Early in Familiar Stranger, Stuart Hall makes a curious claim regarding his legacy. After noting that neither teacher, intellectual, nor politics accurately captures his vocation, he reluctantly accepts cultural theorist as a somewhat apt label. Hall puts it this way: “Nowadays people say cultural theorist, but although I believe in theory as an indispensable critical tool, I have never been interested in producing theory and, in any case, I am not a theorist of any rank in this age of theory, so I regard the designation of cultural theorists more as a polite, convenient postponement, a holding operation, than a well-understood resolution. However, it’s close enough to stand” (13–14). One reads in wonder at Hall demurring his standing as a theorist. Surely he is aware of his importance to the last half-century of theory production, if by theory we mean the ensemble of conceptual frames, analytical innovations, and methodological approaches that one elaborates through a prolonged treatment of a given set of problems and questions. Or maybe in saying, somewhat jovially, he is not a “theorist of any rank in this age of theory” Hall means to reject what theory has come to mean.
It is somewhat commonplace today that when one announces they are doing theory, what is meant often has less to do with thinking as a critical practice of inquiry than demonstrating one’s command of and theological fidelity to a given thinker’s body of work (for example, Marx, Foucault, or Frank Wilderson),1 just as one might the Gospels or Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians. Hall certainly offers us critical tools for grappling with the contemporary moment, but a distinctive quality of his writing is his ability to offer key insights into a particular conjuncture that resist being adopted and simplistically applied to any given social, cultural, and political phenomena. Hall himself noted that the more he studied Caribbean and in particular Jamaican slave societies, the more he came to reject such an approach to theory. As he recalls of his engagement with Marxism around this time, he had “shifted from thinking of theory as the search for the certainty of all-embracing totalities . . . to the necessity of recognizing the power of contingency in all historical processes and explanations” (76). Hall’s memoir has the feel of someone who is asking that, rather than demonstrate our command of his conceptual frames that would enable us to replicate a “Hallian” approach, we join him as he works through his intellectual formation.
Importantly, one thread Hall weaves throughout his memoir is the centrality of blackness in his political thought. Certainly, Hall has long given careful attention to blackness as a question of identity, politics, and structures of domination. What I want to highlight, however, is that Hall tries to show us how blackness informed his thinking about politics. His concern is not white supremacy, or even the whites in colonial Jamaica who, aside from their power, “constituted for us ‘natives’ a sort of running joke, a constant source of casual humour, even ridicule” (20). He offers instead a sense of blackness as those habits of thought, social practices, idioms, and cultural elaborations that issue from and provide mediums through which black people can address social inequality and articulate political demands. He identifies the year 1938, with its labor uprisings that rocked colonial Jamaica, and the emergence of Rastafari as an utter rejection of colonial norms and values, as a moment of rupture critical to how he came to view the world in his early formation. Recalling his sense of disaffiliation as a dark-complexioned boy from the “colonially inflected, creolized, Westernized manners and customs of the respectable” brown Jamaican family he came from (37), Hall tells us that he was drawn to the sounds and rhythms of the “darker Jamaica of the multitude” (36). This black Jamaica lay near but just beyond his family’s reach. And together these two Jamaicas, the brown elite and black multitude, posed “the question of the African, slave and creole origins of Jamaican identity” (51) in ways that exceeded the realm of formal politics. The rebellions in 1938 may have marked the birth of modern Jamaican politics, but the inability of the major political parties (Norman Manley’s People’s National Movement and Alexander Bustamante’s Jamaican Labour Party) to speak for that darker multitude allowed what Hall calls “vernacular lived cultures” to assume greater force than and become a substitute for formal politics in expressing social discontent. Thus, those uprisings also marked a rupture for Hall and those of his generation firmly grounded in their colonial sensibilities, whereby they could come to see the old colonial system as an inadequate frame with which to imagine the future.
What slowly comes into focus is how blackness functions as a range of responses to the colonial world. Blackness operates as a political vernacular that in demanding sovereignty, the implications of that concept notwithstanding, allows for a possibility that might exceed prevailing practices and norms. In this way, 1938 foretold an impending social collapse that for Hall inaugurated “a world of new possibilities, a world in which blackness itself came to function as a resource for the future” (47).
While 1938 forms a critical marker in Hall’s early life, 1956 provides the political context for his thinking. In particular, the Hungarian Revolution, with its Worker’s Councils offering a new possibility for democratic life, posed an urgent question: How might the Left, or more specifically anticolonial Caribbean radicals, move into the future? Hall weaves into this question the sense that he and others had of a need to think beyond classical Marxism, which allowed them to view race and colonialism as autonomous systems rather than as simply the issue of class—the prospects of West Indies Federation and the disillusionment that followed its failure and constitutional independence. Hall’s attention to these significantly different phenomena and the questions they posed grew from his study of black people’s complex responses to their circumstances that produced those ranges of cultural habits, social customs, labor practices, and ideas that provided the foundation of Jamaican life. This represented for Hall a core feature of a Caribbean society that was reflected in his generation’s refusal to choose between presumably Caribbean and metropolitan modes of thought (92).
