Hazel Carby portrait
For more than twenty
years Hazel V. Carby has been redefining African American studies.
Born in Britain of Jamaican and Welsh parentage, she has broadened
the range of African American scholarship by situating it in the
larger context of the international black diaspora. Carby has also
introduced to the field her own distinctive style of Marxist feminism.
Focused as much on social conditions and material realities as on
literature, her work not only gives voice and prominence to previously
overlooked women writers but also examines political activists,
artists, popular musicians and other African American cultural figures.
When Carby's attention turns to contemporary society, she deftly
exposes the contradictions between fashionable forms of racial inclusion
and less visible but more insidious structures of ethnic exclusion
that operate in today's global economy. Indeed, detecting and probing
discrepancies between the symbolic constructions of African American
experience and the literal lives of black people is one of her signature
Currently, Carby is
the Charles C. and Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of African American
Studies and Professor of American Studies at Yale, where she has
taught since 1989. Before joining the Yale faculty she was at Wesleyan
University for seven years. A graduate of the Centre for Contemporary
Cultural Studies, she received her Ph.D. from the University of
Birmingham, U.K. in 1984. From 1972 to 1979 Carby worked as a high
school English teacher and labor organizer in the East End of London.
The author of many wide-ranging essays, her books include Reconstructing
Womanhood (Oxford University Press, 1987), Race Men (Harvard
University Press, 1998), and Cultures in Babylon (Verso,
Carby's most recent
book, Cultures in Babylon, collects essays from her entire,
twenty-year publishing career. Divided into four sections - "Women,
Migration and the Formation of a Blues Culture," "Black
Feminist Interventions," "Fictions of the Folk,"
and "Dispatches from the Multicultural Wars" - these intellectual
explorations reveal both the scope and sharp political edge of Carby's
scholarship. She celebrates, for example, popular blues singers
of the 1920s, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, whose frank enjoyment
of both their sexuality and independence she contrasts with the
more circumscribed approach of middle-class black women writers.
Carby is also overtly polemical, as when she highlights the inconsistency
of privileged academic institutions that deny benefits and living
wages to their non-academic employees - often female and black -
while glossily proclaiming multicultural equality in their curricula.
In another essay Carby's subtle reading of Zora Neale Hurston provocatively
suggests that Their Eyes Were Watching God may have "become
the most frequently taught black novel because it acts as a mode
of assurance that, really the black folk are happy and healthy." Diverse though her
inquiries might be, Carby's scholarship is unified throughout by
a meticulous exploration of the material, cultural, and historical
implications of her subjects of study. As Carby herself writes of
the inclusive nature of her intellectual theory and praxis:
As a black cultural
critic, I consistently try to broaden the use of terms like "intellectual"
and "cultural producer" to include other cultural practices
like music and film to disrupt the ways in which the description
of intellectuals is often limited to practices based on writing
and/or to people employed as professors.
Such deliberate broadening
of the canon of cultural and literary studies has been apparent
since Carby's early work. In Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence
of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, Carby focuses on the literary
writings and political personas of important but overlooked late
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century black women intellectuals,
examining the way these women attempted to use their work to effect
societal change. Much critical attention in African American studies,
Carby argues, has been given to male figures of this period, such
as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, consequently marginalizing
their significant female counterparts. By recuperating the literary
contributions of Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins and the political
writings of Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells, Carby seeks to map
more fully the historical ground for such later cultural flowerings
as the Harlem Renaissance and to furnish the necessary cultural
context for contemporary black women writers. Reconstructing this
vibrant, combative, and neglected tradition of African American
womanhood, Carby critiques the work of contemporary white feminist
critics, who nostalgically and erroneously discover a "lost
sisterhood" between black and white women. The suffrage and
temperance movements, she reminds us, were far from racially inclusive,
and white women of the period largely "allied themselves not
with black women but with a racist patriarchal order against all
Much black feminist
criticism, Carby also claims, suffers from the limitation of assuming
a commonality of experience between the critic and her subjects,
thereby "reducing the experience of all black women to a common
denominator and limiting black feminist critics to an exposition
of an equivalent black 'female imagination.'"
