When Stuart Hall Was White

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I do not recall when I discovered that Stuart Hall was black. Growing up in Britain as neoliberalism first began to take shape under the rule of Margaret …

I do not recall when I discovered that Stuart Hall was black. Growing up in Britain as neoliberalism first began to take shape under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, I found that Hall’s work helped me comprehend what was happening to the world around me. I think I began reading him with “The Great Moving Right Show,” an article published in Marxism Today, the ecumenical and “reform”-minded journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain, in January 1979. It is the piece now celebrated as having named “Thatcherism” as a new political formation. Thatcherism, he argued, represented a new type of politics, one that had mobilized a populist revolt to Make Britain Great Again by running it like a business and stopping immigration. It is strangely unnerving to read it again now. Later that year Hall became a professor of sociology at the Open University and began to appear regularly on its television programs designed (in the era before profit-seeking online classes) for their distance learning, nontraditional, students. It was probably on one of those superb programs, no doubt several years later, that I first saw and heard Stuart Hall.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that I had once assumed Hall was white. Growing up in the countryside as a white middle-class boy, people of color were almost completely absent from my life. I suspect that I was not the only person to imagine he was white. There has long been a way of narrating Hall’s life and work that erases his formation in Jamaica as a colonial subject and a black man. It is a narrative that claims him as part of the British canon, as probably the country’s most influential social and cultural theorist of the late 20th century. It is a narrative that was rehearsed in many of the obituaries that followed his death in 2014.

In this telling, Hall’s life begins when he arrives on the shores of Albion dressed like an English gentleman and goes up to Oxford University to study English literature. It continues with Hall, while writing a PhD on Henry James, beginning to forge, alongside other students there like Raphael Samuel and Charles Taylor, a New Left attuned to the changed social and cultural conditions of Britain in the 1950s. The big question for Britain’s New Left was if or how culture mattered in shaping the working class. For Hall and many of his comrades, the urtexts for thinking through this question were Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958), and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963).

The received narrative then relates how he helped establish the New Left Review and, as its first editor, helped articulate the revisionist approach to Marxist theory that enabled a rethinking of socialist politics in postwar Britain. In the early 1960s, having worked as an activist in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, he was invited to the University of Birmingham by Richard Hoggart to help establish what became the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. It was there, under Hall’s leadership, that the discipline of cultural studies emerged as a new form of collaborative, interdisciplinary study of the contemporary world. After 1968 the CCCS, as it became known, was an important tributary for the flow of continental “theory” into Britain, challenging the still dominant presence of Anglo-Marxism among left intellectuals. In particular, Hall’s discovery of the work of Gramsci, after the first translation of his Prison Notebooks into English in 1971, is seen as critical.

In many ways, this version of Stuart Hall’s life and work culminates at the point I first imagined him as another white male intellectual of the left. His broadly Gramscian analysis of how Britain fell under the thrall of Thatcherism in “The Great Moving Right Show” was hugely influential. Hall insisted that the left take seriously how Thatcher had convinced many that only a combination of anti-collectivist, free market economics and a return to both “law and order” and the primacy of the white heterosexual family could turn the country’s fortune around.

In short, this narrative about Hall incorporates him within the familiar history of Britain’s New Left and the arguments about the role of cultural analysis within Anglo-Marxism. It is largely a parochial story that rarely extended outside of England and only did so to grapple with events in the Soviet Empire or, at its most daring, to engage in the rethinking of Marxism across the English Channel. It is a story in which colonialism and the politics of race (to say nothing of feminism) were conspicuously absent, because they were thought to have little to do with the reformation of capitalism and its class relations.

Margaret Thatcher on TV, Grafton Way, London, UK (1990). Photograph by R Barraez D´Lucca / Flickr

It was precisely this forgetting of empire during and after decolonization, this erasure of the politics of race and colonialism in British society, that became one of the central preoccupations of Hall’s work. Indeed, by the time of his death, his life was widely celebrated as that of a black British intellectual, a postcolonial theorist of multiculturalism in Britain, and one of the postwar generation of migrants from the Anglo-Caribbean (a wave of immigration iconically associated with the arrival of the ex-German cruise ship Empire Windrush in London from Australia via Kingston in 1948). It was this version of Hall captured in John Akomfrah’s absorbing film The Stuart Hall Project, released just six months before his death. Some obituaries even described Hall as the “godfather of multiculturalism.”

