How Families Navigate 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.
Beginning at the end of the 1960s—in what we now call the start of the feminist Second Wave—women, especially black women, began making scholarly ...

Beginning at the end of the 1960s—in what we now call the start of the feminist Second Wave—women, especially black women, began making scholarly interventions in the social sciences and the humanities. These women, myself included, have—in the face of much detraction, not to mention personal sacrifices and health costs—collectively claimed academic space for ourselves for studying black women / women of color; for complex intersectional analyses attending to gender, race, class, and sexuality; and for different engaging styles of writing. And so, my joy at the publication of Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands is refracted through a realization: my remembering of just how infinitely different and restricted such academic scholarship used to be.1 And how much we need black feminist narratives like this, written by a researcher at the top of her game, at the end of a venerable career.

This book puts Carby’s brilliant scholarship on display. Imperial Intimacies is highly readable, a memoir of her youth in the UK, as the daughter of a mixed-race couple—a Welsh mother and a Jamaican father—who married after World War II. The book not only contains meticulous archival research on the imperial relationship between the UK and its crown colony Jamaica. It is also a race-cognizant history of life in post–World War II Britain, reflecting on the historical spectrum of ideas about race and so much more. Moreover, Carby’s poetical language transforms her archival and historical analysis into something of an elegy, which honors and intensifies her subject matter.

In fact, doing justice to Imperial Intimacies required me to dig into my own life and family. And so, as a member of the same generation as Carby, I explore her book (especially parts 1 and 4) from a black feminist Dutch Surinamese perspective, drawing in part from my own book White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (2016). So not only will this essay examine the significance of Carby’s narrative and analysis today; it will also look back at my own life: to reveal what she helps me see about my own childhood.

“Black women do not want to be grafted onto ‘feminism’ in a tokenistic manner as colourful diversions to ‘real’ problems,” warned Hazel Carby. Instead, she wrote, “Feminism has to be transformed if it is to address us.”2 These powerful and prescient words ended her 1982 article “White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood.” And it was through this article that I first became aware of Carby.

In the Netherlands’ 1970s, we few academic feminists of color—mostly still students—were starved for work that addressed our own situations. And so, we were strongly inspired by black feminists elsewhere, especially those from the US and the UK.

Their work—work like Carby’s—formed a lifeline for us. Every booklet, article, or book we could put our hands on was devoured, passed around in our circles of friends, and discussed. Their work spoke with tremendous force to us. Their thinking was courageous and, therefore, promised that we, too, might be capable of producing illuminating new analyses. We followed the US and UK practice of naming ourselves as black women (which later morphed into “black, migrant, and refugee” women); formed study groups and our own associations to discuss our situations; hijacked white women’s conferences; and made fledgling intersectional analyses.

And so, Imperial Intimacies resonates with me on multiple levels, cognitively and emotionally, and from both micro and macro perspectives. I found myself relating to Carby’s narrative, especially through the unexpected bridges she builds; this was particularly the case in Part 4, on “Accounting.” She begins with a thickly descriptive and deft picture of learning “writing by hand”—the quintessential English art of round hand, taught on Jamaica to her father—who, like my mother, was punished for being left-handed—and to Hazel in the UK, 30 years later.

We are then led into the mental and psychic economy of colonialism, including different forms of accounting that were characteristic of empire. (This is echoed in the book’s remaining four section titles: “Correspondence,” “Bookkeeping,” “Political Arithmetic,” and “Executors of Empire.”) The very painstaking act of learning to write brings up very different associative—but always incisive—reflections: on Carby’s father’s profession as a bookkeeper; on class and its paraphernalia at her private school; on slavery and the resistance of the enslaved; and on the ways that goods—including the enslaved—and possessions on Jamaican plantations were kept account of.3

Carby’s poetical language transforms her archival and historical analysis into something of an elegy, which honors and intensifies her subject matter.

The writing of slave registers implies relations of domination and subordination of the enslaved. The chapter is driven by an archival search for the author’s Jamaican ancestor Lilly Carby. It results in a beautiful extended argument about the real and symbolic centrality of the surveying and mapping of bodies and space, and of accounting systems for measuring their value in empire: “Empire is accounting,” writes Carby, “continuous and rigorous accounting.”

