Over the decades of her transatlantic career, distinguished Yale University professor emerita of American and African American studies Hazel V. Carby has considered how one negotiates ancestral ties to two islands intimately entangled by empire, Britain and Jamaica. Her new book, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands, is her answer to that question.
As Hazel explains in Imperial Intimacies, hers was an unlikely path to academia. She started out training as a ballerina and went on to teach at a secondary school in East London. When she moved to the West Midlands to pursue a master’s degree and then a PhD at the University of Birmingham, her life was altered forever by the influence of a mentor—Stuart Hall, esteemed professor and cofounder of the university’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies—who also negotiated a family history strung between Britain and Jamaica.
Hazel and I sat down to speak about the publication of Imperial Intimacies, a book that, she realized, she had been writing her whole life. We discussed the influence of books such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Like Dana, the main character in Butler’s Afrofuturist novel—who finds herself teleported into the plantations of the antebellum past, meeting her black and white ancestors—Hazel traces her African and European Carby lineage. She does so through meticulous research on her ancestors in England, Wales, and Jamaica.
Hazel speculates on the subjectivity of one of her white forbears: an English man named Lilly Carby, who arrived in Jamaica in 1788 as a member of the British Army. What can Hazel possibly inherit from him, when her other ancestors were his property? Her experimental rendering in Imperial Intimacies presents the reader with a kaleidoscopic view of the ongoing coloniality of the present.
Tao Leigh Goffe (TLG): You describe what you’re doing in this book in a really beautiful way: as a spiderweb. You say that “the architecture of this tale has the tensile strength of a spider’s web spun across the Atlantic: spinnerets draw threads from archives, histories, and memories, joining the movement of men from Britain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the flood of volunteers that left the Caribbean to travel to Britain during the Second World War; the radial fibers that hold rural England and rural Jamaica in tension link the Atlantic port cities of Bristol and Kingston.”
But what’s at the center of the spider’s web? You describe orphan threads left broken. What are these threads holding onto?
Hazel V. Carby (HVC): I wanted to capture the process of journeying into the past. Sometimes, such journeys are presented as coherent narratives, where all aspects of the narrative are very neatly tied together. I wanted to interrupt that. I believe that we cannot rely upon conventional narrative forms to tell stories that have not been told before—because of various historical oppressions, or because of the silences in colonial archives. We should not expect that traditional narratives like memoirs or autobiography can encompass the stories that we’ve inherited. We cannot depend upon those forms of narration because they impose conventions of unity, and the stories we need to explore and expose are, by their very nature, fragmented.
This is why I was talking in terms of threads and trying to connect threads. But we also need to understand and accept that we can’t connect them all.
TLG: Of course, these are the orphan threads. Once some threads are broken they can never be put back together again.
HVC: So, on the one hand, I wanted to construct a narrative where it was clear that there were actually very intimate links between these two islands, between Jamaica and Britain, on all sorts of levels, historical and familial. But I also wanted to show that these links are frequently broken. I didn’t want to impose a framework that implied that these things could be tied together irrevocably.
I also want people to see that the whole history of enslavement has so many deep consequences. These consequences affect ordinary people who have been conscripted into becoming imperial citizens, even while they suffer in their own lives as a consequence of being on the margins of the metropole.
TLG: Exactly. That interruption you’re making can even be seen in terms of the nationalism of the Jamaican establishment, as well as of the British. For example, at a recent conference on the Jamaican 1950s at the University of Pennsylvania, convened by the journal Small Axe, there was a discussion about whether “Jamaica belongs to us.”
I have to admit I could not relate. My mother is from Jamaica, but I don’t consider myself Jamaican. I don’t feel Jamaica belongs to me. But maybe, as a friend, Alana Osbourne, suggested, I belong to Jamaica—as a descendent, as part of the diaspora. We both have one Jamaican parent and both feel, in a visceral and beautiful way, that we don’t have a choice in the way the island informs our being and our scholarship. She is Belgian and works in the Netherlands.
