Meeting Stuart Hall
We have come together as black feminists to commemorate Stuart Hall who died on 10 February, 2014.
~ Sara Ahmed, Gargi Bhattacharyya, Yasmin Gunaratnam,Vera Jocelyn, Patricia Noxolo, Pratibha Parmar, Ann Phoenix, Nirmal Puwar, Suzanne Scafe
Suzanne: I first heard Stuart Hall speak in the early 1980s, when he gave the keynote speech for the Norman Manley Memorial Association, in London. He was speaking as a Jamaican, to an audience that included members of the Jamaican establishment representing their country abroad. He spoke about arriving here in 1951, as a Rhodes Scholar and about his deep discomfort at being a beneficiary of Sir Cecil Rhodes’s accumulated wealth. As a young member of colonial Jamaica’s elite, the immediate experience was, no doubt one of pride and relief – at his escape. I have since seen a copy of the Jamaica Gleaner, where the ‘scholarship boy’ is pictured on the front page, shortly before his departure. Of course no mention was made of the irony of the scholarship’s origins. I was struck during Stuart’s talk by his candid manner and how his calm engagement produced a growing awareness among this audience who, as supporters of the Manley dynasty, were committed anti-colonialists but who were also socially conservative. More crucially, they were, as now, bound to a belief in the integrity of British institutions. His unveiling of this scholarship, which benefited so many Commonwealth leaders and intellectuals, was also an unveiling of the institutions that continue the economic, cultural and ideological dependencies of the ex-colonies.
It is true that meeting or seeing Stuart Hall in action was like a spa for the soul as much as the mind. Yet we also meet Stuart when we read, teach, debate his ideas, or listen and watch him in the many audio-visual recordings that survive him. Listen to his conversation with the sociologist Les Back or his Desert Island Disks and you will hear his sonorous warmth and keen wit – some of the many highlights of hearing Stuart speak. Something we will miss.
Nirmal: Stuart Hall’s voice and ideas first engaged me as a teenager in the early hours of the morning, when during his Open University TV broadcasts, he presented a sharp analysis of culture, society and power. I was an eager A-Level sociology student on a passionate journey, discovering a new ‘language’ of social critique; a language that was helping me – a British Asian teenager – to reflect on and question the world around me. I met Stuart in person as an MA student at Sussex University. A few of my classmates had heard that he was delivering a OU summer school lecture. We slipped into the lecture hall and heard him give an extremely clear explication of the intersections of race, gender and class. I had by then already encountered intersectional thought from the work of black feminists: Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, Sojourner Truth, Avtar Brah, the Cohambee River Collective, Issue 17 of Feminist Review, Southall Black Sisters, OWAAD and the collection The Heart of the Race. This was well before intersectionality became a mantra. There can be little doubt that to hear the words of these black feminists from a black male scholar, who delivered them with such challenging and analytic precision, shored up much needed support for black feminist struggles.
A vibrant presence, Stuart wore his expansive knowledge lightly. He wasn’t show-offy or undermining, as many intellectuals can be. If he was at home in an auditorium speaking to hundreds of people, he was equally adept at making himself small, to listen and coax out the stories of others. Stuart’s interview with C.L.R. James is spellbinding not only because of the terrific tales and wisdom elicited so gently from James but also because of Stuart’s rapt attention.
Gargi: On the picket line a colleague checks his phone and with obvious shock announces ‘Stuart Hall has died’. I am not a personal friend, but I felt that sick kick of loss. I carry on the picket with a nauseous weight in my stomach. If I am honest, there are many (many) scholars who I read with pleasure and admiration – but whom I do not wish to meet in person. There are a few that I have hidden from, in order to preserve the pleasures of the written text. As a tribe, we may be smart, even entertaining, but we are not always so nice to be around. Stuart Hall was a welcome reminder of the possibility of academia’s better self, the one where we remember to be kind and welcoming and to nurture new ideas and people. The one where we don’t forget that learning is a project that is personal, political and collective. I am grateful for the lesson – from Stuart’s writing and life – that intellectual endeavour is also a matter of how we conduct ourselves, as citizens, as comrades, as teachers and as colleagues in the widest and most embracing sense. It is a hard lesson to learn and to follow, but I, and so many others, draw on Stuart Hall to sustain the daily effort of trying and failing again.
