Who Gets to Be British?

Coming Home

Hazel Carby’s personal history of British identity.


On June 22, 1948, a refitted German troopship that had once borne Nazi soldiers and Jews fated for the concentration camps landed outside London with an entirely different set of passengers. Aboard the Empire Windrush were hundreds of migrants from the West Indies who paid reduced fares, in response to ads from British employers looking for laborers abroad. During a now famous interview from the ship’s deck, a newsreel reporter prompted one passenger, Aldwyn Roberts, better known to history as the calypsonian Lord Kitchener, to sing a song he had composed in transit. “London is the place for me,” he crooned as the cameras rolled. “I am glad to know my mother country.” The ship carried the first large group of West Indians to migrate to Britain, and Lord Kitchener’s highly symbolic calypso captured their love for the “mother country” as sons and daughters of its empire, as well as their claim to belong there as British subjects born in British colonies.

Many aboard the Windrush were skilled laborers from Jamaica, Bermuda, Trinidad, and British Guiana (now Guyana). But there were also students, wives joining husbands already settled in Britain (many of whom served in the British armed forces during the war), and others who were returning home after a visit to their colonial birthplace. Whether Britain returned their love is arguable, but as the country was in need of workers, it eventually granted “indefinite leave to remain” to those aboard the Windrush and the nearly half million other West Indians settled in Britain by 1973. In the years since the ship’s arrival, “Windrush” has become shorthand for the pioneer generation of Caribbean migrants who went to the United Kingdom during and after World War II.

That generation’s sense of belonging and seven decades of British Caribbean existence were rocked when the British government in 2012 decided to create, in the words of then–Home Secretary (and future prime minister) Theresa May, “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” The strategy it embraced was to deport first and hear appeals later. “Go home” vans drove through London in an attempt to frighten people into “self-deporting.” New laws and rules required employers, landlords, charities, banks, and the National Health Service to check the immigration status of their employees, tenants, and clients and report back to the Home Office. From the outset, this hostile environment had catastrophic consequences, leading to wrongful deportations, homelessness, and medical crises for many. For the thousands of British Caribbeans who had been living legally in the country for decades, it was devastating. In what became known as the Windrush scandal, they lost their jobs, homes, pensions, health insurance, and right to remain in the country after various bodies reported them for lacking the correct papers.

The problem was that their status as British subjects became outdated with decolonization, and immigration laws tightened, becoming stricter retroactively. Because they lacked passports or naturalization certificates, roughly a tenth of Caribbeans and others from the Commonwealth who had legally settled in the UK were imperiled during the Windrush scandal. Many were forced to search desperately for school records, childhood photographs, `property tax bills, any and every scrap of paper that might attest to their continuous residency in the United Kingdom since their arrival. If they didn’t have personal archives, they were compelled to build them in the process of gathering evidence. Yet even with an extensive paper trail to prove their Britishness, some couldn’t convince the Home Office. At least 164 people were detained or deported to countries they hadn’t seen since childhood or, in some cases, ever. Eleven died after being sent back.

In the spring of 2018, when investigations by The Guardian finally made this catastrophe public, David Lammy, a Labour MP from London and the son of Windrush-era immigrants from Guyana, rose in Parliament to shame and scold the government for its actions. As he recounts in the foreword to Mother Country (2018), a gut-wrenching anthology of writing by descendants of the Windrush generation, he had considered beginning his speech with his parents’ story of sacrifice and their encounters with racism in the UK, but instead he started with a history lesson to highlight the role of Caribbeans in making Britain. “The relationship between this country and the West Indies…is inextricable,” he proclaimed. “The first British ships arrived in the Caribbean in 1623, and despite slavery and colonization, 25,000 Caribbeans served in the First and Second World Wars alongside British troops.”

