What histories do we inherit? In the current crisis of Brexit—which points to larger global shifts toward nationalism and xenophobia—there is no more urgent a book than preeminent black British feminist theorist Hazel V. Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (Verso, 2019) to answer this fraught question. This exceptional book deserves an exceptional reception. And so, this week, Public Books will publish not only an interview with Carby but five individual responses—one of which takes the form of a soundtrack—to her book, her work, and her legacy. These responses form an album of inheritance.
The way that contemporary Great Britain works to erase its sins, its empire, and its subjects is what Carby’s book works against. The conditions that allowed for the original Brexit referendum are those of imperial forgetting. Amid the ongoing morass of Brexit, Imperial Intimacies does not allow the reader to forget. Carby reveals the various entangled island political economies of British Empire, and she does so by illuminating the lives of ordinary working folk—specifically, members of her own family from Jamaica, England, and Wales—and how they fit into a global history.
Like Carby, I have also traced my family history to bills of sale of African enslavement, last wills and testaments bequeathing people as property to inherit, and the plantocracy of Jamaica, going back to 17th-century England. Given these similarities, I felt like her ideal reader.
And yet, in her preface, Carby states that the ideal reader of her book (following the provocations of Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid) is someone who disagrees with her: someone who argues against what she writes, who disapproves of the style in which it is written, who assumes they cannot identify with her. She hopes to reach those who do not automatically have empathy for her political and intellectual worlds. These include those Brexit voters who chose “leave,” those who ask where she is really from, and those who deny that Britain has committed colonial atrocities.
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