What sort of text is Stuart Hall’s posthumously published Familiar Stranger? Though the book takes the shape of a memoir, appearing with the subtitle “A Life between Two Islands,” it is one that renounces the form in favor of an exploration of “the connections between a ‘life’ and ‘ideas’” (10). Like the majority of the works that Hall left behind, it is the product of lengthy collaboration. In his epistolary book, Stuart Hall’s Voice, David Scott describes the essential “responsiveness” of Hall’s thought and his cultivation of a “listening self” as an intellectual ethos. A dialogical practice of listening and speaking shaped Hall’s written work. Familiar Stranger began as an interview and exchange with Bill Schwarz, and Schwarz edited and revised the final text for publication. The “original dialogic structure” (xv) of the project epitomizes the “receptive generosity” that Scott identifies as the defining feature of Hall’s style and his ethical orientation to the world. The published text abandons this structure for a chronological, first-person narrative. Rather than completely masking the fractures and displacements, however, this results in an indeterminacy of voice in Familiar Stranger. Hall’s distinctive voice comes through clearly in the work’s conversational tone, but there are also passages and turns of phrase in which a reader familiar with Schwarz’s writings can hear his voice as well. Voices proliferate in the text as Hall thinks with and through a range of male interlocutors: Henry James, Antonio Gramsci, C. L. R. James, Raymond Williams, Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Ashis Nandy, and Edward Said. Familiar Stranger is a layered and highly mediated text in which the line between one voice and the other, like that between past and present, is indeterminate. The text cannot be reduced to its “author” (Foucault). It “turns on an entire history” (Familiar Stranger 12). As such, it is fittingly rich and challenging, defying genre.
“Sometimes I feel I was the last colonial” (3). This admission opens Familiar Stranger. It is a reference to historical context—a particular historical conjecture—and a statement of the text’s conditions of possibility, situating it within a “long, continuing process of disidentification” (3). Citing Foucault, Hall writes, “for my generation of Jamaicans, ‘colonial’ . . . was an attribute of being, formative because it framed your existence. . . . It positioned you as a subject-‘author’ as well as subjecting you to its discourse” (21).
Early on, Hall highlights legacies of the colonial encounters, transatlantic slave trade, and slavery that produced the African diaspora in the “two Jamaicas”: the vernacular culture of poor black Jamaicans (47–48) and a colonial society organized by an “elaborate structure of racial and colour differences” (56), the social world of his “colored” middle-class family. However, when he theorizes the terms diaspora and diasporic—as in the “nature of diasporic thought” and the “making of the diasporic self”—he often has in mind the postcolonial diaspora formed in the movement from colony to imperial metropole. For Hall, diaspora constitutes a domain that emerges from multiple displacements, unresolvable ambivalences, and “impossible alternatives,” such as “fantasy of a return to reconstituted one-ness” (198–99) or transcendence of the colonial past. Hall’s is a phenomenological rather than an ontological conception of diaspora. Though “identity has necessarily been a political issue . . . both in the Caribbean and in Britain” (248), as an “emergent space of inquiry” and mode of critical thinking, “the diasporic both responds to, and goes beyond, . . . ‘identity politics.’” Hall explains, “To think of yourself as diasporic, as I now do, has . . . become a sort of substitute for ‘identity.’” The diasporic perspective does not provide a “transhistorical authenticity” or “ready-made answers or programmes but sets us new questions, which proliferate across and disturb older frames of thought, social engagements and political practices” (144).
The “space of the diasporic” is, in a word, postcolonial. “Contemporary diasporas take shape, not ‘after’ in a simple chronological sense, but in the aftermath of—that is, ‘post’—colonialization,” Hall writes (143). “The formation of the black British diaspora itself was a component in the contested process of decolonization” (176). Thus, he suggests, “The diasporic experience . . . can be marshaled as a privileged, fruitful means for explaining the complex inner relations of this last phase of colonialism, and indeed also our own post-colonial moment” (140). Diaspora opens up a vantage point from which to articulate the coordinates of an “intimate” history of decolonization. Signposts and flashpoints—e.g., the 1938 labor rebellion in Jamaica, the Suez Crisis and Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Notting Hill and the demise of the Federation of the West Indies—appear through a narrative of detours and displacements without a final destination.
Hall applies his characteristic conjunctural analysis and eye for contingency to his own formation as a diasporic subject and, in the process, illuminates the transformations and unfinished struggles of the last half century. This is a history that stitches together metropole and colony without reducing their differences. “To me,” Hall explains, “their interdependence is what defines their respective specificities; in everything they reverberate through each other” (11). Hall references two common misconceptions regarding his intellectual biography to re-center the final years of colonial rule. “Some of my critics believe that I wasn’t concerned with the Caribbean, or about black culture and politics, until the 1970s. It’s true, perhaps, that my publications weren’t centrally preoccupied with Caribbean or black matters. But they nonetheless formed an indispensable, active seam in my intellectual inquiries” (169). The other common mistake is the “misattribution” of his “generational location” by placing him among the first generation of postcolonial black Britons. “I was formed by 1938,” a year of mass strikes and labor rebellions in Jamaica, Hall writes (44). “The year 1938 . . . locates me generationally.” Rather than “a product of ’68,” he insists, “politically I was a child of 1956: of Suez and Hungary, of the collapse of the Communist dream, of the Cold War and of post-war decolonization, and thus of an earlier and very different kind of ‘New Left.’” These corrections situate Hall’s political and intellectual formation, as he puts it, “within—not ‘post-’—colonialism” and within a particular “problem space,” the historical conjuncture of decolonization (45).
