Permission to Imagine

Permission to Imagine

A new collection of Stuart Hall’s writing offers a guide to the limits of representation in building anti-racist politics.

Stuart Hall in the classroom (Open University/Flickr)

Selected Writings on Race and Difference
by Stuart Hall, ed. by Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Duke University Press, 2021, 376 pp.

The first time I read Stuart Hall was in college. I came to his essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” nurturing a particular, but by no means unique, anxiety. I had spent my early university years obsessed with my identity and its legibility, clinging to certain adjectives and nouns—first-generation, Ghanaian, immigrant, Black, woman, Bronx—like prescription drugs. If used in the right order and for long enough, I would experience clarity and relief. They would reveal who I was or at least shed light on who I was trying to be. And if I figured that out, I could move through the world unencumbered and free. At least that’s what I told myself.

The opening paragraph of that essay caught me off guard: “Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.” I felt energized, equipped, and ready to dive into the rest of this offering, which I barely understood. (Hall’s prose, I eventually learned, skews dense and requires multiple readings.) I came to Hall looking for answers, and he gave me something far better: permission to imagine.

Forgive the naivete. Of course, one shouldn’t need permission to imagine. But if you, like me, grew up thinking in a way that privileges rules, order, and categories, that kind of approval feels necessary. Reading Duke University Press’s most recent collection of Hall’s work, Selected Writings on Race and Difference, elicited the same feeling of freedom. The collection, deftly edited by scholars Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, gathers Hall’s writings on race across four decades. It’s an expansive volume that tracks the development of his thinking, showing how he wrestled with the meaning of race in a range of contexts—from political organizing to cultural criticism. It’s a labor of love, a trove of possibility, and a guide to understanding the limits of representation in building anti-racist politics.

Stuart Hall was born in 1932 in Kingston, Jamaica. His father, Herman, was the first non-white chief accountant of United Fruit Company, a corporation known for dominating the banana market in Central America and the Caribbean, and his mother, Jessie, ran their household. As a child, Hall was acutely aware of difference—both within and outside the home. His skin was darker than most other members of his family, a fact that occasionally led to him being called a coolie, a degrading term used to refer to Asian laborers. In his memoir Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, Hall describes how a persistent feeling of unbelonging shaped his development as an intellectual.

Because of his father’s job, Hall lived in the middle-class area of Kingston, and his mother held upper-class aspirations that later embarrassed him. “In my earliest years, like everyone else, I was innocent of the concept of class,” he writes in Familiar Stranger. “But as soon as I became aware of the world ‘outside,’ I always knew my family occupied an intermediary social position between the wealthy white elite and the mass of poor and unemployed Jamaicans.” For the rest of his life, Hall would navigate being in between classes, races, and generations. In 1951, he won a Rhodes Scholarship and left Jamaica to study at Oxford University, arriving at the same time as members of the Windrush generation—the Black Caribbean migrants who were invited to England to fill labor shortages and took jobs as cleaners, drivers, and nurses. Although he felt connected to the people of that historical moment, he knew, as an academic, that he could not necessarily be of them.

Hall did not always think so deeply about how his upbringing shaped his understanding of race and class. “My first sense of the world derived from my location as a colonized subject and much of my life can be understood as unlearning the norms in which I had been born and brought up,” he writes in the opening pages of Familiar Stranger. Growing up, the Hall family never referred to themselves as Black; they preferred “coloured,” a term that distanced themselves from the enslaved people of Jamaica’s past. It wasn’t until later in his life, with the advent of decolonization, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the surge of Caribbean people in England, that Black became a proud self-identifier. “Contrary to common-sense understanding, the transformations of self-identity are not just a personal matter,” Hall writes. “Only by discovering this did I begin to understand that what black identity involved was a social, political, historical and symbolic event, not just a personal, and certainly not simply genetic one.” Hall thought of identity markers—like race—as slippery, ever-shifting concepts. He resisted essentialism by articulating the nuances within the African diaspora and rejecting broad declarations about an inherent virtue or aesthetic value of Black people and their work. This commitment to fluidity, while destabilizing, allowed the scholar to ask, again and again, what role race plays in society. (It’s peculiar then, as Gilroy notes in his introduction, that some scholars think Hall is white and read his work without race in mind.) Today, Hall’s answers to that question feel refreshing and prescient. His philosophy aligns with the growing awareness that dropping Black faces within historically white spaces—as new hires, consultants, brand ambassadors—does not guarantee significant or even necessary change.

