Fathers of Empire

What histories do we inherit? In the era of Brexit—a crisis that points to global shifts toward nationalism and xenophobia—we offer a series of articles dedicated to the landmark volume by black British feminist theorist Hazel V. Carby, “Imperial Intimacies.” Read Tao Leigh Goffe’s introduction to the series here.
There is a moment early on in Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies when she writes about the ways her mother Iris—as a Welsh woman—refused Englishness but still embraced Britishness. This is revealed in her mother’s dismay that ...

There is a moment early on in Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies when she writes about the ways her mother Iris—as a Welsh woman—refused Englishness but still embraced Britishness. This is revealed in her mother’s dismay that Empire Day (a holiday falling on the 24th of May, marking the birthday of Queen Victoria) seemed no longer an occasion to celebrate the sun never setting on the many territories around the world that constituted Britain’s colonial possessions, but was becoming an occasion to protest imperialism. Dismayed that Hazel and her brother did not seem to identify with the values and ethics of Britishness, Iris Carby began to recite Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” to them.

In describing this moment in the book, Hazel reproduces the lines, “If you can keep your head while all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you …” As I read, I completed the stanza she left unfinished in my head, having heard my own father recite “If” a million times before.

My father was born about a generation after Hazel’s parents, in a small corner of rural Jamaica. For him, Kipling’s “If” constituted true north: the compass point for standing firm in a difficult world, perhaps especially after he migrated to the United States and met and married my mother. A bound copy of the poem still sits in his dressing wardrobe. My father even read it at my wedding reception, thus reproducing empire in the midst of the intimate gathering of family and friends, only some of whom would have recognized it as the imperialist screed it was meant to be.

My father, like Hazel’s mother, recognized himself in Kipling’s words, even though my father was not the poem’s intended audience. Or was he? As I found myself completing Kipling’s stanza while reading of Carby’s mother, I couldn’t help laughing out loud about reproducing this moment of imperial connection across generations, time, and space.

But, of course, this is the point of Imperial Intimacies. Hazel asks for these moments of recognition and connection with her reader by reading archives through family stories, and vice versa. Her assertion that “Britishness harbours the deepest interconnections of class and race and gender” urges us to think anew about how we become imperial (and colonial) subjects. She wants us to wonder about the intimate effects of empire, the ways we are imbricated within, and shaped through, historical processes we cannot always name, even as we are experiencing them in our day-to-day lives. She shows us what happens when we encounter ourselves in the archives. And she encourages us to interrogate the forms of consciousness that this encounter might make possible, or shut down.

What does Imperial Intimacies teach us? Formally, it tells us about the circuits linking rural Britain and rural Jamaica. It reminds us that the black presence in Britain did not begin with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 and that, instead, the racial logics that sustain Britain’s system of race and class were forged through centuries of expropriation overseas. But affectively, the book poignantly teaches us about silences: not only of the written archives, but also of the omissions and occlusions within family stories, and about how looking back never really takes us home.


When Stuart Hall Was White

By James Vernon

Perhaps more than many of us who attempt to find records of ourselves in colonial archives, Hazel is able to encounter traces of her family in the records of the Colonial Office at the British National Archives and in the other archives she scoured. Birth records in Bristol and Cardiff help her trace her maternal line, and their living conditions, until just before the growth of industry in Somerset in the early 19th century.

Such investigations lead Carby to imagine how her Welsh grandmother, despite her own poverty, had been conscripted into inhabiting imperial subjecthood and into the futurity offered by 19th-century Bristol. Carby reminds us that Bristol’s modernity was only possible because of the trade in slaves, and because of the labor of enslaved persons cultivating sugar, tobacco, and chocolate on plantations in the West Indies.

Carby’s father, meanwhile, appears in the archives at Kew in a file that covers 23 years of his life, beginning when he applied to the Colonial Department’s Welfare Office for an educational scholarship in 1946. This was a time when the Colonial Office imagined that former soldiers like her father, as colonial subjects, would leave England after the war and return to wherever they came from.

Hazel herself received mention in her father’s file, as a baby in the womb, when reference was made to his wife in the Colonial Office’s decision to allow Carl the scholarship. This concession was granted with the stipulation that, after his education was secured, he would be on the first ship out (a response that is later contradicted in the manner of colonial administrative whim, one of those inconsistencies produced by the tension between assessing individual promise and standing by racist policy).

Carby’s paternal line also appears in the Portland parish register of plantations in Jamaica’s National Archives. Consequently, she is able to trace the 18th-century origin and journey of Lilly Carby, a British man who traveled from England to Jamaica to become part of the plantation order near Swift River, in Portland. And thus originated the “white Carbys” in Jamaica and also, eventually, the black ones.