By examining closely the historical and cultural specificity of
a diverse body of texts from the nineteenth-century narratives of
ex-slaves to the early twentieth-century urban-based writings of
Nella Larsen and Jessica Fausset, Carby's Reconstructing Womanhood
offers a different paradigm of critical feminist analysis. "What
I want to advocate," she writes, "is that black feminist
criticism be regarded critically as a problem, not a solution, as
a sign that should be interrogated, a locus of contradictions."
Such incisive self-reflexive turns are exemplary of Carby's consistent
attempt to disrupt complacent academic assumptions and to open up
black studies to broader and more profound interrogation.
Carby begins Race
Men with the stark contrast between those few highly visible
and commercially viable black bodies of today's sporting and entertainment
celebrities and the greater mass of black bodies that languish unseen
in the North American penal system. From this disturbing discrepancy,
Carby proceeds to question what is historically and culturally involved
in the construction of "race men." Examining some key
academic, literary, artistic and entertainment figures, she "considers
the cultural and political complexity of particular inscriptions,
performances, and enactments of black masculinity on a variety of
stages." She shows how a restrictive
and ultimately conservative version of black masculinity was adopted
by some "race men" to provide cultural and sartorial armor
against a racist white culture. However, Carby argues, such defensive
identities can only be maintained by repressing contradictions within
heterosexual masculinity itself and by refusing to countenance the
voices of black women and gay black men. Even at the time of Carby's
writing in the late 1990s, and despite their substantial cultural
achievements and scholarly contributions, "the intellectual
work of black women and gay men is not thought to be of enough significance
to be engaged with, argued with, agreed or disagreed with."
Race Men, which
had its genesis as The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University,
starts by "analyz[ing] the intellectual and political thought
and feeling of Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk from the
perspective of its gendered structure precisely because it is such
an important intellectual work."
Though The Souls of
Black Folk may not represent a "particularly egregious
example of sexist thinking,"
nonetheless, Carby argues, Du Bois employs an unacknowledged gendered
concept of racial and national identity in order to promote his
ideal of an African American fraternity. Therefore, all women, and
those men who do not adhere to these masculine codes, are denied
any real access to his imagined black community.
In subsequent chapters
of Race Men, Carby examines an array of black twentieth-century
masculinities represented through literature, political commentary,
photography, film and music. She analyzes instances that reinforce
the ideology of "race men" and others that complicate
it: the modernist aestheticization of Paul Robeson and his ultimate
political refusal of this pose; the invention of the "folk"
singer and reformed criminal Huddie Ledbetter; the difference between
Miles Davis' misogynistic writings and his more fluidly gendered
musical practice; the radical work of the gay black science fiction
writer Samuel Delany; and the prominent career of the film actor
Danny Glover. Throughout this variety of topics, Race Men
views the three-piece suits donned by black intellectual figures
from Du Bois to Cornel West as material representations of a confining
notion of black masculinity. As counterweight and contrast, Carby
weaves the writings of the gay black poet Essex Hemphill: "I
am eager to burn/this threadbare masculinity/this perpetual black
suit/ I have outgrown."
Hazel Carby's work similarly represents a maturation of African
American feminist studies, moving it beyond established structures
and modes of inquiry.
Marking further departures,
Professor Carby's current research includes a history of radical
and sexual politics in the UK since World War II, provisionally
titled Britain in Black and White, a series of essays on
radical black women, and a critical analysis of Octavia Butler's
Her lecture is entitled:
Child of Empire: Racializing Subjects in Post World War Two Britain.
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The
Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York and
Oxford: OUP, 1987, p.6.
Ibid., p. 10.
Ibid., p. 15.
Carby, Hazel V. Race Men: The W. E. B. Du Bois
Lectures. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press,
1998, p. 2
Text by Annette Keogh, Assistant Curator, British and American Literature
Stanford University Libraries (c)2003.