Out of Place and Time

It’s still too often about elsewhere

Toward the end of grade 6, Ian Williams asked if he could play the French horn (the same instrument that his crush played). “The music teacher shook her head,” he recalls in Disorientation, his recent collection of essays. “I supposed I had failed the pitch test. I was prepared to try again.” But the teacher was more concerned with his lips than with his ear. “The mouthpiece is too small for you,” she told him. Eventually, the future writer and professor did take up the French horn, “and I was terrible.” Later he realized that he was simply unable to hear the notes, but his former teacher’s racially tinged remark continues to weigh on him.

With his book, Williams describes how racism can interrupt and stall the forward momentum of one’s life, how even throwaway comments like the one he heard all those years ago can disorient, and how the consequences can ­linger. Seemingly everyday experiences are often fraught as well. Consider smiling, something many people take for granted. When it comes to a Black body, the act can be quite complicated. “I almost always smile in photos,” Williams writes. “When I don’t smile in photos, people say I look angry or sad or tired. I’ve also heard scary.” He had braces when he was younger, but he rarely shows off his nice teeth out of happiness. Rather, he smiles to “notify you that I will not rob your store” or to signal “I will not assault you in this elevator.”

While Williams now teaches at the University of Toronto, he has lived in Trinidad, the United States, and across Canada. With his book, he mines his personal history in these places to engage contemporary issues of Blackness. With Out of the Sun, the novelist Esi Edugyan similarly considers race by looking at multiple locations, moving from Europe to Canada, the U.S., Africa, and Asia.

In her book’s most intellectually adventurous essay, “America and the Art of Empathy,” Edugyan takes up the implications of racial passing, or the assumption of a false racial identity, and the limits of empathy. Here she pairs the stories of Ray Sprigle and John Howard Griffin, two white journalists who travelled throughout the American South as Black men in the mid‑twentieth century. Both reporters turned the so‑called One Drop Rule — which held that if someone had any Black ancestry, that ­person was Black — to their advantage. Sprigle, for example, was able to pass just by tanning his skin, changing his hat, and learning the social cues and cultural markers of deference, class, and subjugation.

Having attempted to step into the shoes of Black people, and in some ways approximating the experience, both Sprigle and Griffin later became advocates for the community. From Edugyan’s perspective, they each attempted a form of empathy, which they channelled into performance. This gave them a platform to speak for those whose voices were otherwise being silenced, but such solidarity also ­further contributed to the stifling of authentically Black perspectives.

In the same essay, Edugyan discusses Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president born to white parents. Where many critics have seen only an unforgivable enactment of power and privilege, Edugyan acknowledges that Dolezal’s problematic identity may stem from her self-described role as a cultural translator to her adopted Black siblings, after their parents failed to instill a sense of history or cultural awareness: “She was their defender, and she grew close and bonded to them in every sense.” Edugyan sees Dolezal’s status as “ ‘Black adjacent’ — meaning that she has lived so deeply within or alongside a Black community that she can be said to be more than an ally.” And while she is ultimately critical of Dolezal for performing Blackness as victimhood, and in so doing equating being Black with suffering, she offers a more sympathetic reading of the controversial activist than we typically see.

Like racial passing, the newer notion of transracialism is frequently about self-interest, though Edugyan maintains it’s not a matter of accruing privilege but rather the “story of agency, of reclaiming the self.” Whereas passing is “an old weapon wielded against an old set of values,” transracialism allows us “to choose our race from a place of authenticity and joy.” Unfortunately, Edugyan loses the thread of her argument here, especially when she brings up the story of Ada Copeland and Clarence King, “undoubtedly the most complicated case of racial fluidity I’ve come across.” Born in 1842, King was a wealthy and well-connected explorer with a storied pedigree. At some point, he began to intermittently identify as James Todd, a fair-skinned Black man who worked as a well-paid Pullman porter. In 1888, as Todd, he married Copeland, who had been born into slavery in Georgia shortly before the Civil War. Ultimately, they had five children together. Not until King lay dying of tuberculosis, in Arizona, did he reveal the truth by letter to his wife, at that point living in Toronto.

Edugyan suggests that because King did not over-perform Blackness — he merely acted as himself, even as he moved between worlds — he is different from Dolezal. As King, he fought racism but never alluded to his other life; in so doing, he did not occupy social and political spaces meant for others. Put another way, his performance was not weaponized to accrue or gain anything. While Edugyan might be right in suggesting that navigating the future of racial fluidity will be impossible without love, her assertion that love is what “illuminated a separate path” for King is a rhetorical leap. Love, by its very nature, requires utter vulnerability and unflinching truth. “When men lie to women, presenting a false self,” bell hooks once wrote, “the terrible price they pay to maintain ‘power over’ us is the loss of their capacity to give and receive love.” Can King be said to have loved Copeland if he never allowed himself to be seen as he truly was? Are his actions themselves not a form of intimate violence?

