Stuart Hall, who died in 2014, was a radical Caribbean intellectual based in Britain for most of his adult life, an activist and cultural theorist who became a hugely influential figure for his own and subsequent generations. His fierce championing of social engagement – as exemplified in his editorship of the New Left Review – was underpinned by compassion, delivered in a voice as smooth as the finest rum. He was a pioneering thinker about race in Britain, who nonetheless put class first, arguing along with Richard Hoggart and others for the rightful place of the working class and popular art forms in mainstream culture. He helped to define the term “Thatcherism”, and in such prescient books as The Hard Road to Renewal – about Margaret Thatcher and the crisis of the left – defended socialist ideals that would remain under threat from an ascendant rightwing agenda.
Hall was born to brown-skinned, middle-class parents in Jamaica in 1932, and was indelibly shaped by the dramatic events that took place six years later. As a child, he little understood the violent rebellion that swept the island in 1938, but he watched how it played out on the anxious faces of his parents, in the whispered after-dinner discussions of their cocktail-sipping guests and in the immoderate newspaper headlines.
The rebellion was an outpouring of frustration and rage on the part of the black working class (the unwaged and the poorly paid). It terrified the middle-class elite in this outpost of the British empire; Hall’s mother thought it heralded the end of the world. Though the looting and rioting were eventually put down by the armed forces and by policemen such as my own grandfather, who were ordered to take aim at the crowds and “shoot and shoot to kill”, it marked a change in the relationship between the haves and have-nots.
In this posthumously published memoir, Hall likens the insurrection to a “tropical Götterdämmerung”; Jamaicans might have called it an “autoclaps” – a violent clash, the culmination of a set of circumstances and forces coming together which, if you’d paid attention, you’d realise had been foretold.
Across the Caribbean, poor people, disparaged as the “cow tail and broom handle brigade” had been stirred by firebrand orators such as the political activist Marcus Garvey, hailed as a black Moses. Months earlier, Garvey, harried by the British authorities who feared his black nationalist agenda, gave one of his most profound and urgent speeches to his followers, culminating in the exhortation: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because, whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”
That sentiment has resonated down the years among black people in the diaspora. Bob Marley folded those very words into his last mournful “Redemption Song”, and Hall embraced the notion as a principle for the reconfiguration of a life no longer governed by the dictates of its colonial past. Familiar Stranger, edited by his long-term interlocutor and friend Bill Schwarz, shows Hall digging out the roots of his intellectual focus and practice. Along the way he reveals his determination in Jamaica, and on arriving in Britain on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University in 1951, not only to resist the British presumption of framing a colonial identity for him, but to find a language to decolonise his mind.
Hall left Jamaica as a young man; he was never to move back. Had he done so, he would have returned as a familiar stranger, an adept at cultural studies, who would have been just as comfortable reasoning about Jah at all-night Rasta groundations, discussing patronage politics among rum shop revellers or holding forth on dancehall’s slackness at the campus of the University of the West Indies. Familiar Stranger is a homecoming of sorts, a hybrid of memoir and meditation, a spirited voyage around the complexities of race, colour and class.
Almost as a case study, Hall attempts to insert himself into history. His family were never on the upper rungs of Jamaican society but were far removed from, as my mother might say, the class of people who put a basket “pon dem head go market”. Hall’s mother would have taken being described as a “snob” as a compliment. Her racial neurosis was perfectly exemplified by her reaction to the discovery of her daughter’s involvement with a man who, never mind his pedigree from a solidly respectable family, was far too black. Jamaicans’ cultural obsession with positioning themselves socially through colour reminds Hall of Freud’s concept of the “narcissism of minor differences”. But in the 1930s and 40s his compatriots considered the differences major and consequential. As the scholar Vivian Durham wrote at the time: “It was the ambition of every black man to be white.”
In its pigmentocracy – or its “epidermal schema” as Frantz Fanon called it – blackness was despised on the island and the compulsory separation of the courting couple (Hall’s mother put an end to it) was emblematic of those pre-independence, not yet postcolonial times. Hall cites his sister’s subsequent breakdown as one of the traumatic events that shaped his understanding of the legacy of slavery and of the entanglement of race and class.
Reflecting on the role of his ancestors’ stories in forging his identity, the author travels back to the abolition of slavery in the 1830s to show how his family members and people at their level in Jamaican society were among its most immediate beneficiaries. Following abolition, slave owners and all who had made a living from the slave industry and plantations could apply to, and draw from, a £20m compensation fund allocated by the British government. Among the claimants were “free blacks”, the illegitimate offspring of miscegenation between the white planters and enslaved women; at times these “free blacks” were given small plots of land by their fathers and offered the chance of hiring out slaves. Almost half of the claimants of the compensation fund were women. Hall recognises that his own relations were drawn from this pool of light-skinned creoles, who after abolition continued to serve as willing “conscripts to the colonial order”.
