There was a period when genealogists were specialists in pedigree and I guess there are still those who want to know where they stand in the line of succession to the British throne. Wikipedia only goes up to Number Sixty which completely fails to recognise that a meteorite disaster might require number 6666 to step up. But the popular hobby of family history, enormously boosted by online resources, has a wider appeal. Even the bureaucratic records of births, marriage and deaths, now so easily accessed, provide enough information for the reconstruction of probable stories, for enabling some reasonable sense of how long dead people lived their lives. And though many will be satisfied with common sense tellings, others will delve into history books to set lives into fuller contexts. And for some, books will not suffice and they will visit physical archives and physical streets and buildings - though often enough the latter prove to be changed beyond recognition, as Hazel Carby discovers on her own journeys. But, anyway, there is a spectrum with the bare family tree at one end and, at the other, creative non-fictions which put people into settings and re-create the happinesses, successes, failures, and tragedies of ordinary lives - and which approach to what one might call social histories.
Sometimes such stories are the supplement or an alternative to autobiography. Hazel Carby holds back from her own autobiography, allowing the reader glimpses of shocking incidents which are recorded but not developed. She tries to keep other people in the foreground, to imaginatively re-create their lives, and to set them in contexts using the vocabulary available to a Yale Professor of African American Studies. Sometimes that works, at other times it feels alienating perhaps because just too anachronistic. I read it as an awkward index of the distance Hazel Carby has travelled in her own life, a distance which many travelled in the Great Britain of the 1950s and 1960s when the post-war welfare state provided a material underpinning for upward social mobility through the educational system. One main result was often to leave the upwardly mobile not belonging where they arrived and no longer belonging where they left. Carby is not really in that category since both her parents were talented, valued education, and secured quite a lot of it for themselves and not just, vicariously, for their children. Her father read those of her academic books published before he died.
As the late 1940s child of a white Anglo-Welsh mother and a mixed race Jamaican father who was talented enough to be accepted for aircrew in the war-time RAF, she moves between settings in Britain and Jamaica. She foregrounds the racism she encountered in school and her father at work and in dealing with the Home Office and she traces the history of colonialism, slavery, and more racism as they unfolded in Jamaica from the eighteenth century onwards. Her detective story coup is to trace her Jamaican father’s story back to the union of a small time white English slave plantation-owner and his black “housekeeper” and to find that in that way she is linked not just to Jamaican Carbys but to the Carbys of an eighteenth century Lincolnshire village. It is a remarkable story - and also remarkable that the written records which we keep in public archives are a gift which keeps on giving.
This book belongs on the shelf with works like Alison Light’s Common People which give us a sort of Premier League of family and social histories, stories which non-academic researchers can read with pleasure and aspire to emulate.