Hall, characteristically, refused such easy identifications, as either deracinated man of the New Left or postcolonial black theorist. Nowhere is this clearer than in Hall’s own ego-histoire, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands. The book will be posthumously published this spring as the third volume in a new series by Duke University Press collecting Hall’s work, both published and previously unpublished, in themed volumes edited by leading scholars from across the world (many of them his former students).1

In Familiar Stranger Hall movingly writes that the iconic moments of European history—the Berlin blockade in 1948, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, or the revolts of 1968—were not those that made sense of his life. Instead he returned to the tense and tender ties of his childhood in Jamaica. It was a childhood structured by his mother’s preoccupation with the family’s color, class, and status in the late colonial social order, as well as by the eruption of the labor rebellion of 1938, when he was six years old. Describing himself as the “last colonial,” he knew that, despite his flight from Jamaica in 1951, the rest of his life in Britain would remain indelibly marked by, and yet never simply reduced to, his experience of colonialism.

Hall refused easy identification as either deracinated man of the New Left or postcolonial black theorist.

Familiar Stranger, like the two volumes in the series already published by Duke, remind us that for Hall thinking historically was essential to understanding ourselves and the conditions in which we live. The distinction between history and theory, like that between intellectual and political work, made no sense to him. Theory was not about arranging thought in abstract and systematic patterns, it was about engaging with the messy reality of the present. One could not understand the politics of the present without thinking both theoretically and historically. History ensured that the terrain of politics, and therefore of theory, were always changing. To be a historian and theoretician of the present one has to be a magpie.

This was not a position welcomed by any on either the old or the new left who thought politics and theory were about adherence to unquestioned articles of faith. They accused him, mistakenly, of being a modish follower of fashion. Yet, Hall believed, the intellectual’s task is to understand how each moment of our lives—each conjuncture, as he put it following Althusser and Gramsci—remains freighted by complex and contradictory combinations of old and new forms of capitalism, social formations, ideological forces, and affective relations. The ground we stand on is always shifting, so, he implored us, we must draw on every theoretical tool that helps us to make sense of each conjuncture and to build the politics necessary for its transformation.

Hall’s capacity to remind us that it was no less possible to think Britain without its empire than it was the colonies without the metropolitan “motherland” was a product of the changing conjunctures in which he lived his life. It was the quickening pace of decolonization, together with the escalation of the commonplace racism and racial violence against people of color in Britain in the mid-1960s, that pushed the legacies of colonialism to the forefront of Hall’s work. The last colonial could only slowly decolonize his own thought.

Hall was hardly the first Afro-Caribbean intellectual to make the transatlantic voyage to Britain. We often forget that it was common for the black colonial elite to move across the Atlantic world from Africa and the Caribbean to Paris and London. Britain’s metropolis attracted students, artists, musicians, and writers from across the Black Atlantic. It became the center for a vibrant anticolonial, Pan-African, and black internationalist political culture before the Second World War. The litany of just the most famous names is remarkable: George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, and C. L. R. James from the Caribbean; Ladipo Solanke (Nigeria), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), and Kwame Nkrumah Ghana (Ghana) from British Africa. Afro-Caribbean women like the Jamaicans Amy Garvey and Una Marson provided black feminist perspectives on this predominantly homosocial world, where racially charged relationships with white women were not uncommon.

Oxford was not London. Nonetheless, moving to study there was also a familiar path to the aspiring black middle classes from the Caribbean. To again dwell on just the most well-known cases: 20 years before Hall made that journey, Eric Williams had arrived in Oxford from Trinidad to study history; his work at Oxford culminated with the PhD that brilliantly revealed the centrality of slavery to capitalism and Britain’s early industrialization. Norman Manley, who Hall remembered as a fellow pupil at the elite Jamaica College school in Kingston, studied law at Oxford. With the creation of the West Indies Federation in 1959 Manley became the premier of Jamaica, while Williams became the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago when it left the Federation in 1962 to become independent. The studies of all three were funded by scholarships designed to propagate a British-educated colonial elite. Manley and Hall were Rhodes Scholars, awards funded by the riches plundered from the mines of southern Africa by the archimperialist Cecil Rhodes.

It was no less difficult for Hall to think his way out of this colonial education than it was for Manley and Williams, or Kenyatta and Nkrumah, to build postcolonial nations. In a retrospective essay on the history of the New Left published in 1990, he remarked how, in the early 1950s, “there was no ‘black politics’ in Britain.” By this he did not mean it was not possible to think of “black” as a category of politics. He pointed, instead, to the fact that the migrations that accompanied late colonial rule and decolonization had only just begun.

Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College, Oxford. Photograph by Michael Day / Flickr

If this was Hall’s view from the cloisters of Oxford, it was not one recognizable in the more cosmopolitan world of London, or in places like Cardiff or Birmingham, where mixed-race, working-class communities daily navigated an informal “colour bar.” This bar ensured that people of color were kept effectively segregated from (at least respectable) whites and could only eat, drink, live, and work in particular places. Studying at Oxford was inconceivable for these Britons of color.