This has significance for understanding the weight of decolonization struggles in Hall’s thought as well as Hall’s contributions to the New Left in Britain. More important, Familiar Stranger offers notes toward a diasporic history of decolonization. Hall describes his “diversion” into the history and vernacular cultures of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora via the works of Melville Herskovits, Roger Bastide, Gilberto Freyre, and Fernando Ortiz in the library of Rhodes House at Oxford: “I can’t emphasize too strongly the Caribbean, New World route through this journey. . . . This diversion in the Rhodes House Library . . . really marks for me the origins of Cultural Studies” (248–49). He attributes the “neutralist” position of the group around Universities and Left Review, launched in response to the events of 1956, to the “Bandung tendency” and the inspiration of nonalignment movement (245).
In these same years, Hall began to formulate a critique of the top-down, statist approach in the postcolonial national-building project and in postwar social democracy in Britain. The “radical, politico-cultural impulses” of the late colonial moment—“a moment of recognition” which was “an operative element in the makings of a wider, diasporic, black transnationalism,” Hall argues, “were marginalized, or broken, or cancelled out by the triumph of . . . the nationalist project.” The “focus on state-building . . . driven ‘from above’” prioritized “the mobilization of the state at the expense of collective popular energies” (138–39). Hall’s critique of the postcolonial nationalist project mirrors his analysis of postwar Labourism and social democracy in Britain expressed most famously in the 1979 essay “The Great Moving Right Show.” Hall relates the latter piece to his “first properly political essay,” a piece on the political fallout from the aborted military intervention in Egypt: “I am thinking particularly of the critique of the Left; of the invocation of the political salience of the popular; and of the centrality of displacement and disequilibrium” (237). In “The Great Moving Right Show,” Hall developed the critique of Labour corporatism in the context of an exploration of the crisis that enabled the rise of Thatcherism. “It would be easy to believe that Labourism has been trapped by the statist dilemma only recently and inadvertently,” he wrote. “The fact is that ‘statism’ is not foreign to the trajectory of Labour socialism: it is intrinsic to it. Corporatism is only the latest form in which this deep commitment to using the state on behalf of the people, but without popular mobilization, has manifested itself” (Hall, “Great Moving Right Show” 386–87). Hall locates the germs of these insights in the same moment and within the same process—“the collective work of political revision on which our generation, after 1956, felt compelled to embark” (Familiar Stranger 237).
Some of the most fascinating and suggestive passages in Familiar Stranger link migration and the political project of federation in the Caribbean, one widely supported by the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Britain. “The idea for the Federation had not originated in the diaspora,” Hall observes, “but it was positively nurtured throughout it.” The diasporic perspective enabled new political subjectivities in relation to an expanded political imaginary: “Immigration itself had thrown us together. . . . Being in Britain, we had developed a more inclusive concept of the Caribbean” (168–69). This was not a sense of shared Caribbean-ness born solely of circumstance. Hall recalls, “The debates about Caribbean Federation were, in my early years in the diaspora, electric, galvanizing an entire political constituency.” The hopes attached to decolonization, invested in the “noble dream” of federation, helped constitute Caribbean Britain. In turn, as Hall narrates his personal journey, the demise of the Federation of the West Indies “marked another turning point” (242), the end of any thought of returning to the Caribbean and the dawning of the realization that, despite the coming of flag independence, it remained “unclear when, how, or indeed whether, the imperial afterlife would ever end” (262).
This is, nevertheless, a personal history and should not be taken as representative of the history of decolonization in the imperial metropole. As Hall notes, “The full extent of the presence of the myriad of colonials in London, as the empire was coming to its end, hasn’t yet been properly acknowledged” (261). That presence extends far beyond the boundaries of the narrative and the spaces around which it centers. Hall relocated from Oxford to London in 1958, and through his New Left associates, he became active in antiracist work in Notting Hill, a center of Afro-Caribbean settlement and the site of white pogroms against black residents that same year (258–60).1 Soho—“central, edgy and bohemian” and a “crossroads of a variety of social and political currents”—became the center of gravity in a life increasingly consumed by political activism after 1960, when the ULR club opened an office and the Partisan Café on Carlisle Street (256–57). However, there is no indication of the polyphony of black sounds emanating from Caribbean and African clubs nearby in Soho or of the South African jazz diaspora playing kwela for South African revolutionaries and exiles at the Duke of York pub on Rathbone Place just north of Oxford Street. The absences in Hall’s account only lend greater weight to his suggestion that we still know little about—and appreciate even less—the dense connections between the formation of diasporas, politics, and culture in Britain during and after decolonization.
In Familiar Stranger, Hall offers his generation’s experience as a way into the connections between the two twentieth-century developments—decolonization and globalization—that have shaped and continue to shape the contemporary world. “In effect,” he writes, “the migration of my generation brought two historical eras—the postcolonial and the global—explosively together” (177). As part of the last generation of “colonials,” Hall describes himself as not-quite, not-yet black British, but he insists that you cannot understand the history of migration or the formation of black Britishness among subsequent generations without understanding colonialism and “its after-effects” (24). The constitution of academic fields frequently works against thinking these together, and even many analyses of black Britain have little connection to colonial histories. Familiar Stranger is a provocation intended to counter the “strange imperatives by which the full force of the history of colonialism keeps slipping out of the collective memory of the metropole” (12). Because “colonialism persists” (24), unearthing sedimented “colonial mentalities” and processes of unequal exchange in the “accelerating contraflows of globalization” (177) remains an essential part of our own responsiveness to the challenges of the present. ■
For more background, see Schofield and Jones.