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.