By the 1980s, literary studies had begun to recognize traditions of African-American literature and of women’s literature. But the emerging African-American canon usually meant male, and women’s literature usually meant white. Hazel Carby, in her 1987 book Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the African American Woman Novelist (Oxford UP), showed otherwise, recovering a black “women’s era” of writers from the narratives of the enslaved to intellectuals and activists, such as Frances Harper, Ida B. Wells and Pauline Hopkins, active at the cusp of the twentieth century.
Carby did graduate work at the now legendary Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, co-editing, with Paul Gilroy, one of its noted collective volumes, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain (Hutchinson, 1982), which includes her essays “White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood” and “Schooling in Babylon.” In the 1990s, Carby looked at the other side of the coin of gender, masculinity, publishing Race Men (Harvard UP, 1998), which surveys black public figures from W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson to C. L. R. James, Miles Davis and Danny Glover. Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America (Verso, 1999) collects a wide array of Carby’s essays, notably those from Empire Strikes Back, a cluster on black women in music and a set on multiculturalism.
Hazel Carby was born in Devon, England, in 1948. She received her BA in English and History (1970) from Portsmouth Polytechnic and an MA in Education (1972) from London University, and worked as a high school English teacher in London from 1972 to 79, as she recounts here. In 1979 she joined the program at Birmingham, receiving her MA (1979) and PhD (1984). She visited and did research at Yale in the early 1980s, moving to the U.S. in 1983. She taught first at Wesleyan University (1983-88) and then at Yale, where she is currently the Dilley Professor of African American Studies and a Professor of American Studies, and directs the Initiative on Race, Gender and Globalization. She is currently completing Child of Empire and beginning work on a new project entitled Treason-Workers.
This interview took place on 5 November 2007 in Hazel Carby’s office at Yale. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by Marisa Colabuono.
Jeffrey Williams: Reconstructing Womanhood came out twenty years ago. In it you talk about black women writers of the 1890s who were virtually erased from cultural history, but you discover a “women’s era,” as one writer called it. Maybe you could talk about the moment when you wrote that book, which seems distant history for a lot of my students, and its cultural politics.
Hazel Carby: I think it’s good that it’s distant history for your students, because that means that they take for granted that there is a history of women writing, and that there is a history of black women writing. That was not taken for granted then. Much of the work of recovery was undertaken in isolation, in that the fields, whether you’re talking about women’s literature, whether you’re talking about American literature, or that more generic title of black writing, did not imagine that there were any black female writers there to be discovered.
My training, in cultural studies, occurred in England. My advisors were not convinced that my topic was a dissertation, that there were actually writers there to be found. I began the dissertation in the British Library working on female slave writers, since many slave narratives were actually first published in Britain. I came to Yale to visit my partner, Michael [Denning], and I met Charles Davis, who was then chair of African American Studies at Yale. He had heard a bit about what I was doing and, when we met, he encouraged me to return to Yale as a special student. I had a grant, from the SSRC in the U.K., which meant that I could travel and do research in the U.S. Charles Davis was very encouraging, and I came.
I worked mainly with Robert Stepto and John Blassingame. John Blassingame had published two pathbreaking books on slavery, overwhelmingly about men, and I took a seminar with him. He encouraged the students to choose from a selection of books, compiled for his syllabus on the history of being enslaved in the South, and to critique one for the seminar. I chose his book, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. My critique was that the book focused exclusively on men and that the story that he had constructed would have to change if slave narratives by women were included. John Blassingame had fought a huge battle within the American Historical Association to have slave narratives by men recognized as legitimate archival material. Southern historians would use plantation diaries and records as historical archives, but regarded slave narratives as biased, as coming from a source that was not disinterested, as if the accounts of plantation owners were neutral. But in very real ways John Blassingame had won that battle, though the huge transformation in American historiography was still underway in those years and the impact of his work was still reverberating.
When I started to talk to Professor Blassingame about these slave narratives by women, at first he was extremely reluctant to use those sources as historical documentation because he thought they were too contrived, too literary. He didn’t understand the conventions that these women were drawing upon in order to be published or where these tropes came from. Nineteenth-century sentimental fiction provided the narrative structures within which any history of a female life had to be embedded. But the extraordinary thing about John Blassingame was the tremendous respect he felt for anyone who was willing to respect but challenge his work and push it further. He was very supportive, as it turned out—he was very critical at first and I had to persuade him, but ultimately very supportive. John Blassingame understood what it meant to challenge dominant interpretations of history.