The irony was never lost on the formerly enslaved and their descendants that abolition further enriched those who had invested in the slave production of sugar. A century later, the 1938 rebellion revealed that the fallout from slavery had not yet been settled; it disrupted the social hierarchy and punctured the Hall family’s middle-class pretensions and self-delusions.
This was, Hall never forgets, an island depopulated of its indigenous inhabitants. The Amerindians, dragooned into forced labour and succumbing to new diseases, were wiped out within decades of their contact with European colonisers. For several hundred years afterwards, Africans were shackled and brought to Britain’s “pearl of the Antilles” to work on its plantations: many of their descendants still considered themselves in exile. When Garvey promoted a “Back to Africa” movement he was tapping into the long-deferred dream, passed down generations, of escape from human bondage. For Garveyites and eventually Rastafarians, Zion was Mother Africa. For the Anglophiles or Afro-Saxons of Hall’s era, the mother country was Britain.
The island was a place you left – if you had the energy, chutzpah or good fortune. When Hall’s chance came in 1951, he didn’t hesitate. Like his Trinidadian counterpart, VS Naipaul, another high-achieving scholarship boy, Hall yearned to escape the colonial backwater – where to remain, according to Naipaul, would have been to surrender your creativity. Hall left to explore a life of ideas in Britain, but Familiar Stranger underscores the connections between the two islands, not least in town names such as Kettering and in the post-emancipation “free villages” named in honour of the Baptist and Methodist missionaries who campaigned for abolition. Hall explores this nearly vanished world by recounting journeys taken with his British wife, the historian Catherine Hall, from whom, he cheerfully admits, he learned much of his understanding of Jamaica’s history – hidden, and denied to him as a colonial child of the Commonwealth.
Hall experienced a profound and uncanny feeling of deja vu on arriving in Britain, as if the country itself was a familiar stranger. He made his way to Oxford carrying an expensive steamer trunk “weighted down with pretentiousness”, courtesy of his mother’s filmic fantasies of her son as an international traveller. He writes of his determination not to be outwardly troubled by a perception of him as “exotic” and “other”, and not to be slighted by the inquiry “and when are you going home?” from tutors thinking ahead to the end of his college life. Hall took little comfort from the presence in Oxford of fellow West Indian Naipaul, who in Derek Walcott’s words had already developed a “genteel abhorrence of Negroes”.
With the arrival of more members of the post-Windrush generation, Hall became “black”, as the host nation, ignorant of the subtleties of the Caribbean’s pigmentocracy, cast all immigrant people of colour as “darkies”. For him, the diasporic migrant inhabited a psychic space reminiscent of the “double consciousness” identified by the African American author, WEB Du Bois – a state of being “in”, but not “of”; “belonging to more than one world … but never wholly in both places”. Britain brought about for the first time a West Indian consciousness in Hall. Back home there had been no great tradition of island hopping; the islanders didn’t know each other well. Many immigrants of his generation would come to recognise the beneficial effect of their host country’s prejudice and lack of understanding: in the UK, their island idiosyncrasies went unrecognised; they became West Indians.
Before long, Hall was travelling down to London and aligning himself with other “bearded radicals”, and with writers whose careers were kept alive through freelance work on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices radio programme, until it was shut down in 1958. Familiar Stranger takes us only as far as the mid-1960s, after a decade during which, for Hall, “normal” life was suspended in favour of non-stop political agitation. The book touches on his role in the New Left; his critical involvement with CND; his early exposition of the “formal” and “unwitting” variants of British racism; and the importance of Catherine, with whom he relocated to Birmingham at the start of his lifelong embrace of cultural studies. These recollections of a busy life in Britain nonetheless remain haunted by the ghostly presence of his earlier years in Jamaica. With its resonant subtitle, A Life Between Two Islands, it encourages the reader to draw such parallels as that between Jamaica’s 1938 rebellion and the Brixton riots of 1981. It was Hall’s belief that the British had never fully come to terms with colonialism and decolonisation.
The conversational tone of the book has emerged from the hours of interviews Schwarz conducted with Hall over a number of years. The project began as a collaboration, and clearly Schwarz is a faithful amanuensis. Answering the need to reduce this material to a manageable form, he arranges each chapter with a foreword, argument and afterword, which gives the flavour of an extended series of talks. There are a few jargon words suggestive of a cultural theory seminar. But the scenes that describe Hall’s upbringing – as a privileged boy whose parents, like the colonists of the Raj, retired to the cooler climes when the heat became too oppressive – are vivid enough to bring to mind George Lamming’s phrase about West Indian writers calling forth “the people’s speech, the organic music of the earth”. Familiar Stranger reads as a subtle and subversive memoir of the end of empire.
Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to bookshop.theguardian.com