For me, the book brings up many memories, both of academic struggle and of my own life. There is the young me, who, like the young Hazel, buried herself in books. Like her, I also did so in order to escape the perennial 1950s question—“Where are you from?”—to which no conceivable answer was ever satisfying to the inquisitor. I also recognize her love for penmanship and for her turquoise-silver Parker pen; in my case, this love consisted of often surreptitiously borrowing my father’s black-silver Parker. And I also recognize the hypervisibility she felt in always being the only “brown” child in classrooms. And so, to best explain how valuable I found this book, it is necessary to share my own story, my own tale of imperial intimacies.

I knew that I wanted to be a writer around the time I was nine or ten years old. At that time, the books I loved were boys’ books (like Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and Hector Malot’s Alone in the World), but also deeply colonial books, like Johan Fabricius’s De Scheepsjongens van de Bontekoe (The Ship’s Boys of the Bontekoe). Fabricius’s 1924 book tells the adventures of three young deckhands setting sail on a ship to “Our Indies,” the Dutch colony that was the jewel in the colonial crown, which later named itself Indonesia.

Perhaps it is no surprise that I was drawn to stories about Indonesia, even when told from a Dutch perspective. My family arrived in the Netherlands simultaneously with the first large groups of postwar migrants from Indonesia, which eventually consisted of 300,000 people with widely differing racial origins: whites, who had been living in the Indies for generations; Indos, or mixed-race people, forming an intermediate stratum in colonial society; and a group of 12,500 Moluccans, hailing form the Moluccan islands in the Indies archipelago, who had served as soldiers for the Dutch during the colonial period. The presence of all these groups in Indonesia was no longer safe or wanted after the wars of independence (1947–49) that the Indonesians waged against the Dutch colonizer. We fell under the same integration regime, the disciplinary measures that the Dutch government took to make all these “newcomers” assimilate to Dutch society. This was very much a gendered regime, whereby men were supposed to make a living outside the home and all women, like Dutch women at the time, were housewives. It was a rather intrusive regime: my mother was to cook more potatoes and not so often rice; do the laundry on Monday and iron it on Wednesday. Regular, unannounced visits by social workers kept us in line and terrorized my mother and me, the only ones who were at home during the day.

I had no clue about what I had in common with the lone Indo classmate I typically had in primary school. Still, sometimes we became friends. Silence about the colonial past was, and predominantly remains, the order of the Dutch day.

My family migrated from the Dutch colony of Suriname to the Netherlands in 1951, when I was one year old, the youngest of (then) five children. My father carried me off the ship Hera at, very appropriately, the Suriname quay in Amsterdam. In Suriname he had been a police officer, a detective. This meant that he had risen to a rank where he qualified for six months’ paid leave in the “motherland.” This leave was evidently originally only meant for white Dutch civil servants: who should not go “native,” who should remember the outward and inward signs of whiteness and respectability. But since my father, probably not unrelatedly to his light skin color, had risen to this rank, he qualified for the trip to Europe. He wanted to study law, since that was not possible in Suriname.

The Wekker siblings, Artis zoo, Amsterdam, 1952

My parents, both 29 years old, had never been to the Netherlands. I imagine that their journey of three weeks by boat must have been exciting. They did not know it yet, but they would stay here for the rest of their lives.

We were lucky that we had each other. When the time came to decide on our future, my mother insisted that, whether we went back to Suriname or stayed in the Netherlands, we would stay together. At the time, Suriname still being a Dutch colony, all of us had Dutch nationality. My father wanted to finish his studies in the Netherlands and give us better opportunities than were possible in Suriname.

In my Catholic family there was a bunch of us, eventually six children in all. My youngest brother was born when I was nine years old, but growing up in the ’50s, it was significant to me that I had two older brothers—one strong like an ox, the other an incarnation of the trickster Brother Anansi, outsmarting everyone with his words and jokes—and an older sister, who combined both qualities. My oldest sister was a substitute mother to me. They were always ready to do battle for me, such as when my studious younger self aroused the irritation of classmates or when our standing out as “brown” children necessitated fighting. The most marked difference between children in the ’50s, however, was whether one was Catholic or Protestant.