The Windrush story—from the arrival of the first British Caribbeans to the piercing betrayals suffered by their descendants—goes to the existential heart of what it means to be British. Lammy’s moment in Parliament pointed to the central dilemma for any descendant of Windrush in telling that story: It is a political one but also one inseparable from personal trauma. In her recent book Imperial Intimacies, Hazel Carby, a Windrush descendant, gives us both, narrating the struggle of black Britons to be accepted as British as well as the story of her own mixed-race family extending back to the 18th century. She frames her arguments as Lammy did, in the long arc of history that starts with the British slave trade and continues into the present. Wrestling with the ambiguities of her family history and the correct (as well as bearable) ways to use the personal, she forces us to rethink the very meaning of British identity, for both white and black Britons. One cannot understand British society today without understanding the role that racialization and empire have played in forming it.

Carby, who retired last year as a professor of African American and American studies at Yale, has established herself as a wide-ranging scholar of black masculinity and feminism. Having dedicated her career to examining the art, lives, and ideas of everyone from W.E.B. Du Bois and Miles Davis to Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston, she now turns inward and examines the experience of generations of her family, offering us an arresting, courageous, and urgently needed memoir that doubles as social, cultural, and political history. With much of Europe and the United States tilting toward nationalist and anti-immigrant politics and with governments demanding documents and redefining citizenship in countries from the United Kingdom to India, the stakes of Carby’s story are high and increasingly global. She and her family were not victims of the Windrush scandal, but the narrative she weaves—one fundamentally about belonging, empire, race, and so-called Britishness—is no less devastating and captures the precarity of brown and black British life, both materially and psychologically.

Carby’s story begins just before the Windrush landed. Born in Devon, England, five months before the ship’s arrival, she grew up in London and its outskirts, where her parents had settled after the war. Her father, Carl Carby, was originally from Jamaica, but he didn’t talk much about the “difficult times” of his upbringing there and instead spoke mostly of his war years as a flight sergeant in the Royal Air Force. (“It was as if,” his daughter quips, “he had been born an airman in the Royal Air Force.”) His military service took him to Britain in 1943, and it was there that he met his future wife, Iris, a Welsh Air Ministry clerk, at an RAF dance.

The cultural routines and instructional drills of empire had already given them grounds for intimacy. As Hazel Carby writes, “both of my parents grew up poor on islands more than 4,000 nautical miles apart from each other…. But they were not strange to each other when they met.” As schoolchildren, both had recited nationalistic English poems, sung patriotic anthems, and marched in Empire Day school processions. As a result, both felt proud to be British and understood that identity to mean a duty shouldered and a valor demonstrated across the globe.

Their shared British education inculcated a sense that the essence of British character was a beneficent worldliness, even though British colonization was so clearly exploitative and brutal, from the West Indies to South Asia. In fact, Carl Carby felt so British that after Jamaica became independent in 1962, he didn’t relinquish his British colonial passport for a Jamaican one. He didn’t even attempt to renew his passport to travel abroad until 1978, when he decided to visit some siblings in America. In a case that foreshadowed the systemic Windrush betrayals, a racist Home Office bureaucrat disdainfully swept his documents—his RAF papers and expired colonial passport—off her desk, dismissing them as forgeries and Carby as an illegal immigrant; he was forced to obtain a Jamaican passport so he could travel to the United States. It wasn’t until 2004, near the end of his life and after a half century in Britain, that Carby, still asking for “kind consideration,” was finally allowed to become a British citizen.

As his ordeal shows and as any victim of the Windrush scandal can attest, documents are a double-edged sword. In the hands of the state, they hold the potential to disenfranchise as much as to validate. Such was the nature of the dossier that Carl Carby gathered over the many years he struggled to gain formal citizenship: his property deeds, his government employee service award, his decades of written petitions. Documents can be as tricky for historians as for migrants. Official records, which so often elide and misrepresent subaltern lives and experiences, have been the handmaiden to empire, indenture, and enslavement. Hazel Carby reads her father’s file as a sign of “the shifting racist terrain of the rules and regulations of British immigration.” At the same time, she uses these records and countless others she unearthed in libraries and archives in Jamaica and the United Kingdom to help tell her story.

