In 2018, I wrote an introduction to Hall and his body of work.
Those who do not see themselves reflected in national heritage are excluded from it."
This quote from sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall, one of the foremost left intellectuals of our times who was often referred to as “the Godfather of multiculturalism,” speaks to the way many Black folks and people of color are often othered or alienated from progressive discourse. One can simply look at the lack of massive action by the left around conditions in Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean to illustrate this ongoing problem.
At a time when the ruling right-wing governments of the United States and Great Britain are resisting multiculturalism and promoting xenophobia and racism, it becomes even more important for those of us who live and die under the boot to have allies who are on the same page. Those allies need to eschew their privilege and embrace a struggle that is inclusive and prioritizes race, ethnicity, and gender.
Here in the States, many (mostly white) activists on the left have disparaged “identity politics,” dismissing the work of Audre Lorde (daughter of Caribbean immigrants to the U.S.) and other members of the Combahee River Collective. They tend to define working-class as default white, spending far too much time pursuing mythical “not racist” disenchanted Trump voters, and repeating over and over the mantra of “economic insecurity” to avoid dealing with the virulent racism and sexism informing and underlying their voting behavior.
It’s interesting (and disheartening) that few left and self-defined progressive thinkers cite or reference Hall’s work, which spanned many decades.
Watching Republican supporters of a failed coup working so hard to erase Black history from libraries and school curricula, as the spewings of racist podcast personalities like Joe Rogan garner support from both the far corners of the left and right, it is urgently important to aim a spotlight on key Black figures whose bodies of work has moved the battle against systemic racism and for multiculturalism.
Several tweets on Hall’s birthday highlighted his published writings.
If you are unfamiliar with Hall or his work, I suggest starting with his posthumously published memoir, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, from Duke University Press.
"Sometimes I feel myself to have been the last colonial." This, in his own words, is the extraordinary story of the life and career of Stuart Hall—how his experiences shaped his intellectual, political, and theoretical work and how he became one of his age's brightest intellectual lights.
Growing up in a middle-class family in 1930s Kingston, Jamaica, still then a British colony, the young Stuart Hall found himself uncomfortable in his own home. He lived among Kingston's stiflingly respectable brown middle class, who, in their habits and ambitions, measured themselves against the white elite. As colonial rule was challenged, things began to change in Kingston and across the world.
Colin Grant reviewed the book for The Guardian in 2017.
Across the Caribbean, poor people, disparaged as the “cow tail and broom handle brigade” had been stirred by firebrand orators such as the political activist Marcus Garvey, hailed as a black Moses. Months earlier, Garvey, harried by the British authorities who feared his black nationalist agenda, gave one of his most profound and urgent speeches to his followers, culminating in the exhortation: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because, whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”
That sentiment has resonated down the years among black people in the diaspora. Bob Marley folded those very words into his last mournful “Redemption Song”, and Hall embraced the notion as a principle for the reconfiguration of a life no longer governed by the dictates of its colonial past. Familiar Stranger, edited by his long-term interlocutor and friend Bill Schwarz, shows Hall digging out the roots of his intellectual focus and practice. Along the way he reveals his determination in Jamaica, and on arriving in Britain on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University in 1951, not only to resist the British presumption of framing a colonial identity for him, but to find a language to decolonise his mind.
With the arrival of more members of the post-Windrush generation, Hall became “black”, as the host nation, ignorant of the subtleties of the Caribbean’s pigmentocracy, cast all immigrant people of colour as “darkies”. For him, the diasporic migrant inhabited a psychic space reminiscent of the “double consciousness” identified by the African American author, WEB Du Bois – a state of being “in”, but not “of”; “belonging to more than one world … but never wholly in both places”. Britain brought about for the first time a West Indian consciousness in Hall. Back home there had been no great tradition of island hopping; the islanders didn’t know each other well. Many immigrants of his generation would come to recognise the beneficial effect of their host country’s prejudice and lack of understanding: in the UK, their island idiosyncrasies went unrecognised; they became West Indians.
Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), posted an in-depth review of Familiar Stranger, written by Marlene Gaynair.
This scholarly yet intimate recollection of Hall’s life is divided into four parts: “Jamaica,” “Leaving Jamaica,” “Journey to an Illusion,” and “Transition Zone,” with topics ranging from colonial subjects, race, identity, Caribbean migration, modernity, and politics. Beginning with a preface written by Schwarz, nine essays chronologically follow this timeline, culminating with an extensive citation of writers from Andrea Levy to Eric Williams that have informed Hall’s ideas throughout the book. With that in mind, Familiar Stranger offers a profound portrait of Hall’s intellectual and personal growth during his most formative years as a colonial subject and an emigrant, as well as his insightful ruminations looking back on the complexities of his identities and sense of British imperial belonging.
Familiar Stranger grapples with the contested places of Blackness in Europe; postcolonial studies within the Black Atlantic; and race and identity in British historiography. Hall frequently cites scholars like Frantz Fanon, Paul Gilroy and Tina Campt who used ideas of race, gender, nationality and culture to examine a place of belonging for black folk in Europe and the Atlantic world. He also places Caribbean thinkers such as C.L.R. James, George Lamming, and Kamau (Edward) Brathwaite into dialogue with the work of Edward Thompson, Michel Foucault, and Eric Hobsbawm. This urges readers familiar with ideas about modernity centered with white male voices, to consider and engage with a wider range of perspectives including those from the Black Diaspora. Familiar Stranger also builds on a long tradition of Caribbean and African intellectuals like George Lamming, Chinua Achebe, or Edward Said who used their memoirs to document the “perilous exercise” of colonialism, utilized texts and theories from other scholars, and challenged different forms of gatekeeping through a multidisciplinary approach. Hall acknowledges that Familiar Stranger was not the first work to tackle the “perilous exercise” of a colonial perspective through a first-person account. Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile, which mapped out the “late colonial migration” from the Caribbean periphery to the English metropole in 1960, was written during Lamming’s self-imposed exile in Great Britain (12). Chinua Achebe’s memoir exposed the colonial subject’s complicated relationship with the British passport where materiality of belonging granted entry, but not full and equal access to British culture and society for Black British subjects. Familiar Stranger shows that these and other colonial voices are critical to better understanding the praxis of being racialized as a perpetual outsider to the British experience.
Al Jazeera English also produced this short introduction to Hall for their media analysis show, The Listening Post, in 2017.
I was elated to discover that The Media Education Foundation, who have several films about Hall in their catalog, have recently released a 2004 lecture from Hall.
In this recently discovered, newly restored video of one of Stuart Hall’s most famous lectures, Hall speaks with dazzling precision about the responsibilities of intellectuals and educators in the face of undemocratic structures of power, injustice, racism, and inequality, and lays out in the clearest possible terms a theoretical framework for dissecting and resisting authoritarian thinking without lapsing into reductive ideological simplifications.
Here is one segment, in which he discusses the diaspora and how it endures the impact of globalization. (Full transcript here.)
Hall’s work continues today, via the Stuart Hall Foundation.
The Stuart Hall Foundation was established in 2015 by Professor Stuart Hall’s family, friends and colleagues. The Foundation is committed to public education, addressing urgent questions of race and inequality in culture and society through talks and events, and building a growing network of Stuart Hall Foundation scholars and artists in residence.
We work collaboratively to forge creative partnerships in the spirit of Stuart Hall; thinking together and working towards a racially just and more equal future.
Join me in the comments for more on Hall and his work, and for the weekly Caribbean news roundup.