Carby, Hazel 1948–
Hazel Carby 1948–
Educational administrator, author
Professor Hazel Carby, chair of the African American studies department at Yale University, is a pioneering critic in the field of black feminism. Her first book, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, was an early and extremely influential study on black women writers. Carby followed this with Race Men: The Body and Soul of Race, Nation, and Manhood, an exploration of sexism within the black community. Her most recent book, Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America is a collection of essays on various subjects, written over the last 20 years.
As a native Briton, Carby defined African American studies much more broadly than many other well-known scholars, who tend to focus only on the United States. As chair, Carby has encouraged an interdisciplinary approach, taking into account the experiences of blacks in Europe, North and South America, and the Caribbean. “Academics are increasingly interested in a ’Black Atlantic,’” Carby said in a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography. “You can’t understand U.S. history by itself. You have to understand much wider histories in relation to each other,” she explained.
Hazel V. Carby was born on January 15, 1948 in Oakhamton, Devon, Great Britain. She was the daughter of Iris Muriel Carby, who came from a poor Welsh family, and Carlin Colin Carby, a Jamaican. Her father had joined the Royal Air Force, and was stationed in Britain; the couple met at a social event at an air base in Worcester.
“At the time, an interracial marriage was very much frowned upon,” Carby told CBB. The Carbys decided to settle in London, but found that no landlords would rent to them; eventually, they had to buy a house just so they would have somewhere to live. Carby’s father found work as an accounts clerk for the city of Westminster, while her mother worked as a secretary at the Ugandan Embassy.
As a young child, Carby showed a talent for ballet. She won a scholarship to a ballet school, and trained to become a professional dancer from the ages of four to seventeen. During her drama classes at school, however, she developed an interest in reading. Eventually, Carby decided to study literature rather than pursue a career as a dancer. “My ballet teachers wouldn’t speak to me afterwards,” she recalled to CBB.
Neither of Carby’s parents had gone to college, and they did not encourage her to pursue an academic career. “My parents just wanted my brother and me to be the best,” Carby told CBB. “I attended all-white schools, and faced a lot of racism. Success was a strategy for dealing with it,” she continued.
Carby went on to study English literature and history at Portsmouth Polytechnic, earning a B.A. with honors in 1970. After graduating, she moved to London, where
At a Glance…
Born Hazel V. Carby, Oakharnton, Devon, Great Britain, Jan. 15, 1948; daughter of Carlin Coiin and iris Muriel Carby; married Michael Denning, May 29, 1982; one son, Nicholas Carby-Denning. Education: B.A., English and history, Portsmouth Polytechnic, 1970; P.G.C.E. (teaching certificate), institute of Education, London University, 1972; M.A.,Birming-ham University Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1979; Ph.D.,Birmingham University Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1984.
Career: High school teacher, London, 1972-79; Yale University, lecturer, English department, 1981-82; Wesleyan University, instructor, English dept., 1982-84, assistant professor, 1985-88; associate professor, 1988-89; Yale University, professor of English, American and African American studies, 1989-94, professor of American studies and African American studies, 1994-, chair, African American studies, 1996-; author, Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America, 1999, Race Men: The Body and Soul of Race, Nation, and Manhood, 1998, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, 1987; co-author/editor, The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins, 1988; The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain, 1982.
Member: Editorial boards for Yale Journal of Criticism, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies
Addresses: Office —Department of African American Studies, Yale University, P.O. Box 2288, Yale Station, New Haven, CT 06520.
she earned a teaching certificate from London University’s Institute of Education in 1972. Her own experience as a black student in Britain had inspired her to become a teacher, Carby recalled to CBB. “What most intrigued me was my own education,” she said. “The education system had been institutionally racist, and I was interested in how it worked,” she recollected.
In the early 1970s, the British government was revamping its public education system, offering incentives for highly trained people to teach in inner-city schools. Carby landed a job at a high school in Newham, an economically deprived area in northeast London. She taught there for seven years, from 1972 to 1979. “It was a wonderful experience,” Carby said was quoted as saying to CBB. “The teachers were very committed to democratizing the system. It transformed an entire generation,” she continued.
However, when Margaret Thatcher—who would later become Britain’s first woman prime minister—became minister for education, she began to dismantle many of the programs that Carby supported. “It was bitter to see this,” Carby told CBB. At the encouragement of one of her professors at the University of London, Carby decided to give up teaching and return to graduate school.
