On a rainy winter morning, Hazel Carby arrived at my office in Columbia University’s Philosophy Hall to discuss her new book, Imperial Intimacies, which is a history of empire, slavery, colonialism, and migration written in the form of a memoir. This eloquent and moving account of the entanglements of empire is narrated from the perspective of a young black girl of Welsh and Jamaican descent trying to survive in postwar Britain, a world that would prefer for her not to exist at all and that never for a moment fails to see her as an outsider, an eternal alien. “Where are you from?” is the question that each day challenges her right to belong, that routinely marks her as a foreigner in the country where she was born. The narrative advances on dual tracks and the story oscillates between “the girl” and the “I” of the adult narrator, a scholar and researcher, in search of the pieces of her past and reckoning with what it means to be black and British.
Imperial Intimacies sets out to challenge “the binary thinking that opposed colonial center and colonized margin” and the conviction that British identity is predicated on the non-belonging of black and brown people, whether citizens, migrants, or refugees. The book does so by traversing the “geographies of pain” that emerge in the wake of empire; connecting the rural hamlets of Wales and Jamaica; linking the factory, workhouse, and plantation; following the dense web of connections between the lives of peasants and workers, soldiers and the enslaved; and tracing “the perverse lines of descent” created by racial slavery.
The movement of conscripts and migrants and young working women and errant daughters reveal the forms of violence and domination, exploitation and precariousness that connect the imperial metropole to the colony. Imperial Intimacies is an assemblage comprised of the recollections of a precocious and lonely young girl in postwar Britain and the arduous research of a scholar “pitting memory, history and poetics against each other” to produce a story comfortable with the unresolvable contradictions and mysteries of the past.
Stories shared in the kitchen and recollected from the sick bed compete with the archive regarding the truth of what happened when. The scholar’s research discloses the rifts and failures that no one can bear to admit—a stint in the work house and the lines of kinship ruptured by the categories of human and slave, master and object of property, free black and chattel. Imperial Intimacies explores and intensifies the conflict between familial stories, national histories, imperial accounts, and archival documents. Carby writes across these registers to trouble and unsettle national and imperial projects. Hers is an account of Britain articulated in the relation between two islands and in the explication of personal and public inventories, which range from the political arithmetic of imperial governance and the double-entry bookkeeping of the slave ledger to the brutal and terrifying acts staged in a kitchen—a mother’s lessons in duty and sacrifice and a suicidal father lying unconscious on the linoleum floor. At every turn, Carby refuses to tell a tidy or convenient story and instead produces an account of empire that is as expansive as it is heartbreaking.
In the acknowledgments to Imperial Intimacies, you mention that the book began in conversation with Stuart Hall, when you were students at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies. How did that provide the groundwork for the book?
I remember very, very clearly that Stuart and I used to sneak into the side room where they kept the television, and we would watch cricket in there while everyone else was busy. Of course we were watching the West Indies play England. We would have these conversations about the Caribbean, and he would ask me about my father. I realized it was amazing what I actually didn’t know, to be quite honest. We talked about what our Caribbean parents didn’t tell us. So I think the idea of speaking into that silence actually began in those conversations.
Were the silences as great as you imagined?
Oh, absolutely. I had to think, more critically about the silences in general throughout my childhood, one of which was about the racism that my brother and I faced. My parents found it very difficult to talk about that. They both told us, if you’re just the best in your class, if you’re just first and the best at everything, they’ll leave you alone. But of course, being left alone also meant being lonely.
One of the pieces that I wrote at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, in the race and politics group, was on racism in education. When I started to publish pieces, my father started to read them. And at one point when I was at home visiting for the weekend, he started to talk about it and actually broke down. It was the first time we ever really had a conversation about all the complicated reasons he’d stayed in the UK after the war. He cried, because it was the first time he was expressing any doubt to me. And he asked me, very frankly, Do you think I was wrong to stay? He said that he and my mom thought that the education system would be better in Britain. So for me to be writing a piece about the structural racism of the education system—that really took him aback.
