Who Gets to be British?

For The Nation, I write about about the Windrush scandal, the peril and the possibility documents hold for migrants and for scholars, and Hazel Carby’s “Imperial Intimacies,” a personal history of empire, race and so-called Britishness.

“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. David 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.”