We were, obviously, different from the families surrounding us. But we felt strong; at least I did, because I was the cherished youngest child for a long time. Between my books and my siblings, I did not need or miss girlfriends. Even though we did not have a discourse to talk about race, my parents imprinted us with strong messages of how beautiful and smart we were, the best children in the world.

I did not have the wherewithal to ask them, when they were still alive, whether this was their conscious policy—to counteract the white world we lived in—or whether they truly thought we were exceptional. But judging by the ways that my father—who died, at the age of 84, in December 2007, just three days after I had received the Ruth Benedict Prize from the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC, for my book The Politics of Passion (2006)—remained the biggest and most loyal fan of every one of us to the end of his life, I am afraid it is the latter option.

Reading Carby’s account of her parents’ contentious marriage—haunted by poverty and the strains that racism placed on their relationship—I am struck by the felicitous circumstance that both of my parents were from Suriname and deeply identified with that country all of their lives. My father was of Jewish Creole descent, with an off-white skin color, while my mother, of Native Surinamese–Creole extraction, was darker. Both were handsome, and deeply Surinamese.

My parents, Desi and Esseline Wekker, Amsterdam, ca. 1956

We were poor, too, especially when my father had to go back to Suriname to end his employment with the police and arrange their affairs. This took much longer than my parents had anticipated, and my mother was temporarily alone with us in the Netherlands. I accompanied my mother as a three-year-old on endless trips to the social work office, trying to find financial support. Along the way, I wound up with an intense fear of becoming destitute, too, a fear that I entertained until I was well into my 40s.

My father spoke all his life with a Surinamese accent and encountered racism in his professional life. Later, after he finished his studies, he became the director of a regional office for social security benefits. His ambition level for himself and his children was deeply middle class: he gave us every conceivable chance to study whatever we wanted and find the niches we felt passionate about. My parents’ division of labor was traditional: my mother was a stay-at-home mom, while my father catered to the outside world.

Thus, it fell to my father to protest—a task that he took up energetically—the gendered, lower-school advice that his children, as a matter of course, received at the age of 12. For his boys, technical school; for his girls, the household school, where one learned to cook, clean, and sew. Surely this could not stand. Though “racist” was not part of his understanding of the world, my father was convinced that the teachers, all white, were misguided and in no position to evaluate his children. In general, the atmosphere at home, shared and transmitted by both my parents, was that even though we should assimilate, we were actually better, smarter, and in possession of nicer manners than the Dutch. And that nobody should tell us otherwise.

I do not mean to suggest that all was rosy in my family. There was also plenty of grief and trouble, but that account will have to wait for some other space and time. Also due to the migration into racist territory, our familial culture was one of presenting ourselves as “the good news.” This has carried considerable personal costs for each one of us.

Imperial Intimacies is a thing of beauty and grief and violence, both historical and contemporary.


This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe and Ben Platticon

  1. The title of the book plays with Stuart Hall’s posthumously published Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands, edited by Bill Schwarz (Duke University Press, 2017), forming bookends of the generative body of thought that has come out of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.
  2. Hazel Carby, “White Women Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood,” in Theories of Race and Racism, edited by Les Back and John Solomos (Routledge, 2000), p. 402.
  3. I have one minor, different suggestion to make about the meaning of a satirical print, published in London in 1801, which depicts three members of the militia on Jamaica. The name of the panel is “The Generals preparing for the defense of their respective districts,” and it conveys the metropolitan critique of the colonial condition, targeting the corruption in the dual roles of the colonials as planters and soldiers. Carby describes the third figure as wearing “the largest bicorn cocked hat of all.” I suggest, however, that said hat is what in Sranan Tongo is called a kapa, the boiling vessel that the enslaved used for producing sugar. This possibility is in keeping with her interpretation of the other two figures and likewise alludes to the unresolvable tension between the two roles.
Featured image: Dutch Windmill (2017). Pixabay