The power the island has over us is apparent in that it is the subject of our work as professors who teach about the Caribbean. And yet the relationship is a fraught parenthood, which is what Jamaica Kincaid writes about too.
HVC: But thinking that, somehow, we belong to Jamaica makes sense only if you’re thinking about the island itself.
It’s really denying history. It’s really denying Caribbean history. It’s really denying the fact that actually there are multiple Jamaicas, some of which were in Britain. Other parts of which may be in Toronto or London or Leeds. It seems to me that the period of the 1950s is the key for that, because so many people migrated (even though my story is about World War II).
If you can’t take account of that movement and transformation, you’re always going to be stuck in a very narrow, nationalist framework. And my book isn’t about nationalism, it’s about interconnection.
TLG: Regarding diaspora, your book really reckons with the sense of migration as a time capsule. For example, your father left a different Jamaica than exists today. You encountered that Jamaica; you grappled with his memories.
HVC: He was also always treated like a Jamaican. That’s why I tell the story of the differences between my father and his brother, my uncle, in their attitudes toward Jamaican independence, in 1962.
My uncle’s response was to immediately adopt Jamaican citizenship. My father was eventually forced to take Jamaican citizenship, even though he didn’t want to—because he was born British and wanted to remain British. Later in life he wished to revert to British citizenship. This was when the British government, the Home Office, was defining Jamaicans in Britain as criminal elements, who should be deported and sent back to Jamaica.
So, my father was always anxious—and sometimes, even, in a panic—over the question of citizenship. One minute, in one part of your life, it’s fine for you to be fighting for the country. The next part of your life, you’re being defined as a criminal.
In a way, the end of that story is David Cameron going with millions of pounds to build a prison in Jamaica in order to send Jamaicans in Britain’s prisons back to serve their sentences in the Caribbean. To deny that this is not a part of Jamaican history is a very narrow view of the world, it seems to me.
TLG: Yes, I’m more interested in thinking about what Jamaica’s future holds and the 2030s, a hundred years after the pivotal labor uprisings of 1938.
HVC: That’s really why Olaudah Equiano—the famed 18th-century former slave and abolitionist writer, who was captured in Nigeria, enslaved in the British West Indies, and ultimately purchased his freedom while living in London—is still very, very important.
When British historians argue that an understanding of Britishness was formed in the 18th century, they are speaking of a narrow definition of Britishness. It’s a definition produced by combining Welsh, Scottish, and Irish into a single, white Britishness, which is unable to account for or position an Equiano, or an Ignatius Sancho, or an Ottobah Cugoano.
And yet, these black people were writing their own narratives. They were writing them in English. Black writers in the 18th century insisted on the complex multiplicity of possibilities of allegiance, of inhabiting and affiliating to Britishness.
Equiano makes broad claims on many ways to be British. He doesn’t try to make them fit easily together. Even though the world wanted him to narrow his claims, even though he was threatened as a black person.
The fact is that they were all there in Britain; different kinds of nonwhite people and communities were present in the 18th century. But they seem invisible to many contemporary historians, who only want to think in terms of a Britishness that was formed out of discussions, out of acts of Parliament that bound together people in, say, Northern Ireland or Wales or Scotland or England. These historians exclude those who do not fit their parochial frameworks of belonging. They neglect black citizens who lived in the heart of the country, who were active as abolitionists, active in all sorts of political and social ways and incredibly present.
HVC: So, part of interrupting the parochial certainty about “real” Britishness is to point out the consequences of this mistaken exclusionary narrative—a narrative that can be found not just in historiography, but throughout English literature, in which, of course, I was trained.
Think about what Jane Austen is doing. Even in Mansfield Park, where she actually wants to point out how a family in England was being shaped by what was happening in the Caribbean. Even then, she couldn’t actually include black figures in that narrative. She had to displace that entire tension—over the whole question of humanity and human rights—onto a white woman battling patriarchy. Even though, to reiterate, at the time of her writing, there were black people in London writing about the same concerns she was voicing.