JW: What year was this?
HC: Around 1981. It was ’80 when I first visited Yale, and ’81 when I returned to take courses. It was still a far cry from working with people with whom I could have conversations about the material, because very few people knew about it and I had to convince people that this work not only existed but that it should be taken seriously. So there is a way in which that ground is now taken for granted. Those of us who were excavating work by black women eventually would find each other and constitute ourselves as a sort of black feminist literary cohort in the U.S., but early in the 1980s it was very much about persuading people that there were writers there to work on, that they constituted an archive, and even more so that these were people worthy of scholarly attention. None of those things were a given, and every single one of them had to be argued for and proven in scholarly and intellectual terms.
JW: What was the usual view? That they were forgotten because they were of little value?
HC: Yes. In general women’s literature was thought to be generic and very sentimental. There was the effect of the feminist revolution, persuading people not just that women had a voice, but that women had a serious intellectual history. This work was being done on white women in general in the U.S., in the seventies and into the eighties. But onto that was grafted the sense that black women were the most marginal of the marginal. Also, in terms of American history, given the fact that black people had been enslaved, or their ancestors had been enslaved, in the academy no one imagined that there could be intellectual work to find.
JW: How did you come across the work by Harper, Wells, Hopkins, and the other writers you write about? You found out about them when you were in Blassingame’s seminar?
HC: Oh, no, in the archives. As a researcher you already had to be convinced that the work was there to be found. I imagined, when I was studying at the Centre, that I was going to be writing a dissertation on black women’s narratives, which included African narratives as well as African American narratives. I was far more familiar with contemporary African literature when I began the project. My original draft of the dissertation prospectus was huge and included black women writers from Africa and the New World. People were convinced that there were contemporary African writers—they were published in Britain and you could literally show them the books—but the slave narratives, which my advisors did not know, I came across in the British Library.
I was amazed at the holdings in the Beinecke Library at Yale, which is why Charles Davis suggested that I work here. There was the James Weldon Johnson collection and in it there were some historical anthologies, and there were also some very early historical portraits, sort of “Great Black Lives” type of stuff. There were some women sprinkled among them, so it was basically a case of backtracking from some biographical material or some of the associations—for instance, Hopkins and her various church affiliations and pamphlets took me back to a reference to a novel, and then I tracked that down. The Yale library is really quite extraordinary and I found an awful lot of material. With much historical work, it’s on the shelves; the fact that people don’t know it doesn’t mean that it isn’t actually there.
One important aspect of being able to find this material was focusing on movements (the abolition movement and abolition documentation, for example), to find slave narratives. In the process of my work I did the bibliography of a book that Henry Louis Gates was editing on slave narratives. There was also an organization of black women, the National Association of Colored Women [NACW], that grew out of the club movement at the turn of the century, in the 1890s; many of those women had tried to document people who’d come before them, the great black women of the race, so working from movements and occasions helped me figure out who was who and to map what they actually wrote.
JW: In Reconstructing Womanhood, you recover the formation of the NACW at the end of the century. It seems as if the 1890s were a pivotal time.
HC: It is a pivotal moment in many ways, both in terms of feminism and in terms of various motivations to organize. It’s a confluence of things. Much of the energy after emancipation is put into reconstruction; after the failure of reconstruction there’s a major political reorganizing at the local level, that then emerges at a national level. After the battle over the franchise when black men, because they are men, are given the right to vote, women were still excluded. It’s clear, or politically obvious, that black women are going to have to start building their own institutions, so for a researcher it was a matter of looking for what those organizations would be and tracking down many of the women who were intellectual leaders in their own right, especially those who had had a certain amount of education, then through them you can figure out what the networks were. At that point you can put together the National Association for Colored Women and its regional affiliations.
