Identity, Islands, and Hazel V. Carby

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What histories do we inherit? In the current crisis of Brexit—which points to larger global shifts toward nationalism and xenophobia—there is no more urgent a ...

What histories do we inherit? In the current crisis of Brexit—which points to larger global shifts toward nationalism and xenophobia—there is no more urgent a book than preeminent Black British feminist theorist Hazel V. Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (Verso, 2019) to answer this fraught question. This exceptional book deserves an exceptional reception. And so, this week, Public Books will publish not only an interview with Carby but five individual responses—one of which takes the form of a soundtrack—to her book, her work, and her legacy. These responses form an album of inheritance.

The way that contemporary Great Britain works to erase its sins, its empire, and its subjects is what Carby’s book works against. The conditions that allowed for the original Brexit referendum are those of imperial forgetting. Amid the ongoing morass of Brexit, Imperial Intimacies does not allow the reader to forget. Carby reveals the various entangled island political economies of British Empire, and she does so by illuminating the lives of ordinary working folk—specifically, members of her own family from Jamaica, England, and Wales—and how they fit into a global history.

Like Carby, I have also traced my family history to bills of sale of African enslavement, last wills and testaments bequeathing people as property to inherit, and the plantocracy of Jamaica, going back to 17th-century England. Given these similarities, I felt like her ideal reader.

And yet, in her preface, Carby states that the ideal reader of her book (following the provocations of Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid) is someone who disagrees with her: someone who argues against what she writes, who disapproves of the style in which it is written, who assumes they cannot identify with her. She hopes to reach those who do not automatically have empathy for her political and intellectual worlds. These include those Brexit voters who chose “leave,” those who ask where she is really from, and those who deny that Britain has committed colonial atrocities.

The fact that, until recently, the sun never set on the British Empire should be a point of shame, not pride. And yet, the sun has finally set. And so, Carby writes, the important question is: Who inherits? Her book causes me to dwell on what it means for the inherited to inherit.

Iris and Carl Carby, Hazel Carby’s parents

Intellectual histories are as important as intellectual genealogies of inheritance. Carby—extending her mentor Stuart Hall’s archipelagic frame of telling a life story—relates the story of two islands and her inheritance.

Imperial Intimacies is as much about the formation of Black identity and enslavement in Jamaica as it is about the making of the Welsh working class. Carby guides the reader through the colonized Wales of her mother, Iris, a white woman who grew up in Somerset and Devon, in England. The book is an intimate microhistory of the colonial-era Caribbean entwined with the life stories of working people in postwar Bristol, not to mention the stigma of tuberculosis and the technologies of the lantern slideshow (through which her ancestors in Wales may have first learned to dream about Jamaica as part of the British Empire). Hazel Carby reorders colonial history through a meticulous unraveling of family history that also centers her father, Carl—a Black Jamaican man who enlisted in the Royal Air Force during World War II, preceding the West Indian migrants of the famous Empire Windrush, in 1948.

Group of shop assistants outside the Home & Colonial Stores on Broad Street, Waterford (1910). National Library of Ireland on The Commons / Flickr

What Carby Made and Whom She Influenced

In August 2019, I sat down for an interview with Carby, who celebrated many career milestones that year. That September, her book Imperial Intimacies was published. That May, after 30 years, she retired from Yale University, where she was the Charles C. and Dorothea S. Dilley professor of African American studies and American studies. In fact, at Yale, Carby was integral in transitioning African American studies to full departmental status; she then chaired the department for many years.

Carby is renowned in academia for her contributions to Black political feminist thought and continues to be cited for her groundbreaking 1992 essay “Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context.” Her volumes include Reconstructing Womanhood (1987), Race Men (1998), and two contributions to The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (1982), including “White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood.” She was awarded the inaugural Stuart Hall Outstanding Mentor Award by the Caribbean Philosophical Association in June 2019—a testament to how she continues the intellectual tradition she inherited.

