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.