Carby turns to these archives, she tells us, as “a relief” after traversing equally disturbing ground: the terrain of memory, where she goes with her often reticent, ultimately dementia-stricken father and her martyrlike mother, drawn there by “the instinct of a moth flying toward the open flame of their resentments.” Memory exposes Carby to her emotions, which she normally kept sequestered from her work, and to the inevitable distortions of people recalling their past. Despite her trepidation, she is able to move deftly between a problematic paper trail and fallible human memory like a tightrope walker navigating a tense thread of colonial exploitation, racist rejection, crushing poverty, inescapable disease, and gender-based violence.

Carby does a lot of actual walking as well. In almost Sebaldian fashion, she goes on exploratory rambles through unfamiliar landscapes in Wales, England, and Jamaica, hoping to recover what is inaccessible to both memory and archive. As the owner of this history, she takes the liberty of engaging in some speculative flights. She imagines herself walking with her grandmother through Bristol, encountering ads for lantern slide shows meant to lure tourists to colonial Jamaica and to boast of Britain’s empire. In another fanciful excursion, she imagines the moment an English coffee planter is nagged by his Jamaican bedmate into writing their shared children into his will. And to understand her father’s “difficult times” on the island, she uses traditional historical sources to place him in the context of Jamaica’s hunger marches and anticolonial labor uprisings in the late 1930s, when Carl Carby was a bookkeeper’s assistant in a Kingston hardware store. But she can only speculate about his involvement: “There are reports that clerks and shop assistants, gathering on the tops of buildings, clapped their hands for the police as they chased and harassed protestors. Could my father have clapped?” With such high-wire acts of historical imagination, she lends daring to her foray into her family’s past.

Carby grounds these moments of speculation and invention in skeptical, careful scholarship, and there is little doubt about the exhaustive and exacting nature of her work, which draws from a vast transatlantic trove of archives. The black presence in the UK during the war, she tells us, included 130,000 American GIs and 15,000 West Indians, in the country either as enlisted servicemen or laborers recruited to keep the munitions factories humming. An entire system of segregation was erected in this period to prevent nonwhites from mingling socially and sexually with whites. Leave passes were granted on alternating days, separate rooms were set aside in pubs, blocs of movie theater seats were reserved by race. The policy was intended to remain unwritten and covert, but traces in the archives run counter to the official story. A high-ranking British general’s 1942 “Notes on Relations With Coloured Troops,” for example, allows Carby to contest her mother’s memory that black and white troops weren’t segregated. The general warns white enlisted men against befriending their black counterparts. White women, he instructs, “should not walk out, dance or drink with them.”

Carby also uses newspaper articles and other primary sources to document the disparagement, censure, and punishment of white women who rebelled against these rules. Local police arrested couples found in the fields on charges of damaging crops or, if caught on base, of trespass. If the women were troops in auxiliary units, they were reported to their superiors, whose orders forbade speaking to black servicemen. Carby shares a 1944 letter to her mother from a cousin, stationed abroad, belittling the intelligence of black troops and declaring, “How the English girls can allow themselves to be mauled about by them like we read of in the papers beats me.”

From the point of view of Iris Carby, neither private nor public papers were necessary to prove the costs of her relationship with her Jamaican husband. No family or friends attended their wedding; passing strangers had to bear witness. And since no landlord would rent to the interracial couple, they lived separately in South London until they could afford a deposit on a house so bomb-damaged that only one room was habitable. The pressures these conditions put on their relationship are close to the surface. The couple eventually grew embittered and estranged from each other. There was physical violence, an attempted suicide, and ultimately a divorce.