In the section titled “Leaving Jamaica,” which hardly seems about leaving, Hall offers a meditation on artistic development in the Caribbean and African diaspora that turns explicitly to jazz and Caribbean literature in ways that help illuminate how his thinking with blackness informs his approach to futurity. Jazz provides Hall with an example of thinking about the articulation of structure and freedom that he finds important for understanding the limitations that confront anti-colonial projects. When he describes Charlie Parker’s improvisational disassembling of standard melody lines, what he identifies as capturing his imagination is the “formal complexity,” the “audacity and technical mastery” of jazz musicians whose improvisational approach to music achieved a unique sound that laid bare the relationship between structure and freedom. In his view, the new creations of jazz artists bear the mark of what was left behind, even as they destabilized what they left behind (128). Consider Hall’s sense of his delving into the grooves of jazz: “If you were virtually illiterate in terms of music, as I was, you never knew where the chord sequences in modern jazz would go next or what governed their inner logic. But you were set free to be creative because you knew there was always an underlying structure. I loved this tension between structure and freedom. I responded to the contrapuntal way . . . in which these elements played with and against one another” (128–29). Beyond his deep appreciation for the artistic brilliance of jazz musicians, Hall appears to be thinking about the very route to a future that 1938 seemed to demand—one that recognizes the inadequacies of the former colonial system for a sovereign future and the complicity of that system in the failure, for example, of West Indies Federation and the disillusionment that accompanied the new political realities built upon those old structures.
If jazz music reveals for Hall the central relationship between freedom and structure, Caribbean literature of a certain generation seems to demonstrate a similarly important impulse for any anti-colonial project. Consider Hall’s invocation of C. L. R. James’s 1963 appendix to The Black Jacobins, where James advises, “The first step to freedom was to go abroad” (402). Hall might well have interrogated what James must have meant by this, especially given that for James a critical aspect of such movement involved gaining a new sense of blackness and Africa and the nature of the political challenges that confronted the Caribbean and the continent at the dawn of independence. Or Hall might have had in mind a notion of movement as freedom that this suggests, akin to what Neil Roberts captures in his Freedom as Marronage. What Hall seems to be after is a racial politics of colonial Jamaica that, informed by both jazz and Caribbean literary production, pursues less a return to some prior source than the elaboration of something new that is always historically contingent, requiring that one grapple with the incessant imbrication of race, class, culture, and freedom. After noting that James’s intellectual production and politics occurred largely in England and the United States, while both Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon wrote their most important works in France, Hall notes the audacity of Anglophone Caribbean writers like George Lamming, Derek Walcott, and Wilson Harris to take up the task to “create a new indigenous kind of literature by rewriting the English novel . . . from a Caribbean perspective” (137).2 Rather than construct an alternative culture, what was central to this project was the creation of new forms that sought to subvert the dominant cultural modes that had deformed colonial subjects. In other words, it was their mastery of a European form that allowed them to broach something new, which became essential to a way of thinking about freedom. And this seems to be Hall’s central point. He insists that anticolonial projects have as an imperative grappling with the character of inherited structures in approaching any possible future. This is his warning about the nationalist cultural project that seeks an indigenous culture to stand against imperial culture. Hall warns that such a Manichean construction inverts “without transforming what went before. Where the European colonizer once stood, there shall we stand in his place” (139).
In important ways, Hall echoes C. L. R. James’s thinking about the artist and freedom in the Caribbean. Still, what is compelling about Hall’s approach is that the role of blackness in his thinking about freedom in the Caribbean carries through to how he thought about Hungary, culture (moving from the Caribbean through the British literary tradition of Matthew Arnold, F. R. Leavis, and Raymond Williams), and the coexistence of anticolonial struggles to the Cold War. Students of Cedric Robinson or Anthony Bogues will recognize a similar move that those writers identify as a central feature of the Black Radical Tradition, and while Hall might not agree with such a characterization, he is, like them, after a way of thinking through established forms on the way to elaborating new possibilities, a future full of uncertainties and historical contingencies. Put differently, he is asking that we see blackness as a route to any possible future. ■
In including Frank Wilderson, I intentionally leave out such names as Audre Lorde, Hazel Carby, Saidiya Hartman, or Denise Ferreria da Silva. While their corpus of work, as well as that of many other black women, certainly has been just as influential, and arguably more groundbreaking in their probative insights, they are, with the possible exception of Hartman, rarely accorded such regard as theorists. For a discussion of the racial/gendered dynamics of this habit, see Cooper. I agree with Cooper that this reflects a failure to view black women as theorists, a point more recently echoed by #CiteBlackWomen, though I would not follow her suggestion that we might usefully declare ourselves, for example, Hartmanian theorists, akin to how one might identify as Marxist or Foucauldian or Afro-Pessimist, as I find such gestures tend to obscure the difficult practice of thinking that is the hallmark of Marx, Foucault, Lorde, Hartman, and Hall.
It is curious, to say the least, that Hall’s cultural references seem to all be male. I do not have room to explore this here, though it does strike me that some of his claims might take on a slightly different tint, especially around the question of creolizing literature, were he to take up, for example, Toni Morrison’s insistence that in her work she has removed the white gaze from consideration.