In 1979 Carby earned a master’s degree from the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. During her years in graduate school, she co-edited the book The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain; she also wrote a chapter that focused on the education system. Published in 1982, the book received a great deal of critical attention—but it took such a radical political stance that “after the publication of the book, I was basically unemployable in the U.K.,” Carby recalled to CBB.
Nevertheless, Carby began working on her Ph.D. thesis, which centered on slave narratives written by women. During the course of her research, she met the chair of African American studies at Yale University, who offered her a job as a lecturer in the English department. Carby taught at Yale from 1981 to 1982, then accepted a position as an instructor at Wesleyan University. That year, Carby married Michael Denning; they have one son, Nicholas Carby-Denning.
In 1984 Carby completed her thesis and received a Ph.D. from Birmingham University. Carby’s thesis would later become her first book, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, published in 1987. The book—described by Anne E. Fernald in the Boston Book Review as “a landmark...study of African-American women novelists”—quickly established Carby’s reputation.
Meanwhile, she continued to advance at Wesleyan, becoming an assistant professor in 1985 and an associate professor in 1988. In 1989, Carby returned to Yale University, accepting a position as professor of English, American, and African American studies. Initially, she taught a broad range of courses in all three disciplines, “but my interests changed, and I became more interested in the development of African American studies,” Carby told CBB. In 1994 she became a professor of American studies and African American studies. Two years later, she was appointed chair of African American studies, a position she currently holds.
In 1988 Carby published her second book, Race Men: The Body and Soul of Race, Nation, and Manhood, which grew out of a series of lectures she had delivered on race and masculinity. Like her first book, Race Men received positive reviews in many American and British publications. Maurice Berger’s review in the Village Voice was typical: “While a number of African American women in the race movement have accused their male counterparts of sexism in recent years, few have done so as authoritatively as Hazel Carby in this groundbreaking book.”
“Hazel V. Carby…offers a revealing look at the images of black manhood and masculinity in America…,” Charles A. Brooks wrote in Black Issues Book Review. “The strength of Race Men lies in Carby’s absorbing observations of various dimensions of black masculinity, manifested through such genres as music, literature, film and photography,” he continued.
In 1999 Carby published her third book, Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America. “It’s a collection of work that ranges over 20 years,” Carby told CBB. “It includes previously published and unpublished work that didn’t end up in Reconstructing Womanhood or Race Men, organized by theme,” she explained. Subjects explored in the book range from sexual politics and the blues, the limitations of sisterhood between white and black feminists, racial anxiety, and disputes over multiculturalism.
While Carby’s work is primarily intended for an academic audience, her writing style is simple and clear enough to appeal to ordinary readers. “I try to make my work accessible,” Carby told CBB. “It’s not dumbing down. People don’t give wide readership enough credit. I’m interested in engaging with a wider audience,” she explained.
While Carby continued to gain praise for her academic work, she felt that Yale did not treat African American studies with the respect it deserved. In the spring of 2000, Carby briefly resigned her post as chair, protesting the fact that the program was not yet a full department. “I had been working toward that for years. It was ridiculous that we weren’t a department,” Carby recalled to CBB. “We have the leading Ph.D. program in the country,” she continued. Shortly after she tendered her resignation, the program was granted departmental status, and she agreed to return to her job.
Carby’s plans for the African American studies department include a greater focus on interdisciplinary studies, and an emphasis on non-North American aspects. “At the moment, African American studies is very parochial,” Carby was quoted as saying to CBB. “But you can’t just look at African American history in terms of the United States. Most African Americans are in Brazil, not the U.S.—but African American studies is seen in an uncritical nationalist context. You have to understand it in a wider context,” she concluded.
Carby has delivered lectures at colleges and universities all over the world, including Columbia University, Stanford University, the University of Paris, University of Toronto, and the University of Melbourne. She has published countless articles in academic publications, and is a member of the editorial boards for the Yale Journal of Criticism and Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies.
Carby’s current projects include an essay about black influences on the “Riverdance” and other popular Irish culture, and an essay on the state of African American studies today. She is also working on a new book-length project on radical black women of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
Contemporary Authors, vol.154.
Yale Herald, March 2, 2000.
Additional information was obtained from the curriculum vitae of Hazel V. Carby, a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography on July 14, 2000, and online from the Harvard University Press, www.hup.harvard.edu/reviews.
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