It’s an important moment for me because these women were organizing in all sorts of politically interesting ways. That’s why Ida B. Wells is such a key figure. Her life and work were very important, not only in terms of the anti-lynching movement, but because someone as politically active an intellectual as she was could demonstrate how male-centered the histories of African American political organizing were. The late nineteenth century was very important because, in conventional African American history, it is when the great men start to be listed. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk comes out in 1903, but he’s writing it throughout the nineties, and he lists all those great male figures, such as Alexander Crummell and Booker T. Washington, as black leaders. All of those figures were in their time actively debating black female intellectuals, but the latter had fallen out of the picture. For example, at Tuskegee, which was thought to be entirely Washington’s turf, there was a huge debate between Crummell and Anna Julia Cooper. But Cooper completely vanished from the historical stage and the age became that of the emerging New Negro, a figure imagined as male.
JW: It strikes me that part of your revision is to push back the timeframe from the Harlem Renaissance, which is frequently represented as a pivotal moment, to the 1890s.
HC: Even when people wanted to track the genesis of the Harlem Renaissance “New Negro,” and they went back to the 1890s, it was only a return to male figures. It was important for me to take apart how parochial and patriarchal the Harlem Renaissance was, and in order to do that, you had to begin in the 1890s.
JW: Reconstructing Womanhood also tacitly responds to the feminist theory of the time, which was more visible in the academy than it had been ten years before.
HC: Reconstructing Womanhood is a long critical engagement with the second wave of feminism and the feminist movement, an engagement that had begun in the U.K. long before coming to the U.S. In the British feminist movement, we’d also had a long hard struggle to persuade white British feminists to take questions of colonialism and imperialism seriously. British feminists tended to dismiss the forces of colonialism and imperialism as being part of patriarchy, so they argued that after overthrowing patriarchy other forms of oppression would somehow take care of themselves and disappear.
Very few people were thinking critically about the way in which white women themselves were invested in racist, imperialist institutions. The book that broke through that barrier was Beyond the Pale by Vron Ware, which began to write the history of women in British colonialism and the role women in the colonies played in the abolitionist movement. In Britain we had in fact established a parallel feminist movement, a black feminist movement, so it was not any stretch for me to imagine that that must have happened in the nineteenth century during the first wave of feminism. It was as if there was a sort of déjà vu politically, and the struggles that I fought in Britain in the seventies informed where I would look in the first wave of feminism.
In addition to that, the historiography of women in the U.S. had completely neglected black women or any women of color. When you tracked the great debate that feminists were having at their conferences or whatever, you could see that black women’s voices were not necessarily being heard. These voices were certainly present, but silenced within feminist discourse, an absence that was quite glaring. In literary history specifically there was a startling conflation—it was imagined that dominant conventions of women’s narrative writing stood for the narrative production of all women, that these frameworks were all encompassing. It was as if the absence of black women within these narrative conventions was a self-fulfilling prophecy: black women were not there so therefore they did not write. There wasn’t any sense that there would actually be other conventions that might challenge dominant feminist discourse. For me, it was very important to expose how, during the Antebellum period, ideologies of womanhood really only applied to white women, and how black women were situated in an entirely different relation to Reconstruction than white women. So while working in the nineteenth century I was also unraveling the theoretical and sexual frameworks of the politics the 1970s and 1980s in Britain and the U.S.
JW: There’s one genealogy of feminist theory that tracks it from literary recovery to a high-theory phase in the late ’70s and the ’80s, marked by Toril Moi’s Sexual Politics, but it seems to me what you were doing takes a slightly different path. Again, it’s distant history for students, so I’m curious how you would recount it.
HC: The feminist genealogy of Reconstructing Womanhood lies in The Empire Strikes Back and the essay “White Woman Listen!” in terms of an engagement with feminist politics. While students now can take for granted that black women write and have an intellectual life, the U.S. is still so deeply segregated that young people can come across works by black women writers or other writers of color in their libraries, but black bodies don’t cross the boundaries that these books do. People come to college who have read the works of Toni Morrison, without having had long-term friendships with or knowledge of African Americans. Here in New Haven, high schools are something like 92-94% black and Latino/a. Right over the border, still in New Haven county but in the white suburbs in Connecticut, the figures will be exactly reversed. They’ll be 96% white. Some of those very wealthy school districts will have very well-endowed, diverse, multiculturally-literate libraries, but no black bodies, so that still has to be questioned, I think.