Carby has served as an advisor for countless dissertations and theses broadly engaging postcolonial critique, at Yale University and at Wesleyan University, where she taught from 1982 to 1989. She has mentored many scholars across disciplines addressing the stakes of coloniality, including Saidiya Hartman (who was recently awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant”), as well as Michelle Stephens, who provides a response in this series.

As a Yale doctoral student, I had the pleasure of being mentored by Carby, taking her classes—with titles such as “Caribbean Diasporic Intellectuals” and “Transnational Imaginaries”—and reading texts ranging from Man Booker Prize–winning Jamaican author Marlon James’s 2009 The Book of Night Women to Saudi Arabian novelist Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (1984).

Under the British Nationality Act of 1948, my paternal grandparents migrated to Britain from Jamaica as colonial subjects in the 1950s. As a third-generation Black British woman, I am part of a generation that Black British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson once aptly described to me as the grandchildren of Thatcherism. This means that we have inherited not just the era’s austerity, perhaps as Reagan’s grandchildren did in the US, but also a wealth of knowledge production and critical theory from the birth of Black British cultural studies.

While growing up, I never questioned whether Black and British were identities that belonged together, thanks to my family and to established schools of thought devoted to these questions of identity and citizenship. I am also a first-generation immigrant to the United States, where, as a professor and a student of Hazel Carby, I have inherited the entangled intellectual traditions of Caribbean studies, Black studies, and American cultural studies.

Photograph by Romil Chouhan

The Book

In that tradition, Carby’s most recent book asks the critical question: Who inherits?

Imperial Intimacies stems from Stuart Hall prompting Carby, in the 1980s, to speak to her father: to learn about his migration to Britain from Jamaica and to document his story as a colonial subject and a Black man serving in the Royal Air Force.

Imperial Intimacies presents a life in fragments; the narrative zooms in and out on various characters from Carby’s family tree. It is a point of view that is necessarily dissociated, in order to fully render the dynamics of the power of storytelling. Required reading before enrolling in a seminar with Carby was Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the classic 1995 metahistorical text by Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot. It is clear in Imperial Intimacies that she has developed a narrative strategy that attends to the asymmetries inherent in writing history.

She shows us the cultural and filial entanglements that connect two colonized places: Wales and Jamaica. Delving into the recesses of her mind and a childhood of British being that was continually under interrogation, Carby touches on the pain of sexual trauma, the intricacies of caring for aging parents, and bearing witness to the unraveling of her parents’ memories as they succumbed to the progressive mental deterioration of dementia and Alzheimer’s. A multiplicity of intimate acts of remembering, researching, and writing counter the potential forgetting of this history.


The Mixtape

There are so many intertextual allusions in Imperial Intimacies; as I read, I realized that I was listening, I was tuning in and beginning to assemble a soundtrack in my mind, as if I could hear a pirate radio station coming in and out of reception. As part of my practice as what I call a “PhDJ”—a professor who is also a DJ—I have incorporated music production and theorizing through the sonic register into my classrooms and often assign students the task of creating a mixtape to accompany the syllabus.

This mixtape developed out of my interview with Carby, and I pose it as a counter-soundtrack to the nationalism of Britain that we hear in anthems like “Rule, Britannia!” The song, sung at football games, with the lines “Britannia rule the waves / Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”—does not resonate for those of us who are the descendants of enslaved Africans. Expansive and exhaustive citations in Imperial Intimacies of everyone from Jane Austen to Michel-Rolph Trouillot to Antonio Gramsci brought to mind the Jamaican poetics of remixing.

I asked Carby if the sound I was tuning into made sense to her. She was thrilled by the idea of an accompanying soundtrack, because various media, including music and archival footage, had very much informed the writing of Imperial Intimacies.