At that point, we started to have the conversations that we’d never had before, and it opened what turned out to be a flood of stories over many years. When I think back to that moment, I think it opened a door for us to be partners in a project of thinking about Britain in a way we never had before, not just as father and daughter but as a critical exchange.
One of the things I love about the book is the way you reveal the intimate and psychic landscape of structural racism and colonial violence. The forces and logics that define and determine the social relations of empire are explicated, but in a manner that conveys their emotional weight and power. We are forced to contend with the intimate dimensions of social and historical violence.
For me, it brought to mind all the young people who were a part of the school desegregation movement in the American South. Elizabeth Eckford was never the same after being assaulted by a mob of white adults when she tried to enter Little Rock Central High School. Other children burnt their schoolbooks and experienced severe depression and had breakdowns after the intensity of navigating such hate and hostility. Those narratives trouble the one-dimensional portrait of these young people as solely heroic or triumphant. They paid a great psychic cost for trying to desegregate their schools. As a child, you, too, paid a great cost in the racist landscape of postwar Britain. Imperial Intimacies deftly illuminates the way we inhabit these systems, and how they harm and shape us, how they disfigure the contours of intimate life.
Well, for us as children, the Windrush moment—the arrival in 1948 of the ship bearing migrants from Jamaica, popularly understood as a turning point for British culture—was actually a burden to bear, it was nothing to celebrate. This is something that Stuart Hall said a very long time ago. It was as if, in Britain, concerns about race and racism were actually carried by those people who arrived in Britain in the postwar period. Historical erasure was very important to that whole postwar story of black British history. For example, I was told in school that I was a liar for saying that my father was in the RAF, because “there were no black people serving in the military, leave alone the RAF, the creme-de-la-creme of the of the British fighting force.” So I knew that my stories and the school’s stories were not just opposed to each other—my stories were dangerous. So you learnt to be silent, you just learnt to silence yourself.
I found the process of actually writing the book to be an excavation of sorts. I found myself thinking of terms like “archaeologist.” I had the feeling of moving through layers, not just of history, but the layers of being and becoming in the world that have accrued to us over time and that need to be peeled away level by level.
There are a thousand questions I want to ask you related to what you’ve just said! But can you talk a bit about the title Imperial Intimacies? It suggests this entanglement or conflict between familial stories, national histories, imperial accounts, and archival documents, yet you write across all of these registers to trouble and unsettle national and imperial projects—and, as important, you refuse to tell a tidy cohesive story.
I’d love to hear you talk about building your spider’s web, as you call it, to create the links between all these stories. And then please talk about the multiple modes of the writing you use to break open these archives and documents—memoir, history, auto-theory, narrative, and poetics.
I’ll start with the image, the Anansi spider’s web that I talk about at the very beginning of the book. First, a web has to be constantly maintained, the spider is constantly running around to different parts of it, mending pieces that are broken. If you actually watch them, they’re very canny about what they’re going to leave unmended when they turn away to strengthen a different part. I felt a lot like that when I was working on this book, there were threads I just had to leave broken sometimes. But also, you know when something lands on a spider’s web and there’s a resonance around the spot so the spider knows where to go? When I found different memories in the colonial archive, they acted similarly, and made me move in a direction I didn’t think I was going to go in. So there was always this tension and this constant movement. You had to move between one part of the story to elucidate another part of the story.
I originally imagined that the book would be called “Child of Empire.” But I moved away from that title, because I wasn’t actually at the center of the book. Books had been published like Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, in which he uncritically positioned himself as a child at the center of empire. I remember he wrote this extraordinary passage about being raised in Kenya which he remembered as “a magical time” filled with the singing of the Kikuyu women. There was such a sense of entitlement of the British subject in Ferguson’s account that I realized I didn’t want to make the same mistake of writing a story in which my right to belong, my right as a national citizen was assumed. Because that was not my story.