Growing up, I was taught that it was always under false pretenses that the white man met the people he would later colonize. This is what allowed him to learn all he could about those he intended to control, while never revealing the truth of his intentions. If King and Copeland’s marriage is in fact a model for transracialism, then we are headed for dark times. Perhaps Edugyan had more to say about King’s inner thoughts. And perhaps “America and the Art of Empathy” ends so unsatisfactorily because of its form. This is, after all, a Massey Lecture, meant to be read on the radio. The essay has to end, and end on time, even if on a whimper.

Despite all the copies they’ve sold, neither Disorientation nor Out of the Sun is likely to serve as a launch pad for change, however much that is needed. And even though Black Canadians desperately need a writer to give us a political rallying cry of our own, not all books about race have to do such work.

At least Edugyan attempts to root her essays in a lineage of history and some theory — sparse though it may be. Williams’s chapters, on the other hand, feel largely disconnected from any of the thought that has preceded them, which makes it difficult to use Disorientation to guide any serious conversation about necessary steps forward. The book straddles the line between memoir and social commentary, committing to neither and resulting in a work that lives up to its title: a disorienting read.

One might disagree with some of the conclusions Edugyan reaches, but her book’s five essays and introduction are all extensively researched, clearly argued, and indicative of a careful attention to detail and language. Aesthetically, the result is a lovely and elegant text. With Disorientation, though, readers might struggle to understand what exactly is being argued. And even if we hit upon that, we might wonder what is being said that’s new or why it’s worth saying again.

With his emphasis on disorientation, Williams argues that racism moves Black people out of place and time: “When’s the wrong time? Now. A time warp deposits you in the past. Where’s the wrong place? Your car, a public park, coffee shops, the sidewalk, an elevator, your bed.” For anyone who is not conversant with Black geographical perspectives, this might seem a particularly striking claim. However, it’s a claim that’s been made elsewhere, with ample scholarship attached to it. Williams neither engages those who have been thinking about Black bodies being “out of place” for a while — whether Simone Browne or John Fiske or Katherine McKittrick — nor does he reframe the conversation. Though intended for a general reader, Disorientation would have benefited from his doing both. This is not to say that the book is entirely disappointing. In “Two Eyes, a Nose, and a Mouth,” for instance, Williams makes arguments that are clearer than those found in “America and the Art of Empathy,” where Edugyan reaches similar conclusions. And Williams’s description of driving while Black, in “The Drive Home,” is poignant, emotive, and deeply personal. Similar narratives have proliferated across every form of race-based storytelling recently, but Williams’s delivery of the experience still feels fresh and new.

Disorientation has been marketed as distinct from the America-centric books on race that have been topping bestseller lists. Williams’s globe-trotting, the publicists would have us believe, allows for a more universal and richer understanding of Blackness. Unfortunately, that’s a premise the book never actually lives up to, in part because Williams’s accounts are so disconnected from geographical context, as if they all happened in some nameless North American metropole. He never attempts to link his experiences in, say, Brampton, Vancouver, or Toronto to the manifestation of broader systemic problems in specific places. Edugyan, for her part, devotes one of her essays, “Canada and the Art of Ghosts,” to Black Canada, but she basically repeats the well-worn claim that Blackness here is invisibilized.

On Twitter, there is a joke from the Shit Academics Say account that gets retweeted at the beginning of every year: “ ‘It’s not the resolution I would have made’— Reviewer 2.” I don’t mean to criticize two books for not being what I would have written — especially when the authors of those books have three Giller Prizes between them, and I have none — but the overarching problem with both Disorientation and Out of the Sun is that neither fully delves into the question of what it is like to be Black in Canada. Indeed, Blackness in this country is too often about Blackness elsewhere: told through the frame of recent migration, explored in the ever-looming shadow of Black America, or considered through our connections with Black Britain. But Black Canadian culture is uniquely relational, fluid, and diasporic, and we need more authors who are prepared to engage with this reality head‑on.

Whether they mean to or not, Ian Williams and Esi Edugyan are effectively saying that Black Canada is still not worth being talked about or taken seriously — even by some of its most prominent voices. Considering how many young Black writers, like myself, look up to them, it’s a shared failing that feels inexcusable.