Hazel Carby
Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands
Verso, 2019

Reviewed by Gabriella Rodriguez

“Where are you from?” This is the question that confronts “the girl” at the beginning of Hazel Carby’s new book, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands.

For Carby, a black British woman of Jamaican and Welsh heritage, “where are you from?” is a thinly veiled way of asking, “are you black or white?” This question — asked so often during her adolescence in the UK and later as an adult in the US— functions as a way of inhering and marking difference. Those who pose it are pointing out the alien status of those ostensibly on the outside of racialized national imaginaries. Phenotypic differences mark the young Hazel Carby, a black girl, as alien to white Britons. These skin-deep differences are the basis for an exclusionary form of citizenship for the subjects of empire. Asking ‘where are you from,’ then, is less an inquiry into origins than it is an expression of the interrogator’s acute anxiety about national identity, race, and ethnicity. Imperial Intimacies is Carby’s personal history of empire; it exposes the enmeshment of center and periphery by undoing the binaries at the center of colonial logic. 

The book begins with an evocation of Carby’s childhood alienation and descriptions of the racial animus to which she was exposed during the postwar period in Britain. Carby historicizes these experiences in the context of the white backlash to mass migration after World War II in Britain and personalizes them by narrating her family history. The first two sections, “Inventories” and “Calculations,” deal primarily with Carby’s parents; namely, their interracial relationship and the ways in which black and white couplings posed a problem for the island nation’s conception of Britishness. As a result of their union, Carl and Iris Carby were ensnared in governmental efforts to manage and contain “white and black bodies” and maintain the perception of Britain as a nation of white subjects: “residents of the empire with white skin and of European cultural descent.” Carby emphasizes the extent to which couples like her parents were “caught in the entanglements of race, its skeins threading into their actions, attitudes and beliefs.” British government officials and bureaucrats, anxious about the newly arriving black migrants from the colonies, focused their energies on the problems of black settlement and especially on mixed-raced children who were the embodiment of ambiguous national affiliation. Carby’s descriptions shed light not only on the individual struggles her parents endured, but also the extent to which she and they were inscribed in a larger racial narrative about purity and ethnicity in the British national imaginary.

The middle section includes “Dead Reckoning Home” and “Family Registers,” which deal with Carby’s extended family on her mother’s side, specifically detailing the connection among histories of labor, gender, and empire. In these sections, our attention is focused on the domestic realm as Carby offers a genealogy of the matriarchs on her mother’s side of the family, specifically her maternal great-grandmother, Rose, and her grandmother, Beatrice. These sections are attuned to the materiality of labor: the factory’s “extreme heat,” its “ill-ventilated rooms,” “fumes from gas irons,” the film of soot in homes, “specks of coal dust and pieces of grit,” “overalls encrusted with dirt; lungs filled with sooty deposits.” Filling in these textural details offers insight into the drudgery of poverty, the plight of women in the domestic realm, and the experiences of the working poor. While Carby’s family seems far removed from the colonies, Cardiff and Bristol, where these women worked and lived, were connected to the British empire. The time during which Beatrice came of age, in particular, was a moment of rapid industrial and international expansion of the British Empire. As Carby notes, Beatrice would have no doubt been aware of the vast reach of the British empire and would have come into awareness of herself as a British subject by way of “the racial logics of whiteness.” The ideological and material imprints of empire during this period produced British subjects that were “convinced of the superiority of imperial power.”

In the final sections of the book, “Accounting” and “Legacies,” Carby turns to Jamaica and her paternal family. The section investigates the legacy of Lilly Carby, a white, English plantation owner who arrived in the Caribbean during the eighteenth century as a soldier of the British Army. These chapters detail the brutality of plantation life, with particular attention paid to the entrenched racial hierarchies of the Jamaican plantocracy. Free women of color who had children with white men of means in Jamaica, for example, would seek to protect their status by establishing nomenclature: “free women of colour made a claim to respectability in defiance of those white men who refused to legitimate their lineage or publicly acknowledge an affiliation.” Lilly was known to have raped and fathered multiple children with the black women he enslaved. Two of Lilly’s children went on to carry his name, while others remained human property. Through a complicated series of marriages, property exchanges, and contracts, the free mixed-race Carbys come to own some of their own family members, a phenomenon not uncommon in the Caribbean. The narratives that Carby features encapsulate the surprisingly contestable nature of power in the West Indies where gendered and racial distinctions were brutally brought into being and aggressively maintained.

Throughout her monograph, Carby demonstrates the interconnectedness of history with personal experiences and everyday encounters. Though it is described as a history of the British Empire, Imperial Intimacies is a hybrid text, weaving together aspects of memoir, personal essay, and traditional historiography. Part of Carby’s method involves incorporating an array of source material to articulate the surprising affinities between the metropole and periphery. These sources include official and personal correspondence, governmental and administrative documents, newspapers, registers, photographs, maps, and more. The archival material is supplemented by personal recollection, family stories, and imaginative postulation when there is no document to rely on for information. In addition, there are numerous direct quotations from novels, plays, and archival documents nestled in margins or deposited in the middle of pages, providing narrative detours, supplemental information, or a thematic emphasis where needed. Throughout the monograph, Carby interweaves descriptive narrative with historical context, and the sheer spread— the breadth and depth— of knowledge needed to tell the many stories that are covered in the book is impressive.

Imperial Intimacies is part of a well-established and growing body of literature that explores the margins and gaps in the historical record. In focusing our attention on the assumptions that undergird this inquiry, Imperial Intimacies explodes the myth of a pre-racialized, pre-black Britain. For those interested in imperialism, postcolonialism, black studies, black British history, and archival studies, this is an essential book to consider.