The 2020 uprisings for Black lives reinvigorated conversations about global anti-Blackness and spawned auxiliary—but by no means less important—conversations about class, environmentalism, race, ethnicity, gender, and more. It was an astounding moment, one full of possibility and demands for liberation. But since last summer, momentum for some of the movement’s more radical goals has been slowed by a liberal class bent on merely diversifying the existing structure. Hall knew diversity could only get us so far, and he wanted us to contest the dominant logic of racial discourse. His work can help contemporary readers think about what it means to build a politics informed by the lessons of last summer, one that recognizes the effects of race in all structures of society and that identity is an act of construction.

Gilroy and Gilmore open Selected Writings on Race and Difference by situating Hall as a cultural theorist and an educator. Although Hall, who taught at the high school and university level, would bristle at being confined to just two roles, his work in both fields shaped his approach to writing. As a teacher, he helped students develop their ideas and theories, which required abandoning dogmatic thinking and the desire to always be right. These experiences resulted in writing that isn’t primarily concerned with answering questions correctly or incorrectly. In “Absolute Beginnings: Reflections on the Secondary Modern Generation” (1959), Hall meditates on the limits of the British education system. Instead of teaching students to think critically, schools, Hall argues, are engines of propaganda, “making students familiar, through education, with the social and class barriers to education and culture which the society has already imposed.” As they get older, these lessons are reinforced through popular culture. The shows they watch, the music they listen to, and the books and magazines they read calcify their perceptions of class distinctions, making it harder for them to imagine a world different from the one they live in.

The essay contains an embryonic version of Hall’s case for the importance of mass culture, an idea he continuously revisited over the course of his career. “A common culture, available to all and modified by the experiences of different social groups, is the only guarantee we possess of a genuinely democratic society,” he writes. For Hall, mass culture at its best softens the boundaries between classes by providing a space to process prevailing attitudes. It improves our imaginations, helping us visualize alternate ways of existing—for example, in how we house, feed, and care for one another. In an ideal world, it would be less exclusionary and not as easily manipulated by an educated elite. Divisive narratives, which reflect a society in which care is scarce, would shrink, and difference could be seen as a chance to know one another.

Building an environment in which difference unites rather than divides people, however, is challenging. “A common culture does not ‘just grow’ out of a socially differentiated society any more than grass roots flourish in stone,” Hall writes. In “Teaching Race” (1980), he argues that classrooms, spaces where students often encounter the unfamiliar, should be used to foster these ideas. There is an insistence in Hall’s writing that, if educators can let go of the belief that there are common-sense facts about race and its relationship to racism, classrooms can become essential spaces for examining how deep structural differences reinforce discriminatory attitudes and feelings between ethnic and racial groups.

Race, as Hall famously put it, is a floating signifier; at any given point there is no agreed upon definition of the concept. This malleability makes talking about it challenging, often leading to narrow discussions about “race relations” instead of thornier, but more honest, reflections about race as a prism through which every issue in society can be examined. In a classroom discussion about race, instead of enumerating the ways in which people are different, Hall suggests asking “why some of those differences have consistently become historically pertinent.” Why do poor Black people, for example, continue to be the most marginalized in American society, lacking access to healthcare, reliable public education, housing, and more? “One has to remember that the issue of race provides one of the most important ways of understanding how this society actually works and how it has arrived where it is,” Hall writes. Race must be discussed in the same way that it is deployed: as a powerful tool for mobilizing and dividing people. It’s only then that new political identities stand a chance of coalescing. 

The classroom isn’t the only place where our understanding of race develops. Many of Hall’s essays take mainstream media to task for reinforcing stereotypes for the sake of the good story (instead of the right one). In “Black Men, White Media” (1974) and “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media” (1981), Hall not only thinks about the problems of representation but tries to devise solutions. 

