ostensibly about Blackness as it is represented in art. Edugyan begins by pondering representations of Angelo Soliman, an example of an African European in the eighteenth century. Her point is not surprising but no less important: so much of modern art has been Eurocentric and, when artists have deigned to depict Black people or Africans, the depictions inherently originate from a racist and colonialist perspective that positions them as inferior, enslaved, etc. These ideas have come up in other books I have read, perhaps most recently White Sight, and if that were all Out of the Sun was maybe I wouldn’t have found it so stimulating. Fortunately, Edugyan takes us beyond that.
Each chapter goes deeper into history as well as our present-day beliefs not just about how we depict the Other but how we construct stories of the Other. From Europe in Chapter 1, Edugyan takes us to Canada, America, Africa, and Asia in subsequent chapters. She engages not just with the literal representation of Blackness in art but with representing oneself as Black, discussing cases like Rachel Doležal as well as white journalists who, in the early twentieth century, posed as Black men to write newspaper articles and a book about what the experience was like. I really love how Edugyan handles such a noxious concept with empathy and nuance, acknowledging on one hand the obvious issues of ignorance and how problematic it is for fellow white people to fawn over such stunts, while on the other hand being able to understand why these writers did it in the first place. I didn’t know about Sprigle and Griffin until now, yet I am not surprised. Edugyan preserves the story without sensationalizing it, excusing it, or demonizing it, trusting her audience to understand how it is inappropriate while exploring what it contributes to the overall conversation.
This overall conversation, of course, is the idea of who gets to claim Blackness and who gets to tell Black stories or stories of being Black. What I, as a white woman, took away from these lectures is reinforcement of the idea that this is a highly contextual concept. “Blackness,” after all, is a construction of white supremacy. There is no one Black culture, though there may be a lot of overlap especially thanks to globalization and the internet. That’s why I really enjoyed the tour that Edugyan takes us on. People with highly melanated skin are racialized in different ways in different parts of the world, yet white supremacy means that Blackness and anti-Black racism exists even in places where Black people are demographically the majority, like many African countries. Her example of how outsiders and Zambians alike regarded Edward Nkoloso and his Zambian space program is a potent reminder of this.
In the end, Out of the Sun speaks to possibilities. It navigates around the edges of Black excellence and Afrofuturism, tantalizingly asks us to ponder what a world in which we truly dismantle white supremacy and break the chains on Blackness might look like. For anyone white who wants to confront the legacy of racism in our storytelling (rather than, as some would like to do, conveniently ignore it and wipe the record clean, barrelling forward into an assumed post-racial future), this book is a powerful read.