Author and attorney Bernardine Evaristo delivered the 2022 Hesburgh Lecture on Ethics and Public Policy on Monday.
the annual Hesburgh conference on ethics and public policy was established in 1995 by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies to honor the mission of the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, President Emeritus of Notre Dame.
Each year, a person recognized for his or her efforts to bring peace and justice to fruition is invited to give the talk. Notable Past Hesburgh Lecturers have included researcher Angela Davis (2020), professor Cornel West (2019), economist Amartya Sen (2012) and congressman Lee Hamilton (2005).
In the literary sphere, Evaristo is known as an eminent defender of justice. She produced reports on the lack of representation of colored writers in British literary society and launched initiatives to promote the work of colored artists, using her literary success to call for change from within the system.
Evaristo has written ten books as well as numerous plays, short stories, poems and essays. His work is rooted in his passion for the African Diaspora.
Recently, Evaristo won the Booker Prize 2019, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world, for his novel “Girl, Woman, Other”, which tells the stories of twelve women through the lens of race, sexuality, gender and economic injustice. She was the first black woman and the first black British author to win the award.
Evaristo began his lecture by explaining his personal story. “I was born in 1959 to a Nigerian father and a white English mother who married despite my mother’s family’s objection to her marrying a black man,” Evaristo said.
Despite the social stigma, “British history up to that point was actually a very multicultural society,” Evaristo said. “There were black people in Britain…certainly from the 1500s and 1600s, 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 blood of white Britain over the centuries,” Evaristo said. This strength has driven Evaristo’s passion for representing identities and communities rarely seen in popular culture.
After the Second World War, “Britain called on her colonies…to fill the gaps [of those who had been killed in the war]“, Evaristo said. It was around this time that his father immigrated to Britain.
“White Britons had a deep sense of racial cultural superiority, they saw the masses of people coming into the 20th century as barbarians and all sorts of bad…stereotypes,” she said.
Evaristo described herself as a “mixed-race child, having grown up in a society that was at the beginning of the end of empire and also brainwashed by the makers of British history…that the people of color…were savages and the Imperial project was actually to save these people from themselves.
After high school, Evaristo attended drama school, which she says was instrumental in shaping her black and feminist identity. However, she realized that acting schools did not want to train black actors because very few roles were open to them. So Evaristo and his colleagues established the black women’s theater in 1982.
Although the theater 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 Britain’s African diaspora at that time, particularly women’s stories.”
She then experimented with forms, diversifying into poetry and fiction.
“I have a germ of an idea in my head, and through the act of writing I’m surprised by the characters that emerge and the stories that present themselves,” Evaristo said of his writing process. .
The concept of intersectionality is integral to Evaristo’s work.
“I’m very interested in intersectionality as a very intersectional person,” she said. “The goal of ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ was to give presence to absence… It’s a cartography of different ways of being and living.
Evaristo’s impact on the British literary scene extends beyond his award-winning written work.
“I started diversity projects because I want to make sure 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 of these projects was Complete works, in response to a report commissioned by Evaristo which found that only one per cent of poetry published by Britain’s major presses was written by people of colour. The Complete Works is a mentorship and networking program for poets of color.
Participants in the program “now win most of the poetry awards in this country,” Evaristo said. This has caused a “ripple effect” as young poets have representation and role models.
Another initiative is the Brunel International Prize for African Poetrythat Evaristo created “to put African poetry on the world stage”.
Following the prize’s growing visibility, “the world realized that African poetry was invisible and that we had ignored a whole continent of poetry,” Evaristo said.
Evaristo’s most recent initiative is to bring back into circulation older books by black British authors that had been ignored by British academia. These books should be passed on to future generations as history and inspiration, she said.
Evaristo’s prominence on the British literary scene gave him access to the often homogeneous island elite who controlled prices and publishing houses.
“Instead of throwing verbal stones at the citadel, I am now inside the citadel, effecting change,” Evaristo said.
However, she recognized the dangers of becoming a token minority in an effort for greater diversity.
“I don’t let myself be used and exploited,” she said. “My politics have matured, but my basic belief system [and] my belief in equality has not changed.
Throughout the conference, Evaristo repeatedly acknowledged recent changes in British culture and literary culture in terms of attitudes towards race and social justice. Movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter “have spoken up to bring awareness around the world to the voices that had been left out of the conversation,” Evaristo said.
However, despite Evaristo’s commitment to social justice, she reiterated that politics does not shape her characters or stories.
“Although I am an activist and my activism underpins my creativity and the need to explore these untold stories, my writing is not political.”