JW: You mentioned “White Woman Listen!” and The Empire Strikes Back, and you alluded to the Centre, which of course is the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. The collection The Empire Strikes Back is a sort of iconic book now in the history of cultural studies. You and Paul Gilroy had a big hand in it. What was Birmingham like and how does it inform the projects that you do?
HC: The Empire Strikes Back was edited by us, and we each contributed two chapters. The two chapters that I wrote for The Empire Strikes Back, “Schooling in Babylon” and “White Woman Listen!,” in many ways face both backwards and forwards for me. “Schooling in Babylon” comes out of my experiences as a high school teacher of English and an anti-racist activist in the U.K. It was as a high school teacher of English that I went to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. We were facing very real crises in the schools and streets in terms of institutional racism, and I was very influenced by both Resistance through Rituals, the book on subcultures, and Policing the Crisis, so the only place I really wanted to go to graduate school was the Centre. The questions they were beginning to ask at CCCS addressed the situation in which I found myself as a high school teacher in the East End of London.
Paul Gilroy and I were admitted to CCCS the same year. That itself was part of a transformation in the Centre. The feminist revolution had certainly wafted its way through the Centre and changed its work in terms of feminist awareness, and then the collective that Paul and I were a part of, the Race and Politics group, generated a revolution of sorts in the work of CCCS. We were picking up on Stuart Hall’s work in Policing the Crisis, but then producing a reformulation of the term and question of race, and of the work that happened under the name of “race relations.”
The “White Woman Listen!” essay came out of the engagement with the earlier wave of feminism, which hadn’t addressed the question of race, and also looked forward to and opened up future feminist work that I would be doing that took the question of race as formative—in other words, racialization was at the same time gendered, and gendering was always racialized.
JW: It was a key moment to be at Birmingham, when Hall was directing it. What was it like working there, and what was it like doing group projects?
HC: Extraordinarily exciting. First of all, it was the place where I met the person whose work would be the most profound influence on mine, and that is Stuart Hall. Stuart Hall’s influence is all over Reconstructing Womanhood, in its theoretical concerns, and it even reproduces how he imagines questions of racialization in a historical trajectory. CCCS was the place where I realized both the power of collectivity in terms of working groups, and also a dramatic transformation in my own writing. For example, when you got to the Centre in the mornings your mailboxes would be full, because all the work that was being done in each of these sub-groups was distributed to everyone else, so your mailboxes were always full with drafts of writing—Stuart’s or whoever’s. It was a revelation to me that Stuart’s first drafts weren’t these incredibly polished, conceptually clear pieces of work. Drafts were drafts, by whomever they were written. Also, everyone just wrote and wrote and wrote, so it gave a sense of not just authorship but of readership and of collective possibilities.
It was a very passionate time, and it was a time of great political crisis in Britain, so there was a sense that intellectual work really was engaged with the question of political transformation, and in the Race and Politics group, the sense that the work that we were doing was really at the service of black communities who were suffering so greatly. There wasn’t a sense that the world of writing and intellectual work was separate from the political world; they were completely tied up with each other. Which is why I wanted to go to the Centre when I was working on the street in the London Borough of Newham on antiracist activity. Everybody at the Centre was politically engaged in similar sorts of ways.
JW: Were there still traces, when you were there, of the lineage of Hoggart and Williams and Thompson, or was it a different phase?
HC: Absolutely. Thompson and Williams were still very much live presences coming in and out, not just in terms of their work.
The theoretical interventions were also political engagements. These weren’t seen as two separate things. One of the problems I have with imagining cultural studies here in the U.S. is that too often it sees itself less as a homegrown movement that has been responding to moments of political crisis in the U.S., and more as an importation from the U.K. The immediacy of the particular conditions in Europe out of which the Centre grew, and the active engagement with and rewriting of Marxist theories that was happening, often seem to be absent in U.S. cultural studies. It was the conditions of schooling and education in which I was immersed that made Althusser a figure whose work was particularly important for me to work through and think about, for example.