I wanted to show how my claim to belonging was denied, and was met with very volatile, violent responses. I wanted to write against being a child of empire. If we are going to tell stories that involve us, we have to realize that there are all these conventional modes of writing that aren’t sufficient, that cannot possibly encompass the multiplicity of the tales that we want to tell. I also wanted to write within a framework that could create a sense of how different parts of the empire were intimately tied to each other, intimately dependent on each other. And that it didn’t matter where in Britain you started to excavate the relationship with colonialism and imperialism, it’s a story that involves ordinary people, everyday places, extremely small hamlets.
The deeper I went into this project, the more I realized that I had to talk about how ordinary people became educated into understanding themselves not just as white, but as imperial subjects with the right to govern other people. This gave them some investment in being British that made them superior to other people, even if they themselves were poor. I found that sense of privilege in my maternal family, even though they came from very, very poor circumstances.
The book attends to these entanglements and investments with such nuance and complexity. For example, when you talk about your childhood summers in South Wales, you are able to convey the sense that you and your brother are deeply loved by your mother’s family, and, at the same time, you are being instructed in a model of imperial subjectivity that is explicitly marked as white. You capture the contradictory textures of love and kinship.
The book addresses the ways in which the white working class is conscripted to the project of empire, but it does more than this. You don’t avoid the difficult questions, such as what does it mean that these people who love you so much were also deeply invested in colonialism? That even in this beautiful place, you cannot avoid the painful lessons directed at you as the errant daughter, the black daughter?
I had to think not just back to those conversations with Stuart, about what our Caribbean parents didn’t tell us, but their counterpart on my maternal side—what I was being told. So, yes, there were all these cousins who loved us but were also trying to wash the brown off our skin because they thought we weren’t bathing properly. We would hear them talk about the black children in Cardiff as pickaninnies, without any sense that my brother and I were pickaninnies, too, but you know—their pickaninnies, so beloved. I should say that we were sent there in the summers, because my parents were working two jobs at night. And they were doing that because they pulled us out of the public school and put us in private schools. And I think actually, that was their way of trying to manage the racism that we were facing.
So we would spend our summers down in Wales with this family who taught us to be strivers. They would recount stories that were pedagogical, they were to teach us how we were supposed to succeed and what we were supposed to aim for. They were supposed to teach us how to behave if we wanted to have good jobs. And by good jobs, they really meant becoming teachers and nurses, maybe even a bank manager. But it was in the context of their own history, of how they had gone from blue collar to white collar work because of working for the Great Western Railway.
It wasn’t until I actually did this project and was in the archives and looked up the history of the Great Western Railway that I found the company handbooks on behavior. They were word for word, exactly, how we used to be instructed to get a job, and stay with it, and mark incremental promotions and rewards of recognition. This made me consider how a particular form of Britishness has to do with the historic moments through which people move, but also what they repress. In the adoption of this work discipline from the nineteenth century, my family had repressed the histories of where they actually came from. So the stories they were telling me were passing over all the stories of extreme poverty and disease.
I wanted to write under this title of “intimacy,” how, in fact, the empire had colonies that appeared to be marginal to the metropole of course, but that within Britain itself there were areas that were marginal. Marginal agricultural areas, marginal extremes of poverty. For example, the city of Bristol was very important to my family, even though they existed in an extremely poor section of Bristol. But my grandmother was moving about a city that had some of the first-ever girls’ schools, a university, a civic culture, a theater, libraries that she could use. Her beliefs were shaped by that civic culture, poor as she was. My great-great-grandmother Rebecca grew up in the city of Bath—she was a laundress. At the end of her day working in a commercial laundry, she moved from the wealthy part of the city to the most impoverished part of the city.
So I realized that there was a geographic, or geopolitical, framework to reveal in the book. It couldn’t only be explained by class—I had to take account of how empire creates these centers and peripheries, both in Britain and in the colonies. I wanted to talk about how cities themselves were divided by empire. There were people in Bath who were very, very rich, whose wealth had come from enslavement, supported by people like my great-great-grandmother Rebecca, who was servicing them. I wanted to think about the relationship between that sort of maintenance alongside the maintenance that people were providing from the colonies. The work of the book was being able to reveal those intimate relations, those connections, while attending to the specificity of the differences. Empire and imperialism work in ways that are not obvious on the surface. And that’s why I said at the beginning, it’s a story of ordinary people.