So, we can’t just adopt these other narratives as if they fit. We can’t take these frameworks as if they’re going to fit a story, which by its very nature has to be partial.
TLG: I definitely identify with William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, one of my favorite books, in a similar way to how you’re describing Jane Austen. In those few black characters are moments of identification for me.
HVC: That’s why I wanted to reckon with historical and literary assumptions that conflate whiteness and Britishness. I include the process of questioning and rethinking my own assumptions and what I had believed.
For example, I grew up imagining that Devon, where I was born, was a completely white world. Then, only because of researching for this book, I found out that wasn’t true. So, I wanted to leave in that realization, as part of the broader process and practice of writing.
TLG: Let’s talk about speculation, in terms of thinking about Africa and racialization and a past that we don’t have access to. You’re able to write about Lilly Carby and to go back as far as you do in his story because of the historical archive, because of the official records that exist. But it’s clear that there is so much missing in terms of the African continent, and beyond Jamaica. So how do we trace those histories back? Can you speak about speculative writing? Obviously, Octavia Butler’s work is important to you. I remember you gave a presentation in 2010 at the University of Liverpool on Afromodernisms and Afrofuturisms. I don’t know if you remember this.
HVC: Oh, yes.
TLG: At the time, your talk had me thinking about the speculative, and what can and cannot be said about historical gaps. What can Equiano do for you within the narrative?
HVC: The speculative can do an incredible amount of work. Actually, Caryl Phillips’s work has taught us that too. He writes fiction, short stories, novels, nonfiction, and plays, but he always, always bases his work on careful historical research. I’ve been influenced by the methods of creative writers who can enter history in their fiction, having done research; they can then imagine themselves in the footsteps of their characters, following the historical narratives that they’ve uncovered.
I’m thinking of examples like Phillips’s book The Atlantic Sound (2000), in which a character walks around contemporary Liverpool considering the links to the city’s past that can be seen preserved in its bricks and mortar. Phillips interweaves into the narrative the story of a 19th-century African, who journeys to Liverpool to discover why a contract his father had for a steamship remains unfulfilled. Phillips layers these two stories together into one narrative across time, speculating about the earlier story at the same time as his Liverpudlian guide tells him about the history and current condition of the black community in Liverpool. Caryl Phillips also includes some of his doubts about what he’s being told.
TLG: Yes, Caryl Phillips has been a master at this sort of narrative uncertainty and metahistorical meditation over the course of his career.
HVC: He’s pulling these narratives together in a particular landscape; a sense of place is very important. I try to dwell on particular places and to emulate the way in which Phillips engages history through the Liverpool streets, through its buildings. How he shows that these buildings—not only in their architecture but in the very stones themselves—embody the city’s relationship to the slave trade.
Speculation can do a lot of narrative work for us. Octavia Butler fuses history, contemporary political analysis, and speculation in her fiction. Creative speculation can play a role in reimaging the complexities of affiliation, allegiance, and identity formations in the way, for example, Caryl Phillips rewrites the Othello story in The Nature of Blood.
TLG: In Imperial Intimacies, you really perform that speculative work for Bristol, for Devon, and, especially, for Wales.
Do you want to say more about Wales in terms of speculation? In the book, you talk about your grandmother’s story and wishing it to be this way and narrating it this way, but not knowing.
TLG: You’re honest with the reader about your intentions for imaging your grandmother Beatrice’s life and class position. You also really had me thinking about Welsh language and what that colonized mother tongue means for Welsh people as well as Caribbean people.
HVC: I had to struggle with the writing of the character of my grandmother, because she meant different things to me at different moments in my life. I tried to capture that tension and those different meanings and motivations: how we want, how we need, figures from our past to work for us in certain ways. At one moment I just felt I couldn’t get out from under her shadow. Then, in a different moment, I wanted her to be a suffragette or a rebel. That’s one of the ways in which I tried to complicate how we imagine pastness.