Drawing upon European social theory – the likes of Antonio Gramsci, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault – as well as black scholars such as Franz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, Stuart transported ideas to new audiences and social events. He had an eye for discerning huge schemes of power playing out behind the cultural curtains of ordinary life, from the racialised moral panic surrounding ‘mugging’ in the early 1970s to the screwed-up consumerism of the neo-liberal imagination and the scramble for trainers in FootLocker in the 2011 urban riots.
Pratibha: I first met Stuart Hall at a party in Birmingham, encouraged by my friend Hazel Downing, a student at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, who knew I was deeply unhappy at another university. Within minutes of talking to Stuart about my research on the intersections of race, class and gender and Asian women workers in the UK he had invited me to come to CCCS. The fact that my research was grounded in my personal experience as the daughter of an immigrant mother who worked in a sweat shop and the fact that I was involved in the anti-racist movement were welcomed rather than being seen as a hindrance. My activist experience and biography became legitimate tools in the formation of my intellectual practice thanks to Stuart. Meeting Stuart was a major turning point in my life. At CCCS I found a ‘family’ of kindred spirits – Valerie Amos, Hazel Carby, Paul Gilroy, Errol Lawrence. As part of the Race and Politics group we co-wrote and edited a collection of essays, The Empire Strikes Back, Race & Racism in the 70’s Britain. This and other ground-breaking work could not have been written without Stuart’s intellectual and political leadership. Stuart’s precious gift to me is that he embraced an Asian woman with a youthful and naïve desire to understand who she was in the context of a racist culture shaped by a colonial history. “Miles Davis put his finger on my soul and it never went away,” Stuart Hall once said when talking about the blues maestro. Similarly now more than ever we need Stuart’s legacy not only to survive but to thrive for generations to come.
Stuart’s mentorship and collaboration with young people, extended to black artists, photographers and filmmakers, allowing him to pursue a longstanding interest in using representation to explore and subvert fixed ideas about identity. As he articulated it in the 1989 essay ‘New Ethnicities’ what was needed was ‘a change from a struggle over the relations of representation to the politics of representation itself.’ New Ethnicities dispelled any fantasy of a unified black experience, illuminating the diaspora as a hybrid of different histories and experiences, thick with paradoxes and inflections. As Stuart once put it, if we were to ask anyone where s/he is from, we should expect a long story.
Sara: I have been thinking of texts as companions. There are certain texts I carry with me wherever I go. I keep them near, so I can pick them up. Stuart Hall’s “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” has been one such companion text. I first read it in the first year of my PhD at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff. I had come from Australia to Wales (I chose Wales as a way of not choosing England, not coming to the country I had been taught to describe as the mother country). I was reading so many texts, as you do. I enjoyed them; I talked with and through them; I had arguments over coffee with my fellow students about them. They were like things I picked up, in order to put them down, so I could move on to the next, ready to repeat the process again. But Cultural Identity and Diaspora made a connection that has stayed with me, wherever I go, as an academic but also as a person. And it mattered because the ideas presented came home. Stuart’s description of identity as a site of struggle, culture as something alive and dynamic, made so much sense not only as an argument about something but as a making sense of the world I was in; of where I found myself. It allowed me to think of how my own experience as a daughter of a Pakistani migrant, who was brought up in a mixed family in a very white part of Australia. It taught me to think from that experience about identity; it taught me to appreciate how some of my own experiences gave me the ground to do intellectual work. Companion texts are homing devices, ways of reorientating our relation to our homes, ways of returning home, ways of moving home.
On the page or in life, Stuart Hall’s words have this uncanny way of sometimes rising up, tapping you on the shoulder and speaking to you directly – ‘Hey you there!’ as one of Stuart’s often quoted theorists, Louis Althusser, described how we can be hailed and pulled into identifications through ‘interpellation’. Stuart’s belief that identity is a process; a social and psychic journey without a pre-known destination, helped him to forge alliances between different disciplines and people.
Pat: I never had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Hall, but I think that without him it would have been much more difficult to imagine how I could be a black academic in Britain and maintain the qualities that are important to me as an African Caribbean woman – warmth, humour and a commitment to engage with the harsh realities of everyday lives. All of these qualities were epitomised for me on the one occasion when I saw Stuart speak. It was at a public gathering at the Nottingham Playhouse about fifteen years ago. The auditorium was packed out with academics and people that I recognised from much more localised forums in Hyson Green. Even though he was not in the best of health and had to sit throughout, Stuart filled the auditorium with laughter and thoughtful concentration. He managed to be both inclusive and challenging to the wide range of identities and agendas that people brought with them. Stuart Hall’s long demonstration of the potential of academic work to both attract and challenge a range of publics is his abiding legacy to all academics.