“Imperial Intimacies” Mixtape
  1. Pathé Newsreel, “Our Jamaican Problem (1955)” resonates with the chapter of Imperial Intimacies entitled “Brown Babies.” The chapter discusses the so-called moral panic of the 1940s about Afro-English children born to Black servicemen and white mothers and left at orphanages after World War II. The upbeat 1950s narration of the British news presenter belies the cold and hostile reception that West Indian migrants received upon arrival; many were denied housing. The newsreel depicts a number of interracial couples and children who could not have been much older than Hazel Carby in 1955.
  2. Lord Kitchener, “London Is the Place for Me” (1948). Footage of the Trinidadian-Calypsonian Kitchener disembarking the HMT Empire Windrush, in 1948. Imperial Intimacies problematizes the Windrush narrative, which asserts that Black people first arrived in Britain in 1948. In fact, Carby’s father’s service in the Royal Air Force was part of one wave of migration that preceded the Windrush. The song resonates with the recent and ongoing Windrush scandal, in which people of this generation are being deported from the UK.
  3. Linton Kwesi Johnson, “Inglan Is a Bitch” (1980). What would a soundtrack of Black British life be without our dub poet laureate, the Jamaican-born British artist Linton Kwesi Johnson? In this nation language song recited with the vibrancy of Jamaican Patwa, the dub poet’s irreverence for the crown and the Queen’s English, and his disenchantment with seeking gainful employment in London, pairs with the playful optimism of Lord Kitchener’s “London Is the Place for Me.”
  4. Joan Armatrading, “Love and Affection” (1976). St. Kitts–born Black British singer Joan Armatrading’s intimate ballads were as important to Hazel Carby’s Birmingham moment as they were to the world, gaining international appeal in the mid-1970s. With a musical career spanning over four decades, Armatrading’s presence as a Black British icon meant a lot to the UK community.
  5. Soul II Soul, “Back to Life” (1989). Perhaps the most significant sonic moment of the Black British cultural aesthetic and the community’s representation occurred with this global smash hit, which deeply influenced the sound of hip-hop in the US, with its bass-heavy production and smooth rhythm-and-blues-influenced vocals. The song signals the Black Atlantic antiphonal connection, from Bristol to Harlem to Liverpool, that Carby points to in Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America and Paul Gilroy describes in The Black Atlantic.
  6. Dave, “Question Time” (2017). Hazel Carby introduced me to this song at a symposium on the Jamaican 1950s, in April 2019, where she presented from the chapter “Fictions of Racial Logic.” She stated that she thinks that some of the most important and direct critical interrogations of the British government are coming from Nigerian-British hip-hop artist Dave. In this song, he directly addresses Brexit and the prime minister; the title is taken from the British TV show of the same name, and the song questions the disparity between the budgets spent on defense versus the National Health Service. The mode of critique resonates with British rhetorical and political traditions of debate and public dissent.
  7. Burial, “Archangel” (2007). The echoey production of electronic music producer Burial resonates with the industrial, concrete landscape of London and its suburbs such as Croydon. Burial presents a soundscape of contemporary British life remixed with elements of Jamaican dub, reverb, trip-hop, and rave music. The song touches on the affective landscape of loneliness, intimacy, trust, and vulnerability, sampling from one-hit-wonder American R&B singer Ray J’s “One Wish.” Carby asked me to put this track in conversation with the photography of Afro-Guyanese British artist Ingrid Pollard—specifically, Pollard’s series Pastoral Interlude (1988), which contrasts the rural, idyllic image of Britain with the urban landscape and examines how the Atlantic slave trade inflects both with the presence of Black Britons.
  8. Kibwe Tavares, “Robots of Brixton” (2011). Factory Fifteen animation. Continuing on the theme of Britain’s urban context, Carby asked me to include this video of a futuristic Brixton, in which racialized robots form a new labor force. A critique of the future of automation and deindustrialization, it warns of the recurrence of police violence and echoes the 1981 Brixton riots. The electronic soundtrack echoes the sonic effect of broken industrial landscapes that Burial produces.

This Imperial Intimacies mixtape for Public Books is part of a larger immersive multimedia installation project on sound and Black British feminism that Tao Leigh Goffe will be sound-engineering to debut in March.