I think what is often lost is the sense that what was happening in CCCS Birmingham at that moment is not the precondition for cultural studies as it is now; then it was very much about the particular, about the dramatic shift to an authoritarian state that was happening in the U.K. That was why we were doing the work that we were doing. It is wrong to reduce this history to the role of individuals, rather than to understand what political intervention Hoggart was trying to make, that Stuart tried to transform, that Raymond Williams was trying to make, what and why there was the need to think about Marxist theory, particularly as it was being transformed throughout Europe. Those historical questions seem to be forgotten in the reduction of those years of the Centre to a mythology. That’s where what we were trying to accomplish as cultural studies is most undermined; it becomes a mythologized period, not a period of political intervention. I actually don’t use the label “cultural studies” much in the U.S.
JW: What do you use?
HC: Gosh, I tend to avoid those all-encompassing labels. For me, it’s always a question of what are the key issues of debate with which you want to engage—so feminism and Marxism, absolutely, and to a certain extent postcolonial theory, very much critically. Most recently, absolutely key for me is the transnational question. In some ways American Studies has been a site where it’s been possible to recreate the historical urgency of certain questions of cultural studies and to address questions of crisis or particular formations, and American Studies here has had the flexibility to do that, but it’s also true that one of the aspects of American Studies that I find myself consciously struggling to address is the question of Americanism as it is experienced in other parts of the world. It is urgent to address the condition of those who suffer under American beneficence and interference or invasion as an integral part of American Studies, and that includes pushing black studies out from under the national umbrella of African American Studies to engage the world.
JW: Before Birmingham, you mentioned that you were a high school teacher, which is probably unusual compared to most of our colleagues. How did you come to do what you did?
HC: After I graduated with a BA in English and History, my professors encouraged me to think about graduate school; in fact they encouraged me to go the London School of Economics. I went for my interview and all the rest of it, but I really didn’t know what it was I wanted to do in graduate school and was told to come back when I did know why I wanted to attend the LSE.
JW: This was around 1970?
HC: Yes. I was interested in politics, so the LSE would have been a logical place to go, but on the other hand, I didn’t have a project that I really wanted to do. What I found interested me most was my own education, so I went and got a postgraduate degree in education from the Institute of Education at London University. I studied why the education system in Britain reproduced class division and gender division and why it was a site for the reproduction of racism rather than a site for challenging it. All of those questions made me want to think about questions of education from the inside, so I completed the postgraduate degree and I went and worked at a high school in the East End of London. The area suffered from high unemployment, and it was also an area of intense immigration, but it was headed by some very progressive figures in the Education Office, and there was a Labor Greater London Council running London from 1965 to 1986, which in 1971 took resources from wealthy boroughs and started to pour them into the poorest boroughs, reorganizing their educational systems. They were really transformative. What the GLC did was to put the most highly educated teachers in the poorest areas, so it was just incredible, the transformations that took place.
But when a conservative government was elected in 1970, Margaret Thatcher became Minister for Education and was antagonistic to the GLC program and started to dismantle it. Eventually, as Prime Minister, she would abolish the London government. That’s why the work of the Centre was so important to me. At CCCS they really were analyzing questions that had come to the fore in my experience as a high school teacher struggling to retain a progressive vision in antagonistic conditions. That’s why I didn’t want to go to just any graduate school; I knew that it was actually at the Centre that they were asking the pertinent questions both in terms of an increasing state authoritarianism and also the policing of black and brown bodies that I witnessed every single day.
JW: What did you teach?
HC: I was employed as a teacher of English, but for the first two years we had an integrated interdisciplinary curriculum. The school I was part of had gone comprehensive for the first time in 1972—before there had only been single-sex schools, and a predominance of secondary modern schools, for kids who had failed the eleven-plus exam and were just being funneled to the lowest sorts of manual labor. I wanted to question the sort of knowledge that was being placed in front of these children; I wanted to open up their relation to the rest of the world. I spent a lot of time using cameras and film equipment with my students, documenting their lives, documenting the world, or taking them to the theatre in the center of London. My pupils thought the center of London was a place they couldn’t go, were not meant to go, leave alone that they might actually dare to walk into theatres or concert halls. I would take them camping on the weekend, just to get them out of the area of East End and to understand that there were other parts of the country that they could make a claim to. My teaching was not just about what we were reading in terms of English books, though I was teaching a wide variety and diversity of literature. It was also about the work of making them feel that words and literature were something that they could control and use to name their own conditions.
