After Carl Carby arrived in England from Jamaica, in 1943, he wore starched shirts, polished dress shoes, and neatly knotted ties. He was from the colonies, but his mannerisms evinced a restrained, British sensibility. Like most early immigrants from the Caribbean, he was expected to provide a service: his entrance to England was predicated on his employment as a bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force, which recruited around six thousand people from England’s “black colonies” to fight in the Second World War. At a dance in Worcester, he met Iris Leaworthy, a young, white Welsh woman who worked as a civil servant in the Air Ministry, and the two bonded over the surprising similarities of their upbringings. Both had grown up in poverty. As schoolchildren, each donned a starched uniform and, on Empire Day, a holiday designed to instill in children a feeling of belonging to a great nation, waved the Union Jack. When England went to war, both of them enthusiastically offered their service. The pair soon married, and had a daughter named Hazel. To her, Carl spoke little of Jamaica. “It was as if he had been born an airman in the Royal Air Force,” Hazel Carby writes in “Imperial Intimacies,” her new book of political history, which came out last month.
As Carby recounts, upon the completion of his service, Carl, who was then twenty-three, applied to the Welfare Department of the Colonial Office for an award to attend further-education courses in economics and accounting. For Carl, getting vocational training was akin to securing a life with his family. As an interracial couple, he and Iris had found it difficult to find a landlord willing to house them; they would need to buy their own home. Carl’s application was granted, but with a stipulation: like all colonial recruits, he was asked to declare his intent to return to his colony by “the first available ship” after his course of training—a pledge, the Welfare Department assured him, that would be “watched with interest in the Colonial Office.” Under the threat of deportation, he took a job as an accounts clerk at an engraving firm. His salary was meagre, and the only home that he and Iris could afford was one that had suffered extensive bomb damage.
This account is typical of the kind that appears in “Imperial Intimacies,” which is Carby’s fourth book. This past June, she retired from teaching full-time at Yale, where she was a professor of African-American studies. (As an undergraduate, I took several of her courses.) Her previous books of cultural history take up, among other topics, C. L. R. James’s writings on cricket and the acting career of Danny Glover. “Imperial Intimacies” weaves the history of British imperialism together with the history of her family. Her curiosity is piqued by family lore, but her stories are ultimately substantiated (and sometimes diverted) by archival research, which, in many instances, recontextualizes the accounts that she has inherited.
As a child, for example, she witnessed the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, which was punctuated by arguments in the family’s kitchen. The room—painted a neat blue and white, with a two-tub washing machine and a stove tucked between the sink and countertop—was Iris’s domain. Carl enjoyed cooking Jamaican food––curries, banana fritters, fried rice––but Iris refused to eat it. When Carby was away at college, Carl attempted to commit suicide, and he was found splayed in the kitchen, head stretched into the gas oven. “I can imagine how my father laid himself down on the floor gently, crying, and served himself up as a sacrifice on the altar of my mother’s oven,” Carby writes. After that, he was permitted to enter the kitchen only when Iris asked him to assist her in preparing English food.
Carby recalls this story, and her parents’ eventual divorce, from memory. Initially, she thinks of it as an account of marital incompatibility. But, in the course of her research, she finds government records—recriminations in depositions, police reports from domestic disputes, and an on-the-record account of the attempted suicide—that show how her parents’ domestic difficulties were exacerbated by interactions with the state. After Iris married Carl, she was forced to leave her position in the Air Ministry, which put financial strain on the family. The Colonial Office provided Carl with a small allowance, which included an allotment for his wife, but it was too little to survive on, and the pair bickered over how to spend it. Iris resented that Carl sent a portion of the money to his family in Jamaica, and eventually she petitioned the Colonial Office to pay her share directly to her. “An acid rain fell on their interracial parade, replacing affection with bitter resentment,” Carby writes.
That her parents’ romantic narrative convenes with a national one is not incidental: each of the stories in “Imperial Intimacies” shows how an individual life is shaped by external forces. This project is reflected in the book’s title and in its epigraph, a quote from the cultural and political theorist Stuart Hall, who wrote, “Identity is not only a story, a narrative which we tell ourselves about ourselves, it is stories which change with historical circumstance. . . . Far from only coming from the still small point of truth inside us, identities actually come from outside.” Carby was Hall’s student, and his words reverberate throughout the book. Carby assembles a sprawling account of how imperialism––a web of social relations, labor markets, and trade networks—conditions private feeling. The resulting narrative is something like an affective history of the British Empire.
