In the preface to Familiar Stranger, Bill Schwarz acknowledges that while the book originated from a series of conversations between him and Stuart Hall and therefore represents the interplay of two voices, in its published form, Hall was not able to have a final adjudication of its content. Schwarz explains, “I can imagine his many reservations. He could never return to his writing without being tempted to take it apart and to drive the argument on, or to take it in new directions. This certainly would have been no exception. It pains me greatly that he wasn’t able to read what has finally been submitted in his name” (xvii). Not only do Schwarz’s reflections give us insight into the process of intellectual laboring that marked Stuart Hall’s larger body of work, but they also offer an important framing for approaching this text and the narratives held within it. They invite the reader to ask questions about the possible chasm between the narrative that might have been about “a life between two islands” and the stories, observations, points of reference, and lines of argumentation presented in the pages of the book.
As a reader, for all sorts of reasons there were moments throughout the book where I found myself wondering, what would Stuart Hall think about a particular turn of phrase? Would words penned by him have mapped on the page in the same way, and to what effect? Of course these questions were complicated by the fact that I was reading a book about his life written in the first person. Yet I think it is precisely the inability for the reader to delineate between Hall and Schwarz and to reconcile where Hall might have read the text in agreement, with a critical eye, or perhaps with a degree of dissidence that is in many ways reflective of one of the central themes running throughout the book. At the heart of the book are the recurrent tensions that reside within the liminal spaces between the knowable and the speakable, and that which remains unknown, unspoken, forgotten, and misremembered. Both Schwarz and Hall require readers of Familiar Stranger to dwell in that space of uncertainty as they use it to explore a range of issues, including how we locate ourselves in the present historically (Hall, Familiar Stranger 21–22, 63, 96, 100, 187).1
While engaging some of the conventions of auto-ethnography in regard to both its content and form, it should also be noted that Familiar Stranger explicitly transcends memoir. In doing so, it actively defies any notion of a project of recovering the past. Hall contends that while memories are present in the book, he did not set out to “recover my memories of the past” and had no “memorializing project in mind” (10). Rather, he suggests that the archive that informs the book is one that connects “a life” with a set of ideas—more specifically, ideas about the entangled relationships between particular historical conditions and ways of mapping and articulating certain relations and (dis)locations in and between the colonial past and the postcolonial present.
Echoing earlier sentiments expressed in his writings about his sense of the impossibility of being able “to fully recuperate one’s own processes of thought or creativity self-reflexively” (Hall, “Epilogue” 270), it is striking to consider Hall’s insistence on writing outside of the genre of memoir and resisting what he describes as the “tantalizing” drive to recover what could be presented as a type of verifiable memory record or chronicle of events during a certain period of his life (Hall, Familiar Stranger 10). In this regard, his awareness of the stakes of the project that he sets out to achieve, even as they are represented posthumously, are instructive for historians. Not only does the text lay bare his investments in thinking through his own intellectual formation as a kind of index of the transition between the colonial and the postcolonial, but it also highlights his awareness of that which is irretrievable in terms of both a memory and documentary record that could be drawn upon as a type of uncompromised archive of his existence.
Operating within a discipline that invariably ties itself to and arguably distinguishes itself in the ways that it engages with the archive as a site of recovery, I find that Hall’s sense of the project of Familiar Stranger as reflected in the text pushes us to think differently about the relationship between history and/as recovery. What does it mean to engage the fragmented traces that signpost the past—the archive—through an explicit refusal of recovery and remembering? What types of intellectual histories are made legible through a narrative form where authorship is deliberately uncertain? And what types of citation practices are required to attend to this type of intentioned fusion of authorial voice?2 These are all questions raised by Familiar Stranger and other texts grappling with narrating what Saidiya Hartman (“Venus”) has described as a “counter-history” of colonized and racialized subjects who have, as Hall notes, entered “History” “by negation . . . dispossessed and disinherited” (Familiar Stranger 61).3 And in doing so they urge historians to carefully reflect on some of the core methodological approaches and practices that have framed the terms of knowledge production with the discipline.
In addition to offering a set of methodological considerations for historians, Familiar Stranger also demonstrates the imperative of studying racial formation, and histories of Blackness in particular, as a means of confronting and disrupting the process by which the disavowals and willful forgetting of empire occurs in British history. Using some of the erasures of his own raced coloniality by those seeking to position him as a thinker as an example, Hall suggests that failing to reckon with his Blackness and how race structured the worlds that he traversed in the Caribbean and Britain is a type of disavowal of the very historical context that has informed his ideas. Reminiscent of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s invocation of the “metalanguage of race,” Hall emphasizes the “overriding gravity” and significance of his “racial positioning” in shaping his intellectual trajectory as he explains that beyond seeing himself as a teacher, he “wanted to be [and presumably be seen as] a black intellectual” (Familiar Stranger 13–14). Given that some with whom he shared political solidarities and who were students of his work made no calculations about the degree to which his racialized existence was integral to his ideas, he suggests that in doing so, they too replicated the types of misrecognition that characterize the ways in which “the full force of the history of colonialism keeps slipping out of the collective memory of the metropole” (12), in such a way that works to “deny the colonized any hold on history” (61).