I have been very influenced by the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot. In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), he argues that pastness is a position. I tried to capture how we make claims on history through narrative. Our versions of pastness service our needs in the present.
I try to be honest about the way in which the metropole shaped how my brother and I interpreted the world, even though spending so much time in Wales had taught us that London should not be regarded as the center of our universe. In Imperial Intimacies, I show how multiple domestic spaces were marginalized by the metropole: a marginalization that not only affected colonial spaces like Jamaica. Indeed, Wales and certainly the West Country were also peripheral to empire.
TLG: Americans often refer to “the English” and “England,” completely erasing Wales and other parts of the UK—not understanding that “British” can be a more expansive term. In fact, I have read interviews where you have been described as having an English mother, rather than a Welsh mother. It is such a critical difference. It’s another erasure.
HVC: People often use “British” and “English” as if they’re synonymous. But just wait until Scotland leaves after Brexit. That will bring everybody up short.
TLG: Related to my question of language: within Caribbean accents, we can hear Scottish accents, Welsh accents, Irish accents; this makes one think about how members of those regions—themselves formerly colonized by the British—were now working as the administrators of the British Empire, like in Jamaica. This element involves multiple questions of class and whiteness, in a different way.
It seems that, in this history, there are these multiple erasures. But it’s not clear how anticolonial the Welsh identification and investment in Britishness is for Wales, versus the Caribbean or India.
HVC: This is why I wanted to dwell on the ways in which my grandmother would have come to think of herself, to imagine herself, as an imperial subject; how all my maternal relatives came to understand themselves as imperial subjects.
That’s why I did a lot of historical research—not just about Bristol as a slave port, but also on the historical moment in the UK when modernity and imperialism were completely tied together. When to be a modern subject meant that you were an imperial subject.
For example, I imagine how Beatrice inhabited the spaces in which she lived. I imagine her walking the streets of Bristol and being drawn in, with hundreds of others, to see a 1904 lantern slideshow and lecture by James Johnston called Jamaica: “The New Riviera.“
On one level, there are the politicians. People like Joseph Chamberlain, the secretary of state for the colonies, with his agenda of opening Jamaica to modernity in the early years of the 20th century, in order that Britain could profit from the development of the banana trade and the tourism industry’s expanding shipping between Kingston and Bristol. Ordinary people—like my grandmother—were not isolated from the effects of the relationship between Britain and Jamaica, just as, in earlier generations, ordinary people in Bristol shared in the profits from the slave trade.
My grandmother’s generation were surrounded by imperial protocols disseminated through popular culture and public spectacle. If Beatrice had seen that lantern slide show, she would have heard James Johnston tell his audience that they owned Jamaica.
What does “owning Jamaica” mean, when you’re virtually living in a hovel, your family is dying of tuberculosis, and your mother ends up dying in a Bristol workhouse? That is the question that I pose.
TLG: When I saw you in Providence, at the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s annual conference, you had just won the Stuart Hall Outstanding Mentor Award, which was being given, for the first time, in honor of your mentor, to honor your commitment to your students and to the profession.
The award made me think about intellectual genealogies, about how to define family. The poetic way that you phrase it is so poignant, in the title of your chapter “Who Inherits?” Because that’s a question that really has not been considered fully. Even in talking about primogeniture in the universe of Jane Austen.
Can you talk about who inherits, intellectual genealogies, the relationship you had with Stuart Hall, that moment of the Birmingham School, as well as the conversations that you said you had with Hall, which made you think about your father and writing that story?
HVC: I didn’t start writing the book then; but, yes, it was the questions that Stuart asked me—about my father and my mother, about how I felt my family fit into the broader story of empire and migration, racism and identity—that generated the germ of what would become this book.