The Contributors

I asked four scholars whose work is deeply entwined with Hazel Carby’s intellectual tradition—and who also have familial ties to the Black diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe—to respond to the new book from different angles of analysis. Rather than formal reviews, these writings—much like my soundtrack—take the shape of whatever artistic and autobiographical entanglements Imperial Intimacies inspired for these professors: Deborah Thomas, Adom Philogene Heron, Michelle Stephens, and Gloria Wekker. Whether they are in direct contact with Hazel Carby or not, each scholar engages with Afropean routes and archipelagic inheritances of social difference; their responses form a chorus, a collective album.

Deborah Thomas is R. Jean Brownlee professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new book, Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair (2019), like Imperial Intimacies, takes an experimental narrative shape and reckons with Afro-European interracial familial histories. In her response, US-born Thomas considers the ingrained literary education—the schooling of imperialism across generations, time, and space. The importance to Carby’s Welsh mother of reciting Rudyard Kipling’s poem If on Empire Day resonated with Thomas, as it was this poem that her Jamaican father, who was born a British subject, dedicated to her and read at her wedding reception.

Adom Philogene Heron is a lecturer of anthropology at University of London, Goldsmiths College. British-born Philogene Heron, like me, is part of the generation that Linton Kwesi Johnson described as the grandchildren of Thatcherism. His work looks at Black fatherhood in the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. Having grown up in Bristol—the major port city of the transatlantic African slave trade in South England—Philogene Heron was prompted to remap the urban landscape of home by the chapter of Imperial Intimacies named for that city. He considered anew his inheritances of Black Britain and Black Bristol, his Afro–West Indian and European lineage. Philogene Heron considers the inheritances of Empire Day and what he will pass on to his baby daughter. He also presents a remixed family album—a photo collage of old family images—as a visual accompaniment, because photographs are so central to how Carby tells her story.

Michelle Stephens is dean of the humanities and a professor in the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and English at Rutgers University. Her books include Black Empire (2005), Skin Acts (2014), and a collection coedited with Brian Roberts, Archipelagic American Studies (2017). Stephens is a former student of Carby’s and of Jamaican American background; having inherited an intellectual tradition of historical materialism, a Black feminist sensibility, and genealogical methods, she dwells on the questions of her own inherited West African, sub-Saharan, and European DNA and the complexities of the information revealed by genetic testing. The results of Stephens’s Creole heritage lead her to focus on the coupling of Blackness and whiteness in family trees. Stephens discusses the intertwined strands of “mixed” diasporas, genealogies, and archipelagic colonial histories.

Gloria Wekker is a peer of Hazel Carby, a preeminent Dutch professor emerita of Afro-Surinamese heritage, and the author of Witte onschuld, or White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race—a groundbreaking 2016 reckoning on race and the erasure of the Dutch colonial past. She is also the author of The Politics of Passion (2006), which examines the radical kinship of sexuality, pointing to how common the non-heteronormative intimacies of mati work—or queer couplings—are, and have long been, in Surinamese culture. Wekker responds, like Thomas, Philogene Heron, and Stephens, by considering what she inherits from Africa and Europe, in conversation with her Jewish-Creole and Native Surinamese heritage. Of a similar generation to Carby, Wekker considers the album of her girlhood, growing up in the 1950s Netherlands. She dwells on the psychic economy of accounting and Carby’s father’s job as a bookkeeper in London. Wekker reflects on the countless hours of research she has done in the Dutch colonial archive of slave registers. Like Philogene Heron, she shares photographs from family albums and considers the bookkeeping of Dutch colonial empire in the Caribbean, in response to the way that Carby renders her archival methods of self-inventory in the chapter “Executors of Empire.”


Correction: February 12, 2020

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Deborah Thomas as Jamaica- rather than US-born.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platticon

Featured image: Imperial Intimacies and Hazel V. Carby