“Are we going to burn it?” A question about the fate of the future concludes Hazel Carby’s Race Men (1998), a powerful academic book about suffocating representations of black American masculinities based on a lecture the author delivered at Harvard. In her newest book, Carby is already burnt, the result of a smoldered past. “Imperial Intimacies is a very British story,” she writes in the preface. It is also her story: about growing up after World War II, about her childhood in the area now known as South London, about the family histories of her white Welsh mother and black Jamaican father, about, in all, the public and private agonies of imperialism and colonialism.
Probing the auto-historical, Carby studies her parents’ experiences in Jamaica and the United Kingdom, the “two islands” of the book’s subtitle. Her parents’ islands are connected not only by biological reproduction or a chance romance but also by the entanglement of ideologies. Her familial research at the National Archives of Jamaica and the United Kingdom offers at the same time a glimpse into the machinery of colonialism: the vexing racial iconography of postwar Britain, the psychic drains of poverty, the endlessness of wartime.
Imperial Intimacies is part of a broader turn toward autobiography in black studies. Scholarly works such as Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016) and Saidiya Hartman’s “autobiographical example” in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007) have taken the authors’ own lives as a jumping-off point for explorations of history and the present, hatching a prose (counting as academic if it must) that binds the personal to social facts and historical conditions.
And a bind it is. In the inhospitable halls of university buildings, writing about oneself has long been considered incompatible with scholastic rigor and objective analysis. But Carby’s book lies somewhere between what is recorded in official archives, what is remembered in family lore, and what is considered an affective draw to intellectual questions. The spiny precision of the historical—chapters bristling with dates, maps, census records, and ledgers—allows the reader to feel erudite, but Carby’s most captivating writing is when she feels on the page. That doesn’t mean it always works perfectly. Sometimes, the emotion feels a little forced, and Carby can get caught between voices—calling herself both “I” and “the woman” in a single passage: “I am unable to explain why the woman it is difficult to acknowledge as myself kept reading that file,” she writes after discovering the record of her father’s time as Royal Air Force flight sergeant. And then: “If I was not to waste a transatlantic research trip I had to regain historical perspective, remind myself that I was a scholar, that my project was not about that girl (but of course it was about her, cowering while her parents fought each other).”
When that I is least pronounced, it feels the most true. A three-page section called “Lost,” about being raped at the age of nine, stands out like a prolonged spasm—showing how involuntarily some memories remain with us. Carby does not use the word rape. She rarely uses the word I. Instead, bit by bit, she describes the prefab architecture of the Pollards Hill neighborhood where the attack occurred, the “tiny rectangular patches” for front lawns, the doors with “frosted glass,” and recalls the times she was called “nigger” or “wog” by the residents, many of whom were her schoolmates’ family. The assault is detailed seemingly moment by moment, but we have no sense of how long it lasts. Maybe forever. “The girl I carry inside me is different, she changed. We changed,” Carby writes, and it becomes clear that the goal of the book is not to recover lost lives from the archives but to uncover contemporary contiguities. This passage is so perfect in its attention to peripheries, it is almost obscene. (In the same section as the rape, we find a quote from Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women,” suspended in the middle of the page like a bird feeder waiting to be flocked: “It will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against.”)
Here, too, the reader notes Carby’s frequent use of the third person to refer to . . . who exactly? Not herself, really, but a lost self, a distant self, maybe even an erstwhile self: “the girl.” Like a character from Jamaica Kincaid’s 1978 short story “Girl,” Carby’s girl is not “I”—the autobiographical poses so much of a problem that the text errs on the side of conditional. “I am aware that my narrative is suspect,” she announces while writing about her white, working-class grandmother Beatrice, “that it projects my own desires back onto the figure of a grandmother I would have wanted to know.” That conditional mood is a supplement to knowledge Carby recognizes is suspect: She has a tight grasp on her own complicities and an understanding of exactly where the archives fail (as they are wont to do for any researcher who prefers questions over answers). So she writes what someone could have been told, what someone might have done, what someone would have thought. But who comes up with these modals, these possibilities, these contingencies—is it “the girl” or “I” or Hazel Carby? There are at least two authors of this book, battling with each other like Woolf’s phantoms. Coauthorship, while often invisible, is perhaps the only condition under which any of us write at all.
Tiana Reid is a writer, an editor at the New Inquiry, and a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.