Hall solicits an invitation to think through the relationship between Britain and the empire via the Caribbean in these same terms to unlock new or formerly less visible political imaginaries, configurations, and transitions. But here again, it is a project that amounts to more than simply creating a tool of acknowledgment or recovering an unarticulated historical experience. Throughout the discussion, Hall is careful to underscore the work that the disavowal of race and empire actually does in serving, itself, as an agent in the proliferation of imperial and postcolonial violence. Pointing to examples including the Mau Mau rebellion, the Notting Hill violence of 1958 and arguably one of the most destructive denials of the “conjoining of race and empire” as represented through what he describes as the “romance of abolition” (Familiar Stranger 186)—which to this day is retooled to absolve and justify British imperial pursuits and silence an acknowledgment of anti-Black racism in Britain—Hall showcases that the stakes of disavowals are much more than an intellectual exercise without political consequences that wreak havoc.4
Although Familiar Stranger offers a critical meditation on “a life” that spanned over eight decades, in terms of chronological focus, the text takes the reader on a journey that begins in colonial Jamaica in 1932 and concludes with a period that arguably marks the official making of the postcolonial in Britain by the mid-1960s. At that time, Hall would have been in his early thirties and there are still some interesting questions about where his thinking about the transitions that he was living in and living out might have actually been at the time when the anchor period of the book closes. Yet even though the focus of the book ends in the mid-1960s, Familiar Stranger is a text that attends to processing the stakes of that conjuncture—marked by the simultaneity of the colonial, lived in Jamaica, and its afterlife lived in Britain—in and for the present. In that sense, while Hall may have considered himself outside of a younger generation of Black British thinkers born in the United Kingdom with different attachments to the Caribbean and the lived experience of coloniality, in Familiar Stranger he is certainly conversant with them.
In the fall of 2018 I had an opportunity to participate in a student-led extracurricular reading group convened by students who would largely identify as Black and South Asian at De Montfort University in Leicester focused on hip-hop artist and writer Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. Akala is one of the most well-known Black public intellectuals in Britain, who has created a powerful platform that has been acknowledged in academic circles for his work in discussing the contemporary politics of race and class within the context of Britain’s extant imperial and postcolonial history. One could easily argue that Akala is a twenty-first-century embodiment of what Ben Carrington has described as an “improbable” diasporic intellectual tradition with a “black British inflection” (“Improbable Grounds” 385).
Similar to Familiar Stranger, in Natives, Akala draws upon his own life experiences to explore a set of ideas about living race and class in the shadows of empire in contemporary Britain. Yet unlike the colonial middle-class, upwardly mobile, elite-educated world that shaped Stuart Hall’s racial and intellectual formation in Britain—one which he suggests distinguished him from the working-class “migrant” of the so-called Windrush generation—Akala is emphatic in locating himself as the product of a single-parent, working-poor family, dependent on the welfare state, who came of age on the streets of northwest London. Describing the first time in which he was stopped and searched by police while on the way home from a school youth club, Akala recalled that the officer’s line of questioning “let me know that in his eyes I was dirt; that is, matter out of place” (Natives 172).5 Invoking Mary Douglas’s notion of the function of dirt as a type of pollutant within an urban landscape consumed with preservation and rooting out perceived contaminants, Akala’s recollection echoes an observation in Familiar Stranger where Hall describes the ways in which West Indian newcomers in the 1940s and 1950s were “seen metaphorically, to be ‘like dirt’ and therefore ‘matter out of place’” in the urban metropolis (189). Hall contends that this perception provided the pretext for racist violence and new modes of policing race in the inner city during the late 1950s that offer a broader historical context for understanding Akala’s memories of his encounters with local police nearly four decades later. While our discussion of Akala’s chapter on race and policing in Britain as viewed through his existence as a Black male teenager in northwest London during the 1990s did not explicitly reference Stuart Hall, it occurred to me that Akala’s text provided a means of introducing Stuart Hall, even if not by name, to a new generation of Black British intellectuals living, reimaging, and resisting the residual effects of the postcolonial as they too are positioning themselves historically in the present. ■
It is interesting to note that Hall defines disavowal in similar terms as he writes, “The essence of disavowal is precisely to know and to not know at one and the same time.” Familiar Stranger, 100.
In her latest book, Hartman invokes the concept of “the chorus” to grapple with this issue. See Hartman, Wayward Lives xiii–xiv, 347–48.
On counterhistory as invoked by Hartman, see also Gallagher and Greenblatt 52. Other works in this vein include Brown; Fuentes; and Hartman, Wayward Lives.
These arguments are also core to Hall, “Racism.”
In these examples, both Akala and Hall cite Douglas.