2014-Hazel Carby


Presented by Ivy Schweitzer, Dartmouth College – chair of the American Literature Section Hubbell Award Committee (Ivy.T.Schweitzer@dartmouth.edu)

Modern Language Association conference

Vancouver, Canada

January 9, 2015

On behalf of the Award Committee and the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, it is my great pleasure to present the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies to Hazel V. Carby. The Hubbell Medal recognizes scholars who have made major contributions to the critical and theoretical understanding of American literature.  For more than twenty years, this year’s winner has redefined American literary studies by pioneering an incisive feminist cultural studies approach to African American literature grounded in social and material realities and opened to the larger context of the African diaspora. Several of her former students affirmed Professor Carby’s notable achievements: “Hers was one of the first feminist voices to raise a double challenge: to insist that feminism is not an easy sisterhood, and that race and class can never be engaged without taking gender into account” and “Hazel Carby has for decades simultaneously embodied and exceeded the underpinnings of literary studies … by asking what is at stake in our understanding of such concepts as gender, nation, and empire when they are telescoped through the presence of, and engaged by, black women.”

The “intellectual daring, audacity, and originality” her colleagues note are informed by the passions and complexities of her own life. Professor Carby was born in Britain of Jamaican and Welsh background, and she worked from 1972 to 1979 as a high school English teacher and labor organizer in the East End of London. She attended the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, receiving her Ph.D. from Birmingham University, England, in 1984. Since 1989, she has taught at Yale University, where currently she is the Charles C. and Dorothea S. Dilley Professor of African American Studies, Professor of American Studies, and Director of the Initiative on Race, Gender, and Globalization. In addition, she has lectured at numerous colleges and universities worldwide including Columbia UniversityStanford University, the University of Paris, and University of Toronto.

Each of Professor Carby’s books not only shifts our understanding of African American and, thus, American culture in significant ways, but also makes important interventions in intellectual theory and praxis. In her first book, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (Oxford 1987), she calls attention to the writing and political activities of several overlooked black women intellectuals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, she mounts a double critique: of African American scholars for a masculinist bias that focuses almost exclusively on male figures, and of contemporary white feminists for seeking a “lost sisterhood” between white and black women that distorts history. In this work, Professor Carby forges a new paradigm for critical feminist analysis, which calls for an unflinching interrogation of problems and contradictions. Such a bold approach infuses her next book, Race Men (Harvard 1998). Examining the complicated cultural construction of black masculinity across a wide range of figures, Professor Carby argues that the ultimately conservative form of gender these “race men” adopt as a shield against mainstream culture excludes the voices of women and black gay men to the detriment of all. Professor Carby’s most recent work, Cultures in Babylon  (Verso, 1999), collects essays from her prolific publishing career, illustrating her meticulous attention to the cultural specificity of subjects and her commitment to enlarging the scope of literary studies. She is at work on a forthcoming book entitled Child of Empire and continues to publish internationally on global issues of race and gender.

Great work always comes from a great heart. Professor Carby is a respected teacher and beloved mentor; her colleagues and former students praise her in terms that verge on poetry and bring her impressive vitae to life. “Few can equal Hazel’s intellectual daring,” one former students writes. “She has so often found herself out in front—in a position of exposed leadership that requires unreasonable exertion, like the lead flyer in a V of migrant birds, expending extra energy so that others might be spared such an outlay as they travel in her slipstream.” Not only “bravely ahead of her time,” another says, “But she is also profoundly of her time. Everything Hazel does is worldly, situated, grounded. She refuses to flinch from the most challenging of current issues. Her work explores with steadfast courage how power is imposed, how it is lived in the flesh, how it must be challenged, and transformed. And yet Hazel has an extraordinary gift for also insisting on the nourishing power of beauty, in art as much as in life.”  She has nourished students with the generosity of her mentoring: “Countless younger, less entitled scholars have been shown the way by Hazel: how to negotiate the inhospitable corridors of academe, how to write against acceptable currents, how to fashion one’s work where there are no charters.” And this largely unacknowledged but crucial work has had broad institutional and, we hope, lasting effects: “She helped bring to Yale a new generation of junior scholars and nurtured them through the ranks. I am now part of a cohort of a dozen such colleagues and I like to think that we are making a difference at Yale as we bring our scholarship and our critical institutional thinking skills to bear. New texts, new voices, new mindsets. This is Hazel’s legacy.”