The book is split into five parts, which proceed roughly in reverse chronological order, beginning in the nineteen-forties and stretching back to the eighteenth century. Each begins with an anecdotal sliver of Carby as a child, whose personal situation, once glossed, yields to that of a parent, a grandparent, a great-grandparent, and so on. The resulting structure appears simple—her mother’s family in England and Wales juxtaposed with her father’s in Jamaica—but over the course of the book the connections between the two lineages become increasingly evident.
Lilly Carby, one of the book’s subjects, was born in Lincolnshire and arrived in Jamaica in 1788, as a member of the British Army. When he was discharged, he came into possession of a coffee settlement where he held fourteen people enslaved, including Carby’s ancestors. (He raped several of the women he enslaved, and Carby is descended from one of his children.) Among Jamaica’s plantation owners, Lilly was of the “poorer sort”; he was the son of a carpenter, and, as an adult, was plagued with a persistent fever. Perhaps because he lived his life in Jamaica under the shadow of a slow death, he shaped his plantation in the image of his childhood in England. Carby notes that he called the plot “Lincoln,” adding, “The names of his white parents were carried by his free brown children, that of his white mother was borne by an enslaved African woman, the name of his brother and grandfather was given to Lilly’s enslaved son, and men in his enslaved labour force had to answer to the names of Lilly’s brothers.” This naming practice, Carby writes, comprised a performance of control that “attempted to penetrate the most intimate, interior, affective spaces of the psyche.” In the slave registers, where these names appeared, entries abided by a strict calculus, listing the person’s “colour” (Negro, Sambo, Mulato, Quadroon, or Mustee), age, origin (African or Creole), and monetary value. “Bookkeeping was not only a numerical practice,” Carby writes. It was necessary “to negotiate [the] ideological fiction that human beings were merchandise.”
Just as the imperial metropole shaped life on the plantation, the plantation also shaped life in the metropole. In the late nineteenth century, in Cardiff, Beatrice Leaworthy, Carby’s maternal grandmother, spent the early years of her life in a home dusted with coal soot, which blew in from the nearby docks. “Coal dust,” writes Carby, “colonized air.” Her younger sister, Lillian Estella, developed pulmonary tuberculosis as an infant, and died in puberty. As a young woman, Beatrice moved to Bristol and worked as a live-in domestic servant. Her poverty was exacerbated by the neglect of the state and local councils, which failed to provide forms of relief that it had promised to the working classes. Still, she maintained a fierce allegiance to the city. At the time, Bristol’s economy was booming, and at least forty per cent of its inhabitants’ income was derived from the slave trade. “It was not only the merchants trading in enslaved human beings who profited but barrel-makers, brothel-keepers, chandlers, candle-makers, carpenters, dockworkers, inn-keepers, laundresses, sailors, sail-makers and shoemakers,” Carby writes. Bristol became a symbol of modernity. Bananas, sugar, and tea, the exotic products of enslaved labor, were increasingly available. In Beatrice, they produced an “erotic delight,” and for the first time she experienced “the sensuality of excess.” She felt proud to be a modern British citizen, and, until middle age, when she, like her sister, died of tuberculosis, she had dreams of ascending into the bourgeoisie.
Just as Beatrice became proud of her Britishness through her encounter with slavery, Iris became conscious of her whiteness through her relationship with Carl. She loved to tell the story of how she met Carl, emphasizing her pride at being the only woman “brave” enough to ask him to dance. But her pride only extended so far. After Hazel was born, Iris refused to acknowledge that she was regarded as black: when she came home from primary school with stories of racist bullying, Iris replied, “You are not coloured!” For Carby’s ballet recitals, Iris sewed ornate costumes, dressing her daughter in fantasies of racial ambiguity: in one, she was a gypsy adorned with gold bangles; in another, she was a “hula, hula girl” in a grass skirt. “Perhaps as she sewed Iris imagined that costumes would provide armour against the constant taunts of ‘nigger,’ ” Carby writes.