I’m really glad you picked up on the chapter “Who Inherits?” because, in a way, the entire book could have been called that. That’s the question I want to remain with my readers. Obviously, it works on all sorts of levels. It epitomizes the fact that I could talk about some people in historical detail in the book, because they exist in archival records, but for other people, I had to speculate, because they are absent from the historical record.
For example, I could use the records of the Treasury’s Slave Compensation Commission to find out that the owners of the enslaved people named Carby were themselves named Carby. This is in the records because the owners were compensated by the British government after emancipation. But that archive holds no records of the people who were regarded as merely property.
We must ask the question “who inherits?” of the colonial archives, because we have access to some stories and not others. It is also a question of land and poverty: large landowners leave records; smallholders or the poverty-stricken do not.
I inherited stories both from the Jamaican side of the family and the British side of the family. And even though I inherited these stories, I couldn’t just absorb them, because some of them are not true or were disguised. And I had to think about why Caribbean parents were not telling their children everything that had happened to them.
HVC: But on the other hand, in the US, I’ve been inhabiting this field of African American studies, in which I’ve always felt deeply uncomfortable. I’ve always had to question what the genealogies were that were governing that field. Especially when they couldn’t account for black lives outside of the United States, when those in the field didn’t want to account for other stories of enslavement and ignored stories of colonialism and empire.
The focus of African American studies has been primarily on the United States, not the Americas. The field has nurtured a nationalist perspective which, I worry, is becoming dominant.
So, I’ve always had to tread this ground with my students, too. And I want them to think about who inherits and what they are inheriting in their education. Imperial Intimacies is written for them, too.
What do we inherit in terms of the way in which we organize knowledge—not just African American studies, but English literature, these fields, these disciplines? I’m trying to address all of those issues in the book. I want us to question which forms of knowledge are legitimatized, authenticated, validated, and available for us to inherit, and which are not.
TLG: So, what do you feel you have inherited from Stuart Hall, from the other fellow members of that moment, and from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham?
HVC: The race and politics group at the Centre was absolutely key to my thinking. Stuart obviously was one part of the influence, but Paul Gilroy and I have also been close ever since that moment. We went to the Centre together, formed the race and politics group—and so part of that genealogy is also in The Empire Strikes Back.1 I’ve been asking these questions in various ways for many years, trying to interrupt partial narratives.
TLG: And now that Brexit is here, you have been talking about the disavowal and disownment of British Empire for so long, right?
HVC: Yes. There is a way in which I hope I’ve tried to write Imperial Intimacies in the accessible mode. But, actually, the book is coming out of my whole career.
My son Nicholas pointed something out to me. He read the passage about the ways I was dealing with the violence in my household and the racism I encountered as a child in school—by imagining that I came from this whole other place, a different planet. And I literally did keep journals of my observations.
And Nicholas said to me: “That’s actually the most appropriate metaphor for your career, because in a way you’ve been writing these stories since then.”
I thought that was really insightful. I refused to accept that I be excluded, marginalized, and I refused the demands to account for myself. But trying to write about the contradictory positions I have inhabited is a whole other step, which I took in this book.
TLG: It makes a lot of sense that your son would be the one to see that; we began talking about Jamaica Kincaid and this contradiction. And you think of her in the library at this early moment and what writing meant for her. It is about these contradictions and a literary world that one finds oneself in as a little girl, that is an escape, but is also entangled with all these other things.
HVC: But also, what I really admired about My Brother, by Jamaica Kincaid, was that she has to go back to Antigua and learn about her family. To learn about people who have become people different from whom she thought they were when she was growing up with them, and different from the memories she had preserved of them.
TLG: Yes, to finally see what she hadn’t before.
HVC: And I tried to do that too.
TLG: Right, like in going back and talking to your parents and your brother.
HVC: And learning about what they didn’t say. There is no simple approach to these sorts of genealogies. We always have to question again what we’ve inherited and have critical perspectives on that: critical perspectives, if you like, on our own becoming.
This interview was commissioned by Ben Platt.
- Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (Routledge, 1982). ↩