A boy meets the world

Esi Edugyan’s epic, and art from human bondage

How do you make art out of slavery? Creative acts and imaginative efforts that bring forth art and innovation represent the pinnacle of the human condition, the bleeding edge of individual freedom. To create is to will into being, to make things from nothing. How do you put that endeavour in service to the human stain of slavery—to subjugation, to physical and psychological constraint, to the negation of will? The question becomes even more urgent for the contemporary black artist, who may, if determined and ambitious, aim to contend with the dire ­modern-day legacies of slavery—ongoing police brutality; chronic mass incarceration of black people; the dearth of black representation in the upper echelons of power and income; the growing racial wealth gap—to help us better understand how we can and should live now.

Over the past few years, a few works by writers of extraordinary talent and ambition have grappled...