In the British education system, and the public spheres beyond it, we very rarely learn about black history. In the limited contexts in which black history is discussed, we often hear about America’s civil rights movement – but not about the legacies of black people living in Britain. This Black History Month, the Race Matters blog is spotlighting people and movements that have played important roles in black British history, especially those whose contributions are often overlooked. This week, Acting Online Editor Micha Frazer-Carroll looks at the work of academic, activist and cultural pioneer, Stuart Hall.
Born in colonial Jamaica, and migrating to Britain three years after the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury – Stuart Hall had an in-depth understanding of colonialism that many British academics did not. The sociologist had seen both sides of the coin, which was starkly evident from much of his writing on racism in Britain. "Euro-scepticism and Little Englander nationalism could hardly survive if people understood whose sugar flowed through English blood and rotted English teeth," he once wrote.
Today, Hall is not only remembered for his writings on racism – he is considered one of the founding figures of the field we now know as cultural studies. Throughout much of Hall’s lifetime, academics primarily took interest in “high” culture – historically inaccessible art forms like opera, ballet and classical music. Consumed primarily by the upper classes, these types of media were seen to represent only the "best that has been thought and said" – so academics didn't bother to look anywhere else. But Hall didn’t have respect for categories like “high” and “low” culture – he took seriously art from all parts of society, analysing them as vehicles for politics.
As a sociologist interested in power relations, questions of race, gender, class were often bound up in his analysis. His theory of representation, for example, looked at how those with hegemonic power seek to create and fix particular meanings about other groups. In a similar vein, his theory of encoding and decoding suggested for the first time that media texts are filled with messages by those that produce them – and audiences interpret those messages differently. Both theories are still hugely influential in the ways viewers, critics and academics think about the media’s portrayal of marginalised groups.
Hall had a complex relationship with the academy, having studied for his undergraduate at the University of Oxford, where he often found himself alienated from the public schoolboys in his cohort. “Three months at Oxford persuaded me that it was not my home. I'm not English and I never will be. The life I have lived is one of partial displacement,” he told the Guardian in 2012.
After completing his MA, Hall abandoned his PhD thesis on Henry James and went to London. In Soho, where the kind of culture he was more interested in flourished around him, Hall founded the New Left Review, a journal focusing on politics, economics and culture. It was at this time that he wrote The Popular Arts with Paddy Whannel, a book that opened up an almost unprecedented enquiry into contemporary popular culture, and which the BFI calls "one of the first books to make the case for the serious study of film as entertainment". As a direct result, academic Richard Hoggart asked Hall to join the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham as a research fellow. By 1968, he had become director of the centre.
Demonstrating his continual interest and commitment to making academia more accessible, Hall began teaching sociology at the Open University (OU) in 1979. The institution was established under Harold Wilson’s Labour 10 years prior, and focused on part-time, distance and flexible learning. Martin Bean, previous vice-chancellor of the OU said of Hall’s time at the institution: "He was a committed and influential public intellectual of the new left, who embodied the spirit of what the OU has always stood for: openness, accessibility, a champion for social justice and of the power of education to bring positive change in people's lives."
Hall died in 2014, and since then, conversations around race in Britain have taken a number of unexpected turns. Most relevant to anti-racists today might be Hall’s thinking around multiculturalism – a subject of which he was dubbed the “godfather”. In his later years, Hall worked with Runnymede as a commissioner on the somewhat controversial report The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (2000), which outlined ideas for building a fair and equal society, a genuine multicultural community, and a new sense of national identity at the turn of the millennium. Hall was a proponent of multiculturalism, but sceptical of many of its more superficial guises, describing it in its most genuine form as “the slow, mutual, dialogic unfolding of reciprocal understanding… the radical project of learning to live with difference."
Hall had a notable ability to self-critique – as journalist Gary Younge describes: “he was always evolving: always challenging and being challenged.” This was perhaps best illustrated in a speech made at a cultural studies conference in Illinois in 1990, where Hall asked: “against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God's name is the point of cultural studies?” It seems an absurd question from the founder of the discipline itself, but he wasn’t afraid to wonder, and sit with that tension. In today’s discursive climate, it is this spirit of nuance, introspection and accountability that public thinkers are in desperate want of.
Some of Hall’s contributions to academic and activist thought are highly visible: the Stuart Hall Foundation – a charity committed to public education and addressing urgent questions of race and inequality in culture and society – lives on in his name, as does the Stuart Hall Project, a documentary about his life and work, released shortly before his death.
However, many of his contributions are invisible (perhaps due to their present-day ubiquitousness, and possibly due to the fact that he never authored a book alone). Interestingly, although Hall’s ideas around both culture and multiculturalism were hugely influential in New Labour, their applications were so divorced from Hall’s politics that he became a fierce critic of the party under Tony Blair. Notably, he described the Blair project as a "terrain defined by Thatcherism" (a word Hall had coined earlier in his career). He still interacted with the party however, and acted as a “father figure” to David Lammy MP – sometimes pulling him up on stances he disagreed with.
Then, outside of parliament, there is his influence on public thought. We all reference Hall’s ideas in discussions surrounding media bias – particularly around the stereotyping and demonisation of BME communities – whether that is knowingly or unknowingly. We are also in conversation with his thinking whenever we take the political analysis of pop culture seriously – whether that's feminist readings of Ariana Grande or asking what RuPaul's Drag Race can tell us about gender. In academic contexts, his impact has been staggering; at a 1994 conference he gained a standing ovation for simply saying his name when introducing himself. His influence was also interdisciplinary: today, if you open up a textbook on cultural studies, media, anthropology, social history, race or gender studies, and you might find his words or his ideas.
As a young, anti-racist writer who often finds herself in spaces where she feels alienated, I’m intrigued by Hall’s status as an outsider. Despite his initial discomfort in the academy, and in Britain itself, ultimately, his lifelong position on the periphery meant his impact knew no bounds.