I want to focus on you and the issues of belonging and identity. I’m thinking about two short chapters in the first section of the book, “Where are you from?” and “Lost.” These chapters convey the violence and torment that accompany being a black child of empire in postwar Britain. These chapters are not narrated from the perspective of an “I” but from the view of “the girl.” These distinct narrative perspectives are related to issues of withholding and disclosing stories and with disassociation and traumatic memory. Where does pain lodge and who is responsible for narrating it? Can you say more about these different narrative voices?
This is really where you come in, Saidiya! We’ve exchanged writing and ideas for so many years. From the very beginning, I wanted to write for an audience that wasn’t just an academic audience, I wanted to write about ordinary people, and I wanted ordinary people to read the book. And I knew that I wanted to take all my training as a feminist theorist and scholar of race, and to take all the power and insights of my career, but to translate it into a different kind of project. Well, it was easier said than done, I think! I found that I could easily think and analyze and critique these stories, but I was still writing in a way where I was denying my own experience, and what it all meant to me.
There was one moment when I was writing about something I discovered in the in the National Archives and you said to me, “Why don’t you dwell on that moment, the moment when you actually found that? Put yourself there, what were you thinking?” Oh, I knew what I was thinking! But I hadn’t written about any of that. So when you said to me, “dwell,” you were also asking me to think about my own investment. You were asking me to think about how I was shaped by the history and by the act of finding out what I was finding out, by hearing stories I wasn’t meant to hear. It opened the floodgates, in some ways. So I decided to begin the book there, with what I call “the question.”
“Where are you from?”
Yes, how I was asked this question, which became a constant part of daily life, a question that asked you to account for yourself. Posing the question was a denial that I could belong to Britain. I realized that the book was a whole response to that question, Where are you from?
I had to confront how difficult that was to handle as a child, how much of that I had buried, just like my father had buried things. I wanted to think very seriously about what had happened to that child, who I had been and had left behind. However painful that child’s growing up was, it hadn’t totally shaped the adult I became. So I felt that one way I really could deal with this in terms of narrative was to treat the child—“the girl”—as a character. She’s a character that develops in a particular moment in history, and she was shaped by that history, and she resisted that history. It was important that I find a way to acknowledge that who the girl had been, how she was shaped, didn’t determine everything “the writer,”—that is, my adult self—had become.
Relatedly, I think it’s really important to think of the way in which we are multiple selves, and I wanted to reflect this in the book. And I found this even in doing the research. Sometimes the professor, or the researcher, wanted to dive gung-ho into archives, but it was actually very painful for the girl or the writer to discover and to think about these things. I wanted a way to talk about all these selves coexisting, and I wanted to reveal the tension in these moments. Because there’s a cost.
So in the in the act of writing, there were selves who became characters, who had lives and whose potential could have gone in multiple directions. And I was just following some of the threads.
I don’t know if it actually lessens the pain of the account or intensifies it. As a reader, you feel that the narrator needs the “I” and “the girl” to hold the weight of this history, the burden is enormous. The doubling is also dramatic—it makes apparent the multiplicity of selves who inhabit the narrative. As a strategy, it also complicates the matter of time. Imperial Intimacies doesn’t have a straightforward narrative or a teleological arc—as a reader, you feel that time itself is entangled or sedimented or broken. Even when the “I” is narrating, the “girl” is there, too.
I think broken time is often that which is left unresolved. And I don’t try to resolve that in any narrative sense. I actually think it’s important to leave that broken, frankly.
Over the course of your intellectual trajectory from Reconstructing Womanhood to Imperial Intimacies, there is a sustained and ongoing engagement with black women writers. In Imperial Intimacies, you trouble the framing of black woman’s writing as a maternal inheritance and disenchant the domestic space. As a scholar, you have produced a genealogy that determines how we read and understand that tradition. But as a writer and a memoirist, it is as if you enter that tradition through the back door. You enter it as an errant black daughter, and, in fact, the text opens with Jamaica Kincaid, another errant black daughter. Can you talk about what it means to be deeply informed by this tradition of black women’s writing and to transgress?