One of the great influences on me was Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and in the evenings I was teaching adult literacy classes, I was teaching parents of my pupils to read, so for me every day was very much about thinking about an education system in relation to a whole community.
Another problem was the profound racism, with fascist groups or the police or whatever, so the black and brown kids were having a very hard time. Your classrooms had to be safe spaces but also laboratories for thinking about racism and why it existed, and what its genealogy was, what functions it served, and so classrooms were places for talking but also for transformation and confronting violence. It really was about enabling people to think of education as something that could be in their hands.
JW: Obviously it was a powerful experience for you. Now that you are a chaired professor at Yale, your position is much different. Do you ever think about doing work like that?
HC: Well, I have kept links with various high schools…
JW: In Connecticut?
HC: Oh, yes. In fact in one of the undergraduate seminars I’m teaching there is a segment for undergraduates working with high school students on the British Art Center’s emancipation exhibition, trying to get the public school pupils to think about what it means in their lives. Individually I have worked on different high school projects, with different teachers. We mounted a huge Langston Hughes conference and wrote to the Ford Foundation and received a big grant for it and involved the New Haven middle and high schools from the very beginning. I managed to get publishers to donate multiple copies of Langston Hughes’ work to all the New Haven schools, and had events that involved not just scholars, but, for example, the New Haven music community, and we took a whole series of performances, poetry readings, and jazz to the New Haven public schools. It’s not that hard to make the connections, but it takes some thought in terms of presenting what the high school and middle school teachers can use. You can’t just take some esoteric subject and assume that they can transform the curriculum. The fact that the publishers were willing to give books to the schools took some planning, but it wasn’t hard to do.
JW: To fill in the timeline, you were at Birmingham in 1979, and you had come over here in ’80 or ’81?
HC: I got my degree from Birmingham in ’84, so I was still attached to the Centre. I was there ’79-’82, and then I was coming more frequently to the U.S. I was there for three years pretty much full-time.
JW: It must have been a bit of a change to come to the States, although you mentioned over lunch that you had traveled here when you were in college and that you had relatives in the States.
HC: I didn’t actually imagine that I would ever stay in the U.S. I came to do research and to finish the dissertation. But the publication of The Empire Strikes Back made us unemployable in the U.K.—Paul Gilroy and I could not get jobs in the education system. So Paul went to work at the Greater London Council, a progressive bastion against Thatcher’s England, and he worked on the police oversight committee for years before he could get back into academia. When I was here doing research, Dick Ohmann was chair of the English department at Wesleyan, and they had a position for an assistant professor. He was a great fan of the work of the Centre, and when he met me and figured out what I was doing, he asked if I would apply there. So I got the job.
If I had gone back, like Paul I couldn’t have gone straight back into a teaching job. You cannot believe how profoundly alienated higher education was from the sorts of work that were represented in The Empire Strikes Back. African American studies existed here as an entity, but there wasn’t the equivalent in higher education in the U.K. Under Margaret Thatcher’s government, all studies on race were funded through the Home Office, and instead of being able to take your grant wherever you wanted, they actually instituted a system whereby you would be sent to certain designated institutions. The question of race was extremely sensitive and extremely contested, and in fact the Centre eventually had its grants taken away. I was the last person at CCCS to have a social science research grant. It wasn’t just the Centre that suffered; Sociology was decimated.
JW: I think it’s a salutary reminder, for students especially, to hear your story about The Empire Strikes Back, since at the time, in its own context, it was not in the mainstream or particularly rewarded.
HC: Students might want to ask themselves why there has never been an American edition of it. There have been editions of it all over the world. When I came to the U.S. one of the tasks I had for the race group was to find a publisher for an American edition. American publishers all told me exactly the same story, which was, one, nobody in the U.S. knew that there were black people in Britain, and, two, the only people who would care that there were black people in Britain was an African American audience, and, three, an African American readership did not constitute a category of readership according to publishers.