Hall stood out in a sea of white faces at Oxford but he managed to surround himself with a few fellow colonial students, white and black. To this group the Bandung conference of non-aligned and recently independent African and Asian states in 1955, the Suez Crisis of 1956, and Ghana’s independence the following year were as important as the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Those events signaled the emergence of a new form of “Third World” politics that offered an alternative to the Cold War battles between Soviet-style communism and the welfare capitalism of America and its Western European imperial allies.

This reconfiguration of the world beyond Britain made little impact upon Hall’s own early writings for the New Left. As racial animosity toward those who had migrated to Britain as Commonwealth citizens from across its empire escalated, Hall published an essay on the reformation of Britain’s working class amid the relative affluence of 1950s welfare capitalism that had nothing to say of its whiteness. That essay was published in 1958, as racism turned to violence in a series of “race riots” that spread across several cities.

Even Hall’s subsequent work as an activist for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had little to say about colonialism. It did not register the testing of nuclear weapons in British colonial territories and it was animated by the old imperial claim that Britain had a duty to show moral leadership to the world by being the first to unilaterally disarm.

It was on a CND march to the American nuclear base at Aldermaston outside Oxford in the early 1960s that he met his future wife, Catherine. The daughter of a Baptist minister in Leeds, Catherine went on to become an important figure in feminist politics and history writing (she is today the most eminent historian of modern Britain and its empire). When the newly married couple visited Stuart’s family in a now-independent Jamaica in 1964, his mother, delighted to have a white daughter-in-law, was perturbed when she was chided by her for being condescending to the servants.

Being a mixed-race couple back in Britain had a different signification. This was especially the case in Birmingham, where they set up house on their return from Jamaica. In that city, in that year, a Conservative Party candidate ran an election campaign on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Four years later the city was also the place chosen by the Conservative MP Enoch Powell, a member of the Mont Perelin Society and an inspiration for Margaret Thatcher, to give his “Rivers of Blood” speech. In it, he infamously warned of further racial violence if tighter immigration controls were not imposed and Commonwealth citizens encouraged to take voluntary repatriation. One can only imagine the racism that Stuart and Catherine Hall encountered living in Birmingham during the 1960s.

A multiculturalism that saw all cultures as distinct and possessed of the same relative value, Hall warned, reproduced the logic of empire.

It was at this time that Hall’s work at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies began to address the role of decolonization and the politics of race in the deepening crisis of welfare capitalism in the late 1960s and 1970s. There were glimpses of this in his essays on “Political Commitment” (1966) and “A World at One with Itself” (1970), republished in Selected Political Writings, the second volume of Duke’s series. In these essays he respectively castigates Oxfam and the BBC for erasing the legacies of colonial rule in their treatment of world hunger and of Black Power protests in Trinidad.

We see this interest in race and colonialism emerging more clearly in the CCCS working groups that studied white and black youth cultures; Working Papers in Cultural Studies no. 7/8, co-edited with Tony Jefferson, was first published in 1975 and later reissued as Resistance through Rituals (1991). One of those initial working papers discussed the moral panic that surrounded the media’s discovery of “mugging” and the forms of racialized policing and law enforcement it engendered. By the time Policing the Crisis became its own book in 1978 (it was reissued in 2013), the unraveling of Britain’s social democracy was read as a crisis of the racial order. In an important anticipation of Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism, and in an uncanny echo of our own times, the books’ authors argued that the racialized contradictions of social democracy produced a new and alarming politics of security, aimed at people of color and in defense of whiteness.2

Oddly, there was no discussion in this work of the escalating violence against black men, nor of the indifference, or even the complicity, of the police to it. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, racial violence against, and police harassment of, young black men—most infamously through the “Sus laws” that allowed police to stop and search “suspicious” persons—was an important rallying point for the growing number of Black Power activists and black feminists in Britain. Like Black Power movements in the United States and the Caribbean, activists in Britain connected the violent harassment of black men by white policemen and civilians alike with the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Britain no longer had an empire in the 1970s, but the old forms of colonial policing, which had routinely legitimized racial violence and murder, had come home.

The decolonization of Hall’s thought was nonetheless gathering speed. His talk on “Race and Racism” to the British Sociological Association in May 1978 decried the way in which the history of slavery and colonialism, let alone the violence and chaos of much decolonization, had been erased from contemporary discussions of race in Britain. White Britons, Hall wrote, had forgotten how slaves and colonial labor had long entered “the blood stream of British society. It is in the sugar you stir; it is in the sinews of the famous British ‘sweet tooth’; it is in the tea-leaves at the bottom of the next ‘British’ cuppa.”