For Hazel Carby, however, the steady accretion of documentation deeply matters. Snippets of text, along with images from family albums, century-old tourist postcards from Jamaica, and illustrated cigarette cards from the British Empire’s heyday are set off from the main narrative as insets, floating on the page like pastings in a scrapbook. The bricolage includes passages from Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, and Stuart Hall and excerpts from the British general’s admonishing notes and from the British Nationality Act of 1948, which conferred the status of British subject on every person in the empire but reserved the special category of “British stock” for the white ones. With these clippings gathered as evidence, and with Imperial Intimacies as a whole, Carby presents a powerful dossier testifying to her Britishness—testifying, in fact, for the many who have had to battle to be seen as British from an early age.

If black servicemen and the white women who loved them were policed and humiliated, their children were treated as a “threat to national cultural identity” and, in the most abject cases, as a baffling social dilemma, a problem best exported if possible. Carby tells of the plight of children abandoned to orphanages while local communities lobbied for them to be adopted abroad, and she discovers that in the year of her birth, welfare agencies handled the cases of 775 unwanted children who had West Indian or African American servicemen as their fathers. She uses archival evidence to expose the “‘gentleman’s agreement’ to prevent mixed marriages” that led to the orphaning of so many children. Social workers and families alike counseled white women against marrying black men, and troops were denied permission to marry by superiors who transferred them away.

In the English countryside near Somerset, Carby walks the grounds of a mansion that once was a home for abandoned mixed-race children, not far from the fields where she used to walk hand in hand with her white grandfather. As she excavates the story of that particular orphanage, she moves between reminiscences of her childhood summers in the area and details from the letters and unpublished autobiography of a local headmistress who wanted to enroll the children in her boarding school. Carby goes so far as to compare family photos of herself with a photo of a girl from the orphanage she finds in Life magazine. She sees herself in this girl; each likely had to struggle to be who she was—both brown and British. Rebuffed and contradicted, punched and called “wog” and “half-caste,” Carby has written a book for all those whose belonging and whose Britishness have been questioned and all those who have had to “prove” that their mixed identity is not “an impossibility between two mutually exclusive terms” but, rather, an integral and suppressed part of the very story of Britishness.

If one of Carby’s coping strategies in Imperial Intimacies is to turn to the archives, another is the ability to split herself in two to tell the story of her devastating childhood. She opens the book by invoking a character she calls “the girl” and then narrates her early years in the third person. “Resurrecting the world of this girl,” she explains, “is risky for my sense of self, a self which has been carefully assembled out of a refusal to acknowledge or remember.” In one compressed passage, an arresting distillation of unforgotten pain, Carby describes the girl’s rape at age 9 in the foyer of a white school friend’s house. Here, as elsewhere, she wrestles with the idea that the past isn’t really past: The inherited traumas of generations—the ghosts of violated enslaved women—ultimately haunt her own trauma. Archives are not enough to escape from this compounded pain.

Imperial Intimacies achieves its full power in these moments when Carby places herself wholly in the narrative. She is not just a scholar but “the girl,” both vulnerable and defiant, as well as a daughter in search of her father’s past. Looking for his—and her—history in Jamaica, she drives down Kingston’s streets to the single-story house in a penitentiary’s shadow where Carl Carby was born. She travels through a coastal English village to explore a church of significance to an unexpected ancestor, a poor carpenter’s son from that village in Lincolnshire, dispatched as a mere foot soldier to Jamaica in the 18th century, who rose to own a small coffee plantation and who fathered children with some of the enslaved people who worked it.

A conversation with her father leads her to a startling epiphany about this village. Flying back one night in 1944 from a sortie across the English Channel, Carl Carby sought out the beacon of the parish church in order to locate his RAF base. “When he saw its light, my father knew he was home, in England,” Carby writes in closing. What her father never knew was that one of his great-great-great-grandfathers, the coffee planter Lilly Carby, was baptized in this very church. By entwining the personal with the political, Imperial Intimacies is able to make history’s heartbreaking ironies visible. The black airman who fought for the right to be recognized as British was from birth already a son of its soil.

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