JW: I want to ask about your background. Your mother is Welsh and your father is from the Caribbean, so your story is different from a typical African American one. Or is it?
HC: Well, I came in the early 1980s with different concepts about racialization and diaspora. My critique of African American studies as a field was that it was parochial. It was too nationally based, and it didn’t have a sense even of enslavement in the Americas. For example, it always astonished me that African American history didn’t teach about Brazil, which is in fact where the largest percentage of enslaved persons were taken. In terms of the establishment of the field, it assumed that the story of enslavement in the U.S. was the paradigmatic story of all slave societies. Coming from an Afro-Caribbean background and growing up in Britain, I had a much broader and contemporary political sense of Africa—I was a member of the African Students Association, I was very politically active in protests against Rhodesian unilateral declaration, and I was involved in all those sorts of struggles. So coming to the U.S., African American studies seemed nationally bounded and narrow to me.
It took me a while to figure out the particular politics of the presence of African Americans in the academy, as supposedly bearers of this field, that wonderful way in which the American academy always manages to reduce what it sees as ethnic knowledge to particular bodies, so there was a lot at stake for African American intellectuals about who was teaching what, because it was the only way they got their foot in the door in the academy. But, on the other hand, I also knew that African American intellectuals were transnational intellectuals, whether you’re talking about Du Bois or about the fact that C. L. R. James went from the Caribbean to Britain and then the U.S. I knew there was a rich and complex transnational engagement of and by black intellectuals, but the establishment of the field after the civil rights struggle seemed to be much more narrowly bounded than the history of its own intellectuals, who had constantly engaged in transnational questions and were constantly in Europe and Africa. Often I was thought to be an outsider.
JW: How did you greet that?
HC: At first I thought it was a sign of parochialism, and then I had to understand the sensitive politics that surrounded the establishment of African American studies as a field. But I always practiced what I believed in, so if I was an outsider, so be it.
JW: Part of your heritage is Afro-Caribbean. Could you talk about that?
HC: Jamaican. My father’s Jamaican. I grew up in a far more integrated society than the U.S., so one of the shocking things about coming to Connecticut was how deeply segregated the country was and the area was. It was also an economic segregation; it was very clear that the questions of class and racialization were tied up with each other.
JW: In the nineties you turned to write Race Men. It’s kind of a reversal: rather than displacing the genealogy of great black men, as you did in Reconstructing Womanhood, you talk about exemplary figures you deem “race men.”
HC: Two projects come out of Reconstructing Womanhood. One grew out of a dissatisfaction with thinking about writing as the primary form of cultural production. It was going to be a book that was never written, but there’s a series of essays in Cultures in Babylon about women and music from it.
Race Men also comes out of Reconstructing Womanhood. A part of the critique of thinking about the turn of the century as the age of Washington and Du Bois is to insert women’s voices, but the other part of the critique is thinking about structures of masculinity and questions of racialization and racial politics. I was interested in thinking about the question of gendering in other and more complex ways, and it seemed to me that questions of black masculinity were the most sensitive topic and seemed to be off limits, so I really wanted to go there. The paradigmatic symbol of black suffering and black oppression in the United States was the lynched male body, and I wanted to dig around and also question what was at stake in notions of race and manhood.
JW: What did you find? I know the trajectory of the book is from Du Bois and Robeson and C. L. R. James up to Miles Davis and Danny Glover.
HC: I wanted to look at different forms of representation and at different cultural forms. There’s a chapter on photography and the way in which the black body entered photography. The chapter about Paul Robeson has his body at the center of it, but it is very much about the political work his body was doing at that moment in time. Then with C. L. R. James, very few people actually look at his cricketing essays. For me they were very important, not just because they culminate in one of the best examples of cultural studies, Beyond a Boundary, but because I saw him working out through these cricketing bodies and cricketing heroes a political figure of liberation. And then with Miles Davis, he was someone whose music was incredibly influential for me, but he was also this incredible misogynist, and I wanted to explore that. Yet another way of looking at that misogyny was homosociality and how worlds of men are constructed in jazz. The career of Danny Glover raised that sort of question. All these figures are iconic. It’s not a complete history of race men. Each man became an occasion for meditating upon what’s at stake in representations of the black male body.