How do you change the way Black people are depicted on television? It’s a basic question that has consistently yielded wrong answers. In “Black Men, White Media,” Hall scraps the obvious solution: put more Black people on television. “The media, on the whole, naturally gravitate to the liberal middle-ground: they find conflict and oppression—the real conditions of black existence—difficult and awkward,” he writes. “They tend to redefine all problems as failures in communication.” When forced to confront their lack of coverage, newspapers, magazines, cable television news programs depend on pundits or individuals they deem representative of Black people. This leaves entire Black communities unaccounted for and peddles narratives convenient for white viewers. Written in the 1970s, Hall’s concerns resonate today, as last summer’s uprisings are repackaged and condensed into stories of individual triumph in historically racist systems and calls for white people to embark on a soul-searching journey of “listening and learning”—efforts to expose shallow feelings, in other words, instead of rotten structures.

Hall believed it was the left’s job to make anti-racist ideas more accessible and to dismantle the logic of racial discourse that popular culture relied on. In 1979, he and British actress Maggie Steed tried to do just that with It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum, a program that aired on the BBC. The thirty-minute show begins with an announcement by the BBC that the company has handed “over airtime to members of the public to use under their own editorial control.” One might think this announcement harmless, but It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum immediately suggests otherwise. “Hello, you may have not realized it, but you’ve just been warned about this program,” Steed says at the show’s opening. “When the BBC says a program like this is outside of their control, what they are telling you is that they don’t think it’s balanced, neutral or fair.” The rest of the show involves Steed and Hall playing clips of standard British programming—from comedy to current affairs—and explaining their racist undertones.

“The Whites of Their Eyes” is a dense but clever postmortem of It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum. Hall uses criticisms of the program to articulate the challenges involved in creating anti-racist media. As with “Teaching Race,” the problem comes down to the constraints of the arguments that get presented. In a BBC program on immigration, for example, the debaters, regardless of what side they are on, must respond to a question that assumes there is an issue with the number of Black immigrants in Britain. Instead, Hall posits, we might ask: what is the immigration debate, how is it defined, and what is the logic behind it? For Hall, these questions could help people understand not just the issues that affected them on a social and personal level, but also how powerful institutions banked on and manipulated viewer ignorance.

In his attempt to create informative popular programming, Hall encountered the difficulty of combating a media that reinforces at every turn the idea that Black people are the source of the problem. Against these structures, anti-racists cannot assume that “there is some theory of political struggle, enshrined in the tablets of stone somewhere, which can be instantly translated into the one true ‘correct’ strategy.” They must be flexible in the process of dissecting the myths that we consume.

As Hall’s ideas about race and racism developed, so did his aversion to the idea of a single theory or path toward liberation. Later essays in the collection present nuanced ideas about identity formation (although, disappointingly, without a serious emphasis on gender and sexuality). Ethnicity noticeably takes on a greater importance, and Hall becomes more explicit in the pivotal role cultural questions play in politics. 

In “Subjects in History” (1998), Hall tackles the formation of the “black diaspora,” which he sees as a perfect example of how identities can be reconstructed under new circumstances. The political struggles of the 1960s and ’70s provided a framework for Black people around the world to feel connected. For the first time, he writes of that moment, Jamaica was a Black country. “I don’t mean it was the first time any black people were there,” Hall writes. “I mean black as a political category. I mean black as a culture. I mean black as a sociohistorical fact.” Hall celebrates the formation of a Black diasporic identity but warns that we should not grow attached to it either. Identifications, as he prefers to call them, are always subject to change because they require individuals to think about themselves and their responsibilities to the collective in the context of their place and time. Becoming too attached to them, even if they are beneficial, can easily become suffocating or inaccurate. “There is no safety in terminology,” Hall writes toward the end of that essay. “Words can always be transcoded against you, identity can turn against you, race can turn against you, difference can turn against you, diaspora can turn against you because that is the nature of the discursive.”

In the nearly ten years since I first read Hall, my relationship to identity has undergone multiple transformations, from obsessing over how to articulate it to feeling repulsed by its seeming limitations. Neither extreme position, I confess, was all that helpful. Re-reading Hall has revealed once again that the key to identity, and to building a sound politics reliant on mutual care, is to make space for all the possibilities of not just who you are, but who you, alongside others, could be.

Lovia Gyarkye is a writer based in New York. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Nation.

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