On a personal note, one of the things that I loved about having you as a teacher and a mentor was that there was never the expectation that I be dutiful. It was so pronounced, and it was so rare. After reading Imperial Intimacies, I thought, Of course you would never expect me to be a dutiful daughter! You spent your whole life refusing that imposition.
Errancy is a really interesting concept. I felt errant from the moment I arrived here. And I claim it. It’s not that I don’t feel totally accepted now. It’s just that I cleave to feeling unsettled. I think it’s one of the things that’s very important to feel. I feel unsettled with the nationalism of African American studies, so I’m constantly trying to make it more worldly, more global, to encourage my students to think much more critically and unsettle some of the assumptions that they’re receiving. So errancy is the way I live and the way I think.
I remember walking into the African American studies department at Yale, and Professor Henry Louis Gates saying, “What’s a nice white girl like you doing teaching African American studies?” or “Why are you interested?” It was another dimension of the question “Where are you from?” This experience of racially marking and unmarking bodies is something that I also tried to bring into my teaching, to actually get people to think critically about how blackness is inhabited.
Relatedly, my father could never understand why I, as a student, joined the African Student Association. It was a moment when he said to me, Why would you join an organization for African students? Because Africans were slaves. When I thought back to that, I realized how across the Caribbean, that history of enslavement was hidden because of shame. There was deep, deep, deep shame. So a history had been erased, not just in the metropole, but in the islands themselves, and it has only fairly recently been excavated and memorialized.
But the other erasure was about the role of enslaved women. I had to reconsider the stories I was told about the history. As my aunt used to say, “There were planters in our family.” Well, that didn’t mean what I thought it meant at the time! My mother, my father, and my aunt used to talk about, a “housekeeper” and a planter. And I realized only in the archives who that was, this free black woman, Mary Ivey, but there was no acknowledgement of how women like her were implicated in enslavement’s sexual economy of violence and rape and sexual exploitation. It was as if language itself was being cleansed of history. Just a planter and a housekeeper. No relationship, no language of enslavement, of brutality, of force, of sexual abuse.
That’s so resonant for me, because for my father’s family there was never a peep about slavery. And Curaçao was an island at the center of the slave trade, yet there’s no memory of it! Zora Neale Hurston joked about how in the West Indies, we all come from roosters. Only the men are named because of their status, because they’re white. As a result, the black maternal line is erased.
Can you talk about this in relation to writing? Writing isn’t a process, as you say in the book, that will provide closure or a tidy working through of this history. You talk about writing as a method for being able to perceive complexity. At other times, you speak of writing as betrayal, as a refusal to obey the injunction of silence.
Very much so. When my mother discovered she had Parkinson’s disease, I was constantly going to the UK. I felt as if I actually lived in a plane in the middle of the Atlantic. But to her, I wasn’t there, I was in the United States. At one point, she demanded that I give up my job, and move away from my husband and my son, and care for her. Because if I was a real devoted daughter, that’s exactly what I would do. And I didn’t need her, she said, to tell me that. I should just have done it. My brother in the UK daughtered in my place, along with an army of care workers, but it was not good enough for her. I explore the various torments my mother had in her life, both internal and external, but the image I have of what I was doing was analogous to capturing a butterfly with words, pinning it through the thorax as in a museum display, because once you’ve written it, those words fix people in place.
My mother would have been absolutely horrified and, I think, deeply hurt to read them. But I didn’t know any other way to explore the difficulties of what daughtering and mothering meant.
This is exactly what the writer has to try and expose. I don’t try to resolve everything in the book. I do try to expose the unresolvable. I don’t know if as women, as daughters, we know how to resolve all of those different pressures. I am indeed an errant daughter, in multiple ways.
Saidiya Hartman is the author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval.