Becoming Modern Racialized Subjects: Detours through our pasts to produce ourselves anew

Becoming Modern Racialized Subjects: Detours through our pasts to produce ourselves anew

Cultural Studies
Volume 23, Number 4 (July 2009)
pages 624-657
DOI: 10.1080/09502380902950948

Hazel V. Carby, Charles C. and Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of African American Studies
Yale University

This essay is a close engagement with the work of Stuart Hall which has been central to the project of unraveling the complexities of difference, divisions in history, consciousness and humanity, embedded in the geo-political oppositions of colonial center and colonized margin, home and abroad, and metropole and periphery. Hall has exposed the temporal enigma that haunts the relation between colonial and post-colonial subject formation. In response, the essay focuses on the geo-politics rather than the linear temporality of encounters in an examination of the sources of tension, contention and anxiety that arise as racialized subjects are brought into being through narration in examples drawn from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano and post-colonial Caribbean novelists. The essay concludes by positing an alternative narrative for the emergence of the modern racialized state in Britain, one that has its origins in official responses to the presence of black American troops and West Indian civilian and Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel on British soil during World War II, rather than to the Caribbean migrants who arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948.

…It was not only black subjects that were policed and disciplined. Black servicemen were dialogically constituted in their blackness in and through their potential and actual encounters with white women who were also to be ‘managed’. Reynolds records the ‘intensive efforts [that] were made to guide the conduct of British women’. For women who were in the armed service ‘military discipline was invoked’ to discourage them from fraternizing with black soldiers and by January 1944 these policies hardened when ‘the Women’s Territorial Auxillary issued an order ‘‘forbidding its members to speak to colored American soldiers except in the presence of a white [person]’’’. These systems of surveillance were not only instituted and regulated by the military they were also enabled and maintained by members of local constabularies who ‘routinely reported women soldiers found in the company of black GIs to their superiors.’ Even civilian women were prosecuted by their local police who evoked ‘a variety of laws’ to take them into custody when they were found ‘in company of black soldiers’ (Reynolds 1996, p. 229).

White women were counseled by families, friends and authorities alike, against marriage with black men; black American soldiers who wished to marry British women were refused permission to do so by their Commanding Officers and quickly transferred. Black journalist Ormus Davenport, ‘himself a wartime GI, claimed that there had been a ‘‘gentleman’s agreement’’ to prevent mixed marriages’. But ‘in the 8th Air Force Service Command where most of the American Air Force blacks were concentrated, a total ban on such marriages was quite explicit’ (Reynolds 1996, p. 231). The result was disastrous for their offspring…

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