Juxtaposing these documents—cold, filed, organized—against the embodied experiences of anger, betrayal, madness, frustration, and disappointment gives context for family dynamics without drawing a straight line drawn between the two. We see the cruelty and mendacity of imperial management, the parameters within which decisions were made.

“Imperial Intimacies” teaches us about silences: not only of the written archives, but of the omissions and occlusions within family stories, and about how looking back never really takes us home.

Throughout Imperial Intimacies, we follow Hazel’s father, Carl. His bid to escape the depersonalizing poverty of downtown Kingston led him to be among the first to volunteer for the Royal Air Force at the beginning of the World War II (though racism prevented him from serving until 1942). Her father was part of a group of “colonial” soldiers, she tells us, who were later obscured in the imperial education she herself received in rural Britain.

We learn of Carl’s frustration with a British immigration officer who chose not to accept his Britishness—after Jamaica’s independence in 1962—despite the evidence of Carl’s previous passport and his wartime service record (sent to him by the Royal Air Force itself). We watch as Carl, turned away by Great Britain, is forced to apply for a Jamaican passport through the Jamaican High Commission, a passport he has never wanted. We then walk alongside him as he attempts, over decades, to regain his British citizenship. At the age of 83, Carl’s request is finally officially granted.

We learn of Hazel’s mother’s search for independence after her own mother’s death, her work as a domestic servant, and her subsequent attempt to attain middle-class respectability through the civil service during the War. We witness her first meeting Carl, at a social event for RAF servicemen, and we watch her leave her village to give birth. We see her refuse to acknowledge her child as “coloured”—to understand her daughter as a living threat to the existing racial order—and, therefore, we also see her refuse to reconfigure her own whiteness, even in the face of the historical shifts of which she was a part, and to which she was contributing.

We come to understand the various postwar disruptions of the fiction of white Britain—and the various discriminations faced by white women with brown babies—and come to see how black men were always positioned outside the social and political body. We read of the young couple’s inability to find solace and acceptance, or to move beyond their outcast status, even in London. And we learn of the pressure this imposed on their union.

Throughout, we feel the agonizing poignancy of Hazel’s parents longing to realize the promise they felt during the war. And we feel their slow realization that, despite imagining that after the war their union and their offspring would be part of the British culture, they instead were understood as a contagion that had to be contained and negated.

Hazel revisits the Kingston home in Rae Town where her father was born, as well as the various locations in Devon and Somerset where her mother, grandmother, and she herself began life. Everywhere, Carby feels like an intruder, missing the recognition of place or family that might legitimate her existence.

In 1960, the Premier of Jamaica Norman Manley replaced Empire Day (the holiday loved by Carby’s mother) with a new National Labour Day, a holiday to be celebrated on May 23, the date that also officially marked the anniversary of the first wave of the region-wide mass strikes that took place in 1938. These strikes are usually heralded as the beginnings of the broad anti-colonial movement in Jamaica. But the strikes were also remembered by Hazel’s father as moments of terror when police officers went to the Kingston docks—where one of his uncles was a manager—to quell the strikers with violence.

Manley’s new 1960 Law, which put Labour Day on the national schedule of public holidays, officially shifted the focus of the day. Where once Empire Day had stood for imperial recognition, now National Labor Day stood for political independence, also thereby recognizing the critical role played by trade unions in this process.

Indeed, for a decade after its inauguration, Labour Day was principally celebrated by the trade unions (in conjunction with the political parties with which they were aligned), with marches and other fanfare. But this opened the door for the political partisanship and disunity that was already brewing. A number of violent clashes between supporters of the opposing trade unions (and, therefore, the opposing political parties) led to these marches being banned in 1966.

When Michael Manley—Norman’s son—became prime minister in 1972, he reoriented the focus of Labour Day again. Since then, the day has centered on community-based beautification and self-help projects, in the service of nation building, all under the banner of Manley’s slogan, “Put Work into Labour Day.”

This focus is still prevalent. Yet it is important to remember that the 2010 Labour Day also marked the beginning of what is commonly known as the “Tivoli Incursion.” This was the day the Jamaican police and army began a four-day occupation of Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston, a military action undertaken to remove Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the strongman “don” of the community. Coke was wanted for extradition to the United States to stand trial for drug- and gun-running charges. While Coke was not located that week, at least 74 civilians were killed. All the while, a US surveillance plane circled overhead.

I imagine that Hazel’s father would have been appalled by these political turns, turns that became increasingly violent after independence. Many, including myself, have seen these turns as legacies of imperialism, legacies that are marked, on one hand, by the continuing of particular laws and political and economic policies, which organize violence in the service of reproducing colonial hierarchies. On the other hand, these afterlives are part and parcel of epistemological frameworks produced under colonialism, the taken-for-granted psychic and social frameworks that create the landscapes upon which we become conscripted as historical actors, and within which our own subject-making is imbricated.