He reminded his audience that those Commonwealth citizens who began to arrive in Britain in the late 1940s had not done so entirely of their own accord. They had been denied livelihoods in the underdeveloped economies of Britain’s late colonies. They had been caught on the wrong side of violent “communal” partitions or Africanization programs during decolonization. This erasure of history enabled racism to become the mode of expression of a white majority facing economic and political crises that decolonization had probably produced and certainly aggravated.

Still from John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project

A few months after this talk a new working group on “race and politics” was formed at the CCCS. Their work would culminate, four years later, with The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain. The publication of this book marked an important moment. Four members of the group that coauthored it were Afro-Caribbean, one was South Asian, and two of them were women.3 Their analysis of the historically specific forms of racism and its contemporary relationship to the crisis of welfare capitalism and the formation of a new type of authoritarian security state owed much to Hall. Yet they conceived of their work, in ways Hall had never articulated, as serving the black communities whose struggles antiracist groups and the British left had failed to comprehend, let alone do justice to. Their attention to the gendered experience of race, and the raced experience of gender, appeared at a critical distance from both Hall’s fidelity to Anglo-Marxism and the forms of white socialist feminism that arose in critical response to it.

In his 1988 essay “New Ethnicities,” Hall looked back to this moment as one in which the political work of black politics in combatting white racism began to give way to a politics attuned to the heterogeneity of “black” experience and thus to the inadequacy of the category. In that essay, and in his subsequent work on multiculturalism, he turned to the work of cultural politics as the key arena in which identities, like the new ethnicities, were assembled in highly contingent and always provisional ways. While others saw the rhetoric of multiculturalism as signaling that white Britons had finally come to terms with the way colonialism and decolonization had generated diverse cultures and faiths in their midst, Hall demurred. He warned that when the advocates of multiculturalism insisted that all cultures were distinct and possessed the same relative value they reproduced the logic of empire. After all, “communalism” had long allowed Britain to rule its colonies by dividing and essentializing different groups as races, tribes, castes, or religious groups. Hall advocated for a different, postcolonial understanding of multiculturalism. It was one that both acknowledged and celebrated the hybrid and mongrelized nature of cultures that slavery and colonialism had both produced and displaced. Colonial history ensured that it was no longer possible to conceive of specific communities or traditions whose boundaries and identities were settled and fixed.

This was how Stuart Hall, the self-professed “last colonial” and Rhodes Scholar from Jamaica, eventually came to terms with living in Britain for over 60 years. He no more felt at home in Britain than he did on his occasional returns to postcolonial Jamaica. He lived in the space between Britain and Jamaica. Living there ensured that his greatest achievement was urging Britons to face the legacies of colonialism and to contemplate what decolonizing their politics and thought, as well as the institutions that police them, would look like.

In recent years the Rhodes Must Fall campaign—directed at statues of the scholarship’s namesake first at the University of Cape Town, then at other campuses in South Africa, and subsequently at the University of Oxford—has become one of the key rallying points for universities in the former “British world” to recognize their complicity in slavery and colonialism and to decolonize their curriculum. Rhodes has not fallen. That may hardly be surprising, given that almost 95 percent of professors in Britain are white. Only 1.2 percent of all those teaching in UK higher education are black Britons of Afro-Caribbean descent (and the vast majority of those are men). Although almost 6 percent of Britain’s student body are black, Oxford, Hall’s alma mater, admitted just 27 black students in 2014, less than 1 percent. Britain’s first degree program in Black Studies will be launched next academic year in Birmingham, not at the university where Hall taught but at the neighboring, and less prestigious, City University.

British universities are not alone. That the British left has yet to decolonize—to fully understand the entanglement of capitalism and colonialism or the intersections of class and race they have created—was painfully evident from its struggle to make sense of the resurgence of white nationalism unleashed by Brexit. It is, as Hall wrote of the left at the height of Thatcherism, a hard road to renewal. Let’s hope it is not also a long one. icon

  1. My thanks to Bill Schwarz, who as Hall’s literary executor (along with Catherine Hall), completed the unfinished manuscript of Familiar Stranger, for allowing me to read it ahead of its publication.
  2. Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law & Order, 2nd ed. (1978; Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).
  3. The authors were Hazel V. Carby, Bob Findlay, Paul Gilroy, Simon Jones, Errol Lawrence, Pratibha Parmar, and John Solomos.
Featured image: Dawoud Bey, Stuart Hall (1998). Source: thenewartexchange.org.uk