What I also wanted to do throughout the book was to punctuate these questions of masculinity with this emerging work coming out by gay black men, so the whole book is punctuated with the words of Essex Hemphill. He was posing some extremely penetrating and acute questions about what was at stake in terms of black masculinity, but from one who, as a black male, was being excluded from those conversations about being a race man because of sexual politics. So the book tries to retain those conversations about what masculinity and sexual politics cost us in terms of the narrowing of the possibilities of representing who we are in all our multiplicity and all our complexity. Race Men is currently being translated into Japanese.
JW: Yale was a legendary center of grand theory during the era you arrived here. How do you relate to that tradition? They didn’t talk much about race.
HC: No, they didn’t, so I think the point is that the grand theories always presented themselves as being all encompassing and somehow universal. I was always working not just to reveal the parochial ethnic ignorance of racism in these other theories that pretended to be more encompassing; my work was never just about saying, “Hello, we’re over here, we’ve been absent but we have our canons too, we have our theories too, that can stand alongside yours.” I’ve always been about the business of questioning the whole process of forming canons, of forming traditions, from a theoretical standpoint, so I’ve always been concerned to question the conditions out of which these theories are produced, and who is included in the canon and who isn’t, from the point of view of the ideological and cultural work and relations that canon formation produces and maintains.
JW: What are you working on now?
HC: I’m working on a book called Child of Empire, which is about processes of racialization in Britain during and after World War II. It is both a historical project and a feminist project, but it also uses the story of my parents and my memories of what it was like to be a child of a black father and a white mother in the U.K., so it’s trying to use memory and history to play off each other. It’s not just a memoir; it’s trying to find a variety of narrative forms to tell a story which is still not really acknowledged within British history, and it’s trying to rewrite British historiography as being very much a transnational story, not an exclusively English one. It’s writing against Niall Ferguson’s notions of empire, but it’s also a response to a turn away from multiculturalism in Britain and a melancholic retrenchment. It’s written to establish a much more transnational and more cosmopolitan notion of what Britishness is and could become, as opposed to the notion of contemporary British writers trying to narrow down citizenship.
JW: Are there dangers of writing a memoir or generalizing from your own personal experience?
HC: I’m not generalizing from my own experience; I have undertaken a tremendous amount of historical research, for example, about the extraordinary amount of segregation during WWII to keep black troops and white women from each other, and the anxiety that the government had about the production of what it called “half-caste children.” So it’s really a case of a history being interspersed with questions of memory, or family connections to that history. It’s about trying to find a different form in which to be able to tell, or to talk about, lives that are not encompassed in conventional narrative forms, so it is informed by feminist theory and materialist theory, and a lot of historical research, as well as a family account.
JW: What else do you have on the horizon?
HC: I am actually the director of the Initiative on Race, Gender, and Globalization at Yale. We have a website with our activities and newsletter, and a lot of our work is bringing people to Yale who are doing groundbreaking transnational work, people who look at globalization as a problem and interrogate its effects. We sponsor conferences, colloquiums, films, events, speakers’ series, but it’s not about offering a degree. It’s an intellectual intervention and a political intervention. I teach courses that the speakers come to, as well as giving their own public lectures. So it also gives the students a chance to meet people from all over the world. We just had James Walvin, Achille Mbembe, Sara Nuttall, and John Comaroff this year, and I’ve run a conference on contemporary Caribbean politics. So one part of my work is trying to bring urgent transnational questions into the university community, those questions that Yale’s Center on Globalization would not ask, because that is the arm of the university that assumes that globalization is a good thing.
In another frame, I find myself teaching and trying to get undergraduates to imagine themselves as having some relation to change and the transformation of the future. If you think of the generations who left universities and went down south to register people to vote, they didn’t have any problem in thinking that they could be part of a transformative political structure. I think many students today don’t imagine that they can have any active role in what the future may look like, and I think we are facing a whole series of crises, on a number of fronts, where you really do need students to think very consciously that they have a role, that being some sort of financial consultant is not the only possible route open to them coming from an elite university. And, increasingly, you know one of those crises is environmental. So, I find myself teaching more and more about environmental literature, and of course what racialization has got to do with that.