My tribute to Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014)

February 11, 2014

Dawoud Bey, Stuart Hall, 1998

Dawoud Bey, Stuart Hall, 1998

Stuart Hall was my mentor. He just never knew it, because I never had the privilege of meeting him. However, I don’t think its hyperbole to suggest that I am on my particular career path because I encountered his ideas. I remember my first time reading one of Hall’s essays – a wide-eyed undergraduate student frantically highlighting what must have been every other sentence. Hall had a way of plucking all of my strings at once. He was witty, honest, edgy, and compassionate. He was brilliant. Now, my opinion on the matter means very little, countless people far more accomplished and relevant than I have made this same observation. But today, after hearing of Stuart Hall’s passing, I feel compelled to join others in paying tribute to one of the greatest thinkers of our time.

I have tried on several occasions to ‘serendipitously’ be in the same room as Hall. When I was a Master’s student in Toronto, I sent a fruitless email to a professor who knew him, asking if he would introduce me to Hall over email. After moving to the UK for school, I got in the habit of Google-ing his name every few months to see if there was some seminar or event that he was attending where I might casually swing by. I’m not sure what I would have said had I been successful in meeting him. Probably just, ‘thank you’. Hall’s contributions and accomplishments were many (see his obituary here). He essentially founded and incubated the field of Cultural Studies, brilliantly deconstructed British conservative ideology, and pushed the boundaries of contemporary conceptualization of Blackness. I think Professor Jeremy Gilbert put it best in his recent tribute: “Hall seemed to talk literally the least shit of anyone I had ever come across in any medium.”

On a personal level, Hall convinced me that I had ideas worth sharing to the academic community. He taught me that my musings on culture and identity were more than ‘fluff’. He demonstrated how to draw serious social and political conclusions from the experiences of people others couldn’t be bothered to think about, let alone theorize. I wanted to talk about African diaspora communities, but I was bored out of my mind with the social scientific theories I began to encounter. ‘Adaptation’, ‘assimilation’, and ‘integration’ fell short in helping me make sense of the complex and shifting ways people identified with the changing world around them.

[Enter Stuart Hall] He taught me that identities were fluid and my job was to engage with that ambiguity not to mask it. He spoke of cultural identity in terms of ‘routes’ rather than ‘roots’, and ‘becoming’ in addition to ‘being’. Hall wasn’t necessarily the first person to say these things, but he had a way of communicating his ideas in the most compelling and least pretentious of ways. He engaged with the ideas in film and photography just as seriously as he did with other scholarly literature. And while he was wholly committed to emancipatory political projects, he was unwilling to compromise his ideas to make them more palatable for even a virtuous cause.

“Cultural identity, in this second sense, is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora

As I move further into my academic career, I hope to think, write and teach with a sense of groundedness, humility, and honesty. I am grateful to have had such a great example of just that. Thank you, Stuart Hall.

@lpha

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: