A Family History of British Empire

“Where are you from?”—The deceptively simple question looms over the sprawling narrative of Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands, the newest work by Black feminist theorist, literary critic, and historian Hazel Carby. This historical and existential query frames Carby’s gripping exploration of her ambivalent relationship to idealized “Britishness” as the child of a white, working-class Welsh mother and a Black, Jamaican father born in 1940s London. The omnipresent demand by strangers that she produce a satisfying account of her origins exemplifies her experiences as an unlocatable and thus unimaginable subject (98). Her own emotionally charged childhood memories ground Carby’s evocative examination of the intertwined nature of intimacy, race, and labor in the British Empire, stretching from the period following World War II back to the revolutionary wars of the late eighteenth century.

Imperial Intimacies begins with the Gramscian imperative to reconstruct, and at times invent, one’s personal genealogy, not only in fact but in feeling. Carby aims to “know thyself” by way of excavating the “infinity of traces” that marked the individual lives of her ancestors (5). As she follows her maternal and paternal lines into the distant past, heartbreaking family stories reveal the multitude of mutually constituting but ultimately unstable racial, gender, and class categories fashioned through often-concealed imperial processes. Weaving together disparate narrative threads across space in London, Kingston, Bath, and Cardiff, she details the unexpected movements, fluid identities, hidden truths, and thwarted desires that animated the imperial imaginations of those closest to her. In the process, she illuminates the political and economic ties that tightly bound Jamaica and Britain together for centuries.

Her parents’ lives provide the emotional and analytical heart of the book. Carl Carby, her father, arrived in Britain in 1942 as an idealistic recruit of the Royal Air Force (RAF). One of many inhabitants of Crown Colonies who eagerly sought to assert British citizenship through patriotic service, he believed himself to be a thoroughly English subject. Growing up in the shadow of colonial poverty and neglect in Kingston, he became a studious bookkeeper’s assistant, eventually climbing into the ranks of the lower middle-class by dint of his light skin color. The Jamaica of Carl’s youth was a place of persistent upheaval, however. Chronic governmental and economic exploitation plagued the colony, eventually inspiring massive strikes that raged across the island in 1938, followed by brutal police repression. Carl’s private life also remained fragile, burdened by familial illness and material deprivation. Young Carl had taken up the mission of caring for his grandmother Marie after her husband, Edward, died during a devastating 1907 earthquake. After her husband’s death, Marie was only able to secure a meager £25 a year in governmental support to care for her children. On top if this, Marie contracted tuberculosis, so she had to pay exorbitant fees to an underfunded and inadequate medical system. Unlike in the metropole, where a burgeoning welfare state guaranteed an assortment of social rights, fewer measures existed to blunt the ravages of inequality in the colony.

Carl’s drive to escape such precarity led him to a technical degree, and then a stint in the RAF—where he encountered his future wife, Iris, at a dance in England. Despite official warnings that “white women should not associate with [the] colored men,” the massive mobilizations of World War II created chance encounters between formerly distant imperial subjects (70). Iris, like Carl, had grown up in poverty—in her case, in rural Devon. The daughter of a landless agricultural laborer and a seamstress, the “smart and audacious” young woman had attempted to flee a life of unrelenting hardship as a domestic, securing a position as a civil servant in the Air Ministry.

The birth of their first child, rather than cementing their bond, opened new and ultimately irreparable fissures in their marriage. The arrival of their mixed-race daughter symbolized to both strangers and family members an alarming sign of racial “contagion” within the metropole. Carby, like many of the “brown babies” born in the wake of the War, disrupted the national myth of racial purity premised on “blood and culture,” becoming social “problems” in the eyes of the welfare state (83).

The condemnation of mixed-race children was inseparable from Britons’ everyday need to defend the prevailing imperial racial order. Carby’s memories of this period of her life are permeated with violence. A confused witness to the disintegration of her parent’s marriage at home, she and her brother were tormented by peers at school. In one key vignette, the author was berated by a disbelieving teacher after proudly displaying a photograph of her father smartly dressed in a RAF uniform. “Coloured people were not British but immigrants who arrived on these shores after the war had been fought and won,” the teacher told Carby (64). The moment typified the ongoing process of imperial racialization, as the “fears, anxieties, and desires” of parochial British citizens worked to create a sense of distance and superiority from the colonized peoples they imagined themselves to govern. Long before the contradictions of Britain’s imperial past hit the headlines, Black Britons like Carl Carby had learned to abide by the profound limitations imposed by racial conservatism. For both he and Iris, fantasies of social mobility were ultimately a mirage. As Iris’ frustrated ambitions soured into resentment, their daughter daydreamed about alternative identities, alienated from her categorization as an undesirable “half-caste.”

