Zippin' Up My Boots, Going Back to my Routes


The opening chapter of Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands is titled “Where Are You From?” It is a seemingly benign question that appears, perhaps at the first time of being asked, innocent enough. But for some of us, “Where are you from?” is as loaded a question as can be imagined (Carby renders it as The Question!). In Carby’s estimation and recollection, the question carries with it implied accusations of not quite belonging or, indeed, not belonging at all. Though Carby posits the asker and the asked in explicitly loaded terms, the question was brought up, in an altogether different type of context, by none other than James Baldwin. In the opening minutes of Horace Ové’s Baldwin’s Nigger — described by the British Film Institute as a “documentary of a lecture by eminent American author and political commentator James Baldwin, accompanied by comedian and author Dick Gregory” — Baldwin baldly states that his name was, somewhere in his lineage, the name of whoever owned his ancestor or distant relative: “At some point in our history I became ‘Baldwin’s nigger.’ That’s how I got my name.” This is after he recalls, with elements of caustic humor, his being asked “the question,” as many of us as black Britons have been asked over the years, from childhood into adulthood. In the film, Baldwin recollects a visit to the British Museum, during which he found himself being insistently asked the far-from-innocuous question by a “West Indian who worked there.” Baldwin recalled the skeptical response he received to his answers of having been born in Harlem, in New York, in such and such hospital, and so on. With the question being repeated, apparently with ever-greater exasperation, Baldwin turned to biographical details of the locations of the birth states or cities of not only himself but also his parents. His final answer: “My mother was born in Maryland, my father was born in New Orleans, I was born in New York.” Which prompted the man’s final attempt at the dreaded question: “Yes, but before that, where were you born?” Though Baldwin delivers the anecdote with his characteristic dry humor, it might strike us that the children of the West Indian British Museum custodian were themselves likely to be asked the very same question by white people firm in their belief that black people in Britain (or black people with British accents) were always from somewhere else, did not (quite) belong, and indeed represented an irreconcilable contradiction that forever rendered them as alien.

What’s in a name? The answer is, of course, a great deal. Imperial Intimacies chronicles not only Carby’s quest to trace the contrasting, overlapping, and intertwined branches of her family tree but also her quest to trace her surname itself, the twin quests having endless complications. Baldwin cut to the chase. In “Everytime A Ear de Soun’,” the Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka exclaims, with palpable exasperation, “De soun’ dat is nat my name / Missa Brown, Missa White, dat nuh right.”3 Baldwin might have considered his name to be a done deal, and the likes of Mutabaruka might put aside their “slave name,” but Carby aims to do something altogether more profound; in this instance, she seeks, among other things, to trace her Carby name and line, and in so doing, both uncovers and creates the most astonishing histories. And rather than regarding her surname as a sort of cul-de-sac, a route or course leading nowhere other than back to slavery, she more profoundly suggests, “The name Carby in all its derivations resonates not only with a sense of place and settlement but also with the movement and migration of peoples” (268).

… Time and again, though doubtless this was not Carby’s intention, Imperial Intimacies brings to the fore the inadequacies of dominant or popular strategies commonly enacted to create a sense of a tangible family history that can do more than “start wid dem modder / an end wid dem granmodder,” in the words of the iconoclast Jamaican poet Michael “Mikey” Smith. Such strategies have included, in recent decades, the discernible increase in heritage tourism, in which black people in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States seek to learn more about their familial histories by undertaking pilgrimages, of sorts, to West African countries such as Ghana. In doing so, people are not just following in the footsteps of Alex Haley; metaphorically speaking, they are, equally as importantly, seeking to make sense of their lives, their existences in the here and now. Although people of the African diaspora, including those removed from the continent of Africa by force and in chains, have been “returning home”—temporarily or permanently—for centuries, Haley gave a particular fillip to the idea that a distinct trajectory could be traced from the present-day life of a black person in the diaspora back to their “origins” in Africa.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers, “Zippin’ up my boots, going back to my routes”, part of Book discussion: Hazel V. Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands,  Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism (Duke University Press). Number 64, Number 4,  2021: 187-197

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