2022 Hesburgh Lecture addresses intersectionality, colonialism through lens of British literature
Annemarie Foy | Tuesday, February 8, 2022
Author and advocate Bernardine Evaristo delivered the 2022 Hesburgh Lecture in Ethics and Public Policy on Monday.
The annual Hesburgh Lecture in Ethics and Public Policy was established in 1995 by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies to honor the mission of the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., president emeritus of Notre Dame.
Each year, a person renowned for their efforts to bring peace and justice to fruition is invited to give the lecture. Notable former Hesburgh lecturers have included scholar Angela Davis (2020), professor Cornel West (2019), economist Amartya Sen (2012), and Congressman Lee Hamilton (2005).
Within the literary sphere, Evaristo is known as a prominent advocate for justice. She has produced reports on the lack of representation of writers of color in British literary society and introduced initiatives to promote the work of artists of color, using her literary success to call for change from inside the system.
Evaristo has written ten books as well as numerous plays, short stories, poems and essays. Her work is rooted in her passion for the African diaspora.
Recently, Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, for her novel “Girl, Woman, Other”, which tells the story of twelve women through the lens of race, sexuality, gender and economic injustice. She was the first Black woman and first Black British author to win the award.
Evaristo began her lecture by explaining her personal history. “I was born in 1959 to a Nigerian father and a white English mother who married in spite of my mother’s family objecting to her marrying a Black man,” Evaristo said.
Despite the social stigma, “British history up to that point had actually been a very multicultural society,” Evaristo said. “There were Black people in Britain … certainly from the 1500s and 1600s onwards that history is very well-recorded.”
However, despite the “really deep history” of people of color in Britain, “people of color have dissolved into the bloodstream of white Britain over the centuries,” Evaristo said. This force motivated Evaristo’s passion for representing identities and communities that are infrequently seen in popular culture.
After World War II, “Britain called out to its colonies … to fill in gaps [of those who had been killed in the war],” Evaristo said. It was at this time that her father immigrated to Britain.
“White Britons had a deep sense of racial cultural superiority, they saw the masses of people arriving in the 20th century as barbarians and all sorts of bad … stereotypes,” she said.
Evaristo described herself as a “child who was mixed-race, growing up in a society that was at the beginning of the tail end of empire and also having been brainwashed by the makers of British history … that people of color … were savages and the imperial project was actually to save these people from themselves.”
After secondary school, Evaristo attended drama school, which she said was instrumental in developing her Black and feminist identity. However, she realized that drama schools didn’t want to train Black actors because there were very few roles open to them. So Evaristo and her colleagues established the Theatre of Black Women in 1982.
Although the Theatre is no longer active, Evaristo notes the impact it has had on her to this day.
“That kind of creative path that I chose in my twenties is something that has continued until today,” Evaristo said. “I wanted to create theater that was representative of the African diaspora of Britain at that time, especially women’s stories.”
She then experimented with forms, branching out into poetry and fiction.
“I have a seed of an idea in my head, and through the act of writing, I am surprised by the characters that emerge and the stories that come through,” Evaristo said of her writing process.
Integral to Evaristo’s work is the concept of intersectionality.
“I am very interested in intersectionality as someone who is very intersectional,” she said. “The purpose of ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ was to give presence to absence … It’s a mapping of different ways of being and living.”
Evaristo’s impact on the British literary scene extends beyond her award-winning written work.
“I initiated diversity projects because I want to ensure that I take people with me, and that’s something I learned from my father, who was an immigrant, who was there to help his community,” Evaristo said.
One such project was The Complete Works, in response to a report commissioned by Evaristo that found that only one percent of the poetry published by major British presses was written by people of color. The Complete Works is a mentorship and networking program for poets of color.
Program participants are “now winning most of the poetry awards in this country,” Evaristo said. This has caused a “rippling effect” as younger poets have representation and role models.
Another initiative is the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, which Evaristo established “to put African poetry on the global scene.”
As a result of the prize’s growing visibility, “the world has woken up to the fact that African poetry had been invisible, and we had been ignoring an entire continent of poetry,” Evaristo said.
Evaristo’s most recent initiative is to return to circulation older books by Black British authors that had been ignored by British academia. These books ought to be taught to future generations as history and inspiration, she said.
Evaristo’s prominence in the British literary scene has allowed her to gain access to the insular, often homogenous elite that control awards and publishing houses.
“Instead of throwing verbal rocks at the citadel, I’m now inside the citadel, effecting change,” Evaristo said.
However, she acknowledged the dangers of becoming a token minority in a push for greater diversity.
“I don’t allow myself to be used and exploited,” she said. “My politics have matured, but my basic belief system [and] my belief in equality haven’t changed.”
Throughout the lecture, Evaristo repeatedly acknowledged recent changes in British culture and literary culture in terms of their attitude towards race and social justice. Movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter “spoke to raise consciousness globally about voices that had been left out of the conversation,” Evaristo said.
However, despite Evaristo’s commitment to social justice, she reiterated that politics do not shape her characters or her stories.
“Even though I am an activist, and my activism underpins my creativity, and the need to explore these untold stories, my writing is not political.”