Yale’s Hazel Carby retires, leaving legacy of mentorship and scholarship

A world-renowned scholar in the fields of feminist literary studies and black studies, Carby was instrumental in advancing African American studies at Yale.
Hazel Carby

Hazel Carby

When Yale’s Department of African American Studies celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall, it will be with a debt of gratitude to one of its recently retired faculty members, Hazel V. Carby.

A world-renowned scholar in the fields of feminist literary studies and black studies, Carby was instrumental in transitioning African American studies at Yale from a program to full departmental status and then to a Ph.D.-granting unit during her 30 years on the Yale faculty.

Carby, the Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor Emerita of African American Studies & American Studies, retired from full-time teaching at the end of the spring semester. She has been lauded for the decades of scholarship that she produced and the leadership contributions that she made to the field of African American studies. She has also been celebrated for her role as a mentor to scores of undergraduate and graduate students. In fact, she recently received the inaugural Stuart Hall Outstanding Mentor Award for the cultivation of cultural studies in the United States, presented by the Caribbean Philosophical Association.

Last semester the Yale scholar also received an honorary degree from Wesleyan University, where she taught from 1982 to 1989 prior to coming to Yale, and was asked to deliver the prestigious Henry Louis Gates Jr. Lecture, an annual talk given by a world-renowned scholar of African diaspora studies.

The development of the Department of African American Studies at Yale was a defining moment in her time at Yale, says Carby. Her vision was to create an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary Ph.D. program to ensure that Yale’s graduate students were well trained for the job market and were well prepared to become leaders in the field. She also expanded the curriculum to encompass more of the diaspora by including Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Atlantic World.

This accomplishment has been really gratifying because even though it was extremely hard work to get the program off the ground, these graduate students have distinguished careers and gone on to run their own programs. Some of them are prominent intellectual leaders,” notes Carby.

For Carby, being a mentor to her graduate students is about more than just promoting scholarship; it is also about teaching her students how to be a scholar. “Mentorship is teaching with graduate students as real shared partners in an enterprise,” she says.

The Yale scholar encourages her graduate students to develop a mutually supportive cohort and stresses that they are indebted to the work of other people from whom they learn. She also advises her students to not treat scholarship as a sort of competition.

One of Carby’s long-standing mantras throughout her career has been “intellectual generosity” — recognizing that intellectual work and scholarship is collective, not individual, and that scholarship is meant to be shared with a wider audience. “You need to think creatively for making change where change is needed, and for instituting vision for where vision is needed,” says Carby.

Intellectually generosity pays you back when you see someone you’ve become close to through their writing improve and they really begin to articulate exactly what it is they want to say. I feel it is important to have a role in that,” says Carby. “It enriches the academic experience.”

Carby has shared the lessons she learned while developing Yale’s African American studies program by serving as an adviser nationally to other institutions that have subsequently established African American studies departments, programs and innovative curriculum. Her role as adviser has provided a wonderful opportunity for her to see these programs flourish, she says.

In the coming years, Carby says, she hopes to see an increased contribution from the field of African American studies to conversations about the environment and climate catastrophe. To that end she has been advising students to consider environmental issues in their research. The interdisciplinary nature of African American studies makes the field well suited to the environmental research needed at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences, she says. “It is important to consider not just the scientific aspect of environmental issues, but to think about the massive social and political transformations and challenges confronting societies.”

We are already suffering the effects of the biggest crisis facing life on earth: the acidification and pollution of our oceans, the mass extinction of species and collapse of biodiversity, massive migration of peoples because of climate change, as well as growing competition for resources,” says Carby. “Nearly half of the U.S. population is suffering because of increased toxins in the atmosphere and in our food. There is long history of people of color living next to toxic dumps, so we as African American scholars can contribute to conversations about the need for changing the way we live. Knowledge of black social and political movements can provide our undergraduates with the vision to build the social movement to end our dependence on fossil fuels and toxic herbicides and pesticides and restore the health of our ecosystems.

When it comes to her students, Carby is both teacher and learner. “I learn from my students every day and always have. I love hearing how they think and put things together in a way that maybe I haven’t thought of before. If you are the type of teacher who is willing to learn as much from them as much as to teach them then their whole world opens up. If you don’t think you’re just there to impose your knowledge, but you actually listen to their response, you will learn an awful lot. It keeps you young,” says Carby.

Carby’s latest book, “Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands” forthcoming in September, explores the long history of relations between Jamaica and Britain. The trajectory of the book moves backwards in time from the 1950s to the 1750s. Published as a trade book, Carby confronts “the historical amnesia about colonialism in Britain,” presenting scholarly research in the form of an accessible story about people’s lives.

I have used my family’s history as a coat hanger on which to tell this story of the intimate relations between Jamaica and the United Kingdom. This book tells this bigger history by honing in on individuals — my own mother and father and their ancestors. My mother is Welsh and my father is Jamaican. “Imperial Intimacies” is not a memoir; it is the result of archival research in the national archives in the United Kingdom and in Jamaica. It is a story about imperialism, colonialism, poverty and enslavement in the longstanding relationship across the Atlantic that shaped the lives of ordinary people. Being part of an empire on both sides made them who they were,” says Carby.

While Carby may be retiring from Yale, she is by no means leaving the university. She plans to continue teaching part time and working with graduate students. As for Carby’s immediate plans for her retirement, she says: “It’s my time for more research and writing.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,