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Hazel V. Carby
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 achievements.

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, 1999).

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."[1] 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.[2]

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 black people."[3]

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.'"[4] 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."[5] 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."[6] 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."[7]

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."[8] Though The Souls of Black Folk may not represent a "particularly egregious example of sexist thinking,"[9] 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."[10] 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 science fiction.

Her lecture is entitled: Child of Empire: Racializing Subjects in Post World War Two Britain.

Hazel Carby's images

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Carby, Hazel V. Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African American. London and New York: Verso, 1999, p.182

[2] Ibid., p.95

[3] Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York and Oxford: OUP, 1987, p.6.

[4] Ibid., p. 10.

[5] Ibid., p. 15.

[6] Carby, Hazel V. Race Men: The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 2

[7] Ibid., p.5

[8] Ibid., p.12.

[9] Ibid., p.12.

[10] Ibid., p.7.


Text by Annette Keogh, Assistant Curator, British and American Literature
Stanford University Libraries (c)2003.



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