Though Imperial Intimacies is biographical and historical in nature, Carby imbues the text with a literary sensibility. With a keen eye for ambient detail and metaphor, she delicately renders the interiority of her subject’s lives. As she ultimately demonstrates, the social logics and economic structures of imperialism penetrated deeply into the fraught domestic spaces of both islands, as well as the psyches of both metropolitan and colonial subjects. The book ends with surprising genealogical symmetry, as the author traces the journey of her paternal ancestor, Lilly Carby, who left England for Jamaica in the 1780s as a member of the British Army. Like many foot soldiers of empire, he was not a son of fortune, but whiteness enabled him to dramatically elevate his social status.

While Lilly Carby lived in Jamaica, he sexually abused enslaved women, becoming the father of at least three “brown children.” Two Black women—Mary, euphemistically called Carby’s “housekeeper,” and Fanny, his long-term domestic —were forced to engage in these entirely instrumental couplings, illustrating the “imperial sexual economy” that entitled white men not only to Black women’s sexual and reproductive lives, but also to their domestic labor (305).1 Lilly Carby never officially recognized his offspring. Mary’s children eventually accumulated some wealth and passed into whiteness, while Matty, his less favored son, became a propertyless artisan and forbearer of the author. In the end, the “intimacy” which bound the two islands—and two bloodlines—so closely together was premised on interdependence rather than affection.

Piecing together archival scraps of her family’s past, Carby remains skeptical of the completeness of historical recovery, which makes the book more of an alchemist’s assembly of disparate fragments than a straightforward account. The narrative is populated with unmarked graves, blank parish registries, and family stories proudly divulged and then silenced. Dissemblance, ancestral myth-making, and outright deceit animate Imperial Intimacies’ rendering of British history, indicative of the fictions required for the making of an empire. Though she encounters a vast accumulation of numerical minutiae in colonial ledgers, these existed side by side with powerful forms of erasure. Carby’s approach also rejects the evident transparency of historical records. Opacity and the fallibility of historical reconstruction become part of the story, as she draws on theories of the archive as a potentially violent and intellectually limiting space for Black historical subjects.2 In the resulting narrative, “memory, history and poetics” collide to produce an experimental narrative structure that is episodic, visceral, fragmented, and highly personal rather than objective, authoritative, and linear (3).

Heavily influenced by cultural studies—a field that invented a new scholarly language for writing about class in the 1960s—the book is the most recent in a long line of working-class academic memoirs in which the vivid experiences of childhood became a site for theorizing power and the hidden workings of the modern social order.3 Unlike earlier texts, Carby’s engagement with feminist and Caribbean post-colonial theory enables her to further explore the racial and sexual antagonisms that complicated Britain’s class hierarchies.4 As the subjects of Imperial Intimacies demonstrate, even our most intimate life choices are the product of powerful structures which keep us in their grip, even when they conflict with our own private desires.

  1. Adrienne D. Davis, “Don’t Let Nobody Bother Yo’ Principle: The Sexual Economy of American Slavery,” in Black Sexual Economies: Race and Sex in a Culture of Capital, Eds. BSE Collective, Adrienne D. Davis, (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019): 15-38.
  2. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14; Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (United Kingdom: Beacon Press, 1995).
  3. Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, (United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2017).
  4. For a feminist revision see Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987).
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Mary Hicks

Mary Hicks is an Assistant Professor of Black Studies and History at Amherst College. Her current book project, Captive Cosmopolitans: Black Mariners and the World of South Atlantic Slavery, 1721-1835 (under contract with Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture for The University of North Carolina Press), examines the maritime dimensions of the African Diaspora, with a particular focus on eighteenth and early nineteenth century colonial Brazil.