Stuart wrote not only widely but most often in collaboration with others. His work for journals such as the New Left Review and Soundings, his teaching materials for the Open University, and his partnership with arts foundations such as Autograph ABP ignited diverse conversations. He is one of the few sociologists (probably the only one) who has both been a President of the British Sociological Association and overseen the building of an arts project, as Chair of INIVA at Rivington Place in East London, which now holds talks, exhibitions and the Stuart Hall Library.
But it is important not to romanticise the ‘accessibility’ of Stuart’s work. Although he could communicate ideas clearly and without jargon, his academic writing was what Roland Barthes would call a ‘writerly text’, demanding effort from the reader.
Yasmin: On Monday morning, before we had heard about Stuart’s death, I was in a small tutorial with undergraduates. We were discussing Hall’s 1996 essay “Who Needs Identity?” It’s a hard read. We looked at certain ideas close-up. What’s is a Foucauldian discourse? Why is he leaving Foucault here and turning to psychoanalytic feminism? There was some stabbing in the dark. At one point we had to draw on the white board. Slowly, some of the struggle with the text gave way to one of those ‘Aha!’ moments. Layers of imagination and life were released, along with the realization that it’s OK not to understand everything; that part of the excitement and enchantment of learning comes with the mystery and the haze – the head that hurts. One student spoke “This essay, the way he writes, there’s fun there too, is that right?” She was so right.
Stuart’s ways of theorising diasporic flows, social systems of class inequality and neo-liberalism, or everyday visual economies of race and sexuality were an on-going and witty quarrel with determinism in its many forms. His lyrical insistence that it is a worked for and endlessly discovered connectivity, rather than an easy, organic commonality that we need to strive for, has been a backdrop and a steer for our racialised understanding of feminisms. At the same time, Stuart’s personal support of colleagues and students, artists and activists was consistent and real.
Vera: I met Stuart Hall for the first time at the Open University’s Summer School in 1980. A (very) mature student, I was doing the OU’s Social Sciences course in the hope of preparing myself to apply for a Sociology degree. Even more than the brilliance of his lectures and the encouragement he later gave me, what drew me to Stuart was how attuned he could be to people’s interests and feelings. In one of the very first classes, he was showing images/photos and we were supposed to raise our hand if we felt the image represented an instance of violence. One of the images showed several small children playing in the tiny balcony of a flat in a council estate. I immediately raised my hand – the only student to do so – and Stuart’s comment was: “Yes, you would, wouldn’t you?” How did he know, so early on, that I was someone who regarded poverty as violence? I never forgot that and I am glad I had the chance to tell him this when we got to know each other better.
Ann: Since Stuart has died, one strong, perhaps surprising, memory keeps replaying for me. It comes from being on a range of appointment panels and seeing how often two, or even three applicants put Stuart down as one of their referees. This strikes me as metonymic of Stuart’s contribution to academic life as an intellectual luminary but also as someone who was amiable and trusted. No-one risks asking for a reference if they have doubts or fears that a senior person’s asperity or insecurity might sour what needs to be a positive testimonial. Most important, these experiences reinforced my understanding of Stuart’s deep integrity and intellectual facility. He always produced references on time and he wrote no platitudes, presenting evaluations that showed his engagement with the field and a person’s contribution to it. Early career and senior colleagues alike were correct in believing that he knew their work, understood it in context and valued it and them. My admiration for this skill and generosity in taking time to give other scholars’ work a fillip is only one reason that I will miss him.
‘We are here, because you were there’ was both a popular activist credo and a point of analysis from which Stuart unearthed the interdependencies that underlie postcolonial and multicultural social formations. As we remember Stuart Hall as black feminists we also remember that intellectual and political struggle is always about inheritance and collaboration. We are here because he was there.
Sara Ahmed, Professor in Race and Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths College
Gargi Bhattacharyya, Professor of Social Sociology, University of East London
Yasmin Gunaratnam, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Goldsmiths College
Vera Jocelyn, Translator and writer, Brazil
Patricia Noxolo, Lecturer in Human Geography, Birmingham University
Pratibha Parmar, Writer/Director/Producer, London & San Francisco
Ann Phoenix, Professor of Social and Developmental Psychology, Institute of Education
Nirmal Puwar, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Goldsmiths College
Suzanne Scafe, Reader in Caribbean and Post-colonial Literature, Southbank University
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- Stuart McPhail Hall 3 February 1932 – 10 February 2014