In 2014, Carby and her husband, Michael Denning, a professor of American Studies at Yale, received lifetime-achievement awards, from the Modern Language Association and the American Studies Association, respectively. In celebration, the university convened the pair for a conversation. When asked to describe her forthcoming book, Carby insisted that it should not be thought of as autobiography. “It is a story that is anchored by the story of my British and Caribbean ancestors,” she said. “But it is not a memoir.”
In the nineteen-sixties, the student and second-wave feminist movements popularized the maxim “the personal is political” to argue that private relations were a legitimate site of political critique. In recent years, however, the converse idea—that the political is personal—has eclipsed the original form. The rise of right-wing nationalism across the West, for example—which is epitomized by the election of Donald Trump and Brexit—is more often described as a personal pathology rather than a product of history. “What does national attachment feel like?” David Brooks asked, in the Times, in a column attempting to rectify nationalism’s bad reputation. “It feels a bit like any other kind of love––a romantic love, or a love between friends.”
Because right-wing nationalism is regarded as a quandary of feeling, it is often met with calls for understanding. Writing for the Times in January of this year, Claire Cain Miller identified an “empathy deficit” as “the root of many of our biggest problems,” and compiled a comprehensive guide on “How to Be More Empathetic.” The following month, Susan Lanzoni wrote a piece for the Washington Post called “Why empathy is the key to dismantling white racism,” noting that “ ‘empathy’ is not just an emotional buzzword—it’s a political necessity.” This newly urgent social imperative has occasioned the advent of the memoir-cum-explainer of right-wing politics. J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” which documents the author’s upbringing in Ohio and explores the concerns of the white working class, was included in a New York Times roundup of “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win” and has sold more than a million copies. Francisco Cantú’s “The Line Becomes a River,” which narrates his experience as a third-generation Mexican-American Border Patrol Agent, was called “a Lodestar in our understanding of who crosses the border and who guards it” by Kerri Arsenault, who serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and was a New York Times best-seller.
“Imperial Intimacies” exhibits many of the trappings of this burgeoning genre. But as soon as personal sentiment percolates in the text, Carby subjects it to scrutiny. When she encounters her father’s Colonial Office file in the National Archives of the U.K., for example, she “ache[s] for the lives of Iris and Carl that seeped from its pages, lives locked in mutual misery,” and for the girl “who fled . . . the sound of violence, of screaming, echoing in her ears, for the girl who hid in libraries to lick her wounds.” Ultimately, however, she steels herself. “I had to regain historical perspective,” she writes. “The girl and her nightmares must be reburied, forced down the throat with cold coffee.”
When Carby appears in the text as its author, she speaks in the first person: “I would sit and write all night,” “I scribbled to the soundtrack of the ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign, the US bombing and invasion of Iraq,” “I orphaned myself to cling to my desk and books.” But when she is summoned from childhood as a character, she appears in the third: “the girl” came home with stories of racist bullying at her primary school, “the girl” withdrew into interior spaces, “the girl” was lost. The distinction might be a convention of academic writing, in which individual experience is acceptable as evidence only insofar as it represents collective interests. But it also serves a more specific point: “The story of her becoming, of my becoming, is a political not a personal history,” she writes.
Like all pursuits of objectivity, Carby’s attempts to sublimate her individual interests are imperfect. Private feeling inevitably intervenes with academic inquiry, and her most compelling stories animate this interplay. Late in the book, she describes a visit with her father, during which he recounted the details of a mission that he completed during the war. In the early hours of the morning, as he flew back over the English Channel, he scanned the coast for a beacon that would signal the place where he could land and rest. When he saw the All Saints Parish Church in Coleby, Lincolnshire, a heap of stone punctuated by keyhole windows, he “knew he was home, in England.” Carby, who by then was well into her archival research for the book, refrained from telling him that this was the same church where, a hundred and seventy years earlier, Lilly Carby, who held Carl’s ancestors enslaved, was baptized.
For Carl, national attachment sometimes felt like love. But when placed in historical context it seems more like a cruel joke. “Imperial Intimacies” lingers in these sorts of attachments to Britain, illuminating their ability to cannibalize private thought. Nevertheless, Carby is also subject to their allure. In her acknowledgments, she begins by crediting her work to the tepid embrace of the state. “I owe my life to the National Health Service,” she writes. “The dismantling of the Welfare State in Britain has broken my heart.”