Reckoning with the past is perhaps easier done in the abstract. Confronting these ghosts through an excavation of one’s own family line is quite another thing.

A generation later, my own father was also thusly appalled. As someone who had campaigned for Norman Manley in rural St. Catherine, Jamaica, before the 1955 elections, my father would have felt the promise of that moment. Perhaps what he felt was similar to what Mr. Carby thought service in the RAF might have afforded him. Ultimately, both of these promises were betrayed.

In the rural district in St. Catherine where my father came of age, those seeking political office would usually end up at his grandfather’s house, for informal discussions with the community members who would gather there. My father’s grandfather, who was known in the district as Mr. Fergie, was a tailor who had owned a shop in Cuba early in the 20th century. On returning to Jamaica, he worked with several hotels in Kingston, in addition to manning his own shop in Spanish Town.

Between attending his grandfather’s informal community meetings and accompanying his mother and aunt when they worked at the polling booths in 1949, my father developed a level of awareness of politics in Jamaica. By the time my father was 12 or 13, he began to visit his aunties in Kingston during the summers. Aunt Viola had a bar and brothel on Hanover Street just east of Parade, and Aunt Olga ran a bar on Spanish Town Road between Oxford Street and Rose Lane, near Coronation Market. Because politicians would give speeches in the market, they often ended up in Aunt Olga’s bar afterward to meet with people. This is how my father came to meet Norman Manley. “We knew Manley and Busta were related, and that Manley was the more educated of the two,” he once remembered. Alexander Bustamante was the populist leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, the cousin and counterpart of Manley, who was then at the helm of the People’s National Party (PNP). “We thought it was time for a change,” he recalled, “and the PNP embodied that change.” At that time, from his perspective, there was really no movement for independence. But people in the countryside were aware of the support for regional federation within Kingston.

My father therefore became involved in campaigning for Norman Manley, but he pulled out of politics once he graduated from the Dint Hill Technical High School and started a job at Shell, around 1958. Thanks to a series of chance interactions, he eventually applied and was accepted to Marquette University. Once in the United States, he became engaged at the university in attempts to eradicate McCarthyism and to admit China to the United Nations, engagements he would later find out generated an FBI file with his name on it.

Returning to Jamaica with my mother and me to live began a difficult process of recognizing that despite hard work, charisma, and being generally “bright,” my father had neither the family nor the political connections that seemed necessary to advance in Jamaica, within a system that continued to require such ties.

For my father and doubtless others like him, his inability to make his own aspirations dovetail with those of the newly independent Jamaica chafed bitterly. He naturalized as a US citizen in 1975 and never looked back.

In a 2009 essay, Hazel laid out the analytic parameters of what would ultimately become Imperial Intimacies.1 She wrote of her focus on the geopolitics of encounters, rather than the traditional linearity of historical texts. And she wrote of her intention to

avoid the pitfalls of the binary thinking, the polarities of opposition and difference, that have dominated historical narratives of the workings of empire and its subjects, polarities which have not only maintained but also reproduced inequities of knowledge and power. Instead, I have been thinking about both the particularities and the commonalities in experience and history across and within the colonial boundaries of empire that Manichean divisions and hierarchies of supposed racial difference cannot acknowledge.2

These divisions and hierarchies unearthed ghosts, hauntings that took years, decades, to find and assemble.

Bringing ghosts to life requires a good deal of imagination, for sure, but this imagining is a terrorizing task. As much as we want to know the past—to understand how people became accustomed to thinking of others as property, objects, things to inherit or sell—uncovering people’s efforts to refuse these designations creates a particularly painful affective condition and conditioning.

Reckoning with the past is perhaps easier done in the abstract. Confronting these ghosts through an excavation of one’s own family line is quite another thing. The gift of Imperial Intimacies, therefore, is this: it is a daughter’s excavation of how individuals attempted to create spaces within which they might realize themselves as humans and actualize their aspirations, even in the face of the imperial and racial logics that were themselves nimble enough to simultaneously accommodate and thwart them.


This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe and Ben Platticon

  1. Hazel V. Carby, “Becoming Modern Racialized Subjects: Detours through Our Pasts to Produce Ourselves Anew,” Cultural Studies, vol. 23, no. 4 (2009).
  2. Ibid., p. 626.
Featured image: Detail from ceramic mural by Hulme Urban Potters, Hulme High Street Library, Manchester, UK. Photograph by Ceropegius / Wikimedia Commons