Jeffrey J. Williams with Hazel Carby

Hazel Carby
Hazel Carby

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.

The Geography of Accumulation: David Harvey with Jeffrey J. Williams

photo of David Harvey
David Harvey

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with David Harvey took place September 20, 2007 and originally appeared in minnesota review Fall/Winter 2007 (69). Transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: I want to cover the arc of your work and how you went from Explanation in Geography to A Brief History of Neoliberalism. But first, because the readers of minnesota review are largely a cultural studies audience and the book we probably know the best is The Condition of Postmodernity, I want to ask about that. It’s become a canonical theory book explaining the shift in production from Fordism to post-Fordism during the 1970s. How did you come to outline this change to post-Fordism?

David Harvey: I think there were a number of things going on around that time. I was getting irritated by the material coming out in the name of postmodernism, whatever that was. I was finding more and more people talking about it, and I think that, for people like myself who were coming out of a more straight Marxist tradition, you had to face up to either ignoring it or confronting it. At some point or other, I decided I’d confront it and try to reinterpret it. Since it seemed to me nobody really knew what postmodernism was, there was an opening there. But also it seemed to me I was fairly well-equipped because I had written this lengthy study on Second Empire Paris, where I had used people like Baudelaire and Zola and Balzac to help me interpret some of the shift into modernity during that period. So I felt that I had a good grasp on, if you like, the cultural transformations that occurred in Second Empire Paris alongside of the political economy, and I could redeploy it to the contemporary period.