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Stuart Hall

White and black subjects

Stuart Hall claims that white and black are both culturally and politically constructed categories

"If the black subject and black experience are not stabilised by Nature or by some other essential guarantee, then it must be the case that they are constructed historically, culturally, politically - and the concept which refers to this is 'ethnicity'."

"We still have a great deal of work to do to decouple ethnicity, as it functions in the dominant discourse, from its equivalence with nationalism, imperialism, racism and the state, which are the points of attachment around which a distinctive British or, more accurately, English ethnicity have been constructed."

Catherine Hall and Stuart Hall reading The Caribbean Review of Books at Hellshire Beach, Jamaica; June 2004. Photo by Annie Paul

Catherine Hall is a social historian. Stuart Hall's work treats history as central to sociology.

Mixed race family and different colonial class fractions

3.2.1932 Stuart Hall was born in Kingston, in the British colony of Jamaica. He was the blackest child of a mixed race middle class family who secured for him an elite education.

His mother (previously Hopwood) "was brought up in a beautiful house on the hill, above a small estate". Her relatives included a doctor and a lawyer trained in England. Her uncle was "local white" (almost white) and that side of the family were fairer and of a higher class than his father's side.

Stuart Hall argues that his mother and her family identified with the plantation class that had owned and run the sugar cane plantations where slaves provided the labour.

His father was a business executive with the United Fruit Company.

His grandfather on his father's side kept a drugstore in a poor village. His family was "ethnically very mixed- African, East Indian, Portuguese, Jewish".

He locates his father as a member of the Jamaican bourgeoisie. Both his parents identified with British colonial rule and not with the movement for Jamaican independence.

Stuart Hall identified with the colour of his skin: The blackness was a reminder of white slave owners having sex with black slaves somewhere in the history of his family. Stuart identified with the slaves, not with the slave owners.

Stuart was a student at Jamaica College from about 1943.

In 1951 he moved to England in a Rhodes Scholarship.

HALL, Stuart Henry McPhail. born 3 February 1932. Merton College, Oxford. 2nd Class English Language and Literature, Research for D. Phil.; L.T. for Univ. Ed., New Left Review 1960-1961. Chelsea College of Science, University of London, Department of Humanities, Lecturer 1962-1964. Birmingham University School of English: Research Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies 1965; Assistant to Director 1966; Deputy Director 1968; Acting Director. 1970; Director 1970. Pres. O.U.W. Soc. Teaching in London; Prof of Sociology, Open University. [See Register of Jamaican Rhodes Scholars

Barthes at the barbers

Not many years after Stuart Hall settled into Oxford University to study high culture, Roland Barthes called at his local barber in Paris and was given a popular magazine to read.

What an irrelevance cries the highbrow scholar. What has that got to do with literature?

Nothing in terms of the kind of literature that Oxford scholars tended to study. Everything in terms of the popular culture that Stuart Hall would study.

Here (in English) is what Barthes wrote later about his perception of the magazine cover.

Oh dear, says the Oxford scholar, once we read books, now we just look at magazine covers.

Our imaginary Oxford scholar reads books and collects German art

"I am at the barber's, and copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me : that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors ..." (Barthes: 1957 p.201)

That is just Roland Barthe's imagination, says our Oxford scholar. The cover is just one of those French niger boys in army uniform saluting. I served in the British army after the first world war and I remember the French were keen on having Africans in the army, almost as if they were Frenchman. It was all about the rights of man. It really upset Germans in the 1920s that black soldier were occupying parts of the country.

I think that was partly to blame for the rise of Hitler. The Germans feared racial degeneration. I bought some pretty lurid German bronzes for my art collection.

The Watch on the Rhine. A bronze medal cast by Karl Goetz in 1920
"Liberte, Égalité, Fraternité" (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) under the image of a black French soldier.
"Die Schwarze Schande" (The Black Shame). Lorelei, the spirit of the Rhine, is tied to a penis shaped tree capped by a French helmet. The broken lyre of the murmuring Rhine is watched over by the eye of God.

Same cover - Different readings

This cover of Paris Match is not a book for our imaginary Oxford scholar to read in the Bodleian library. But he is still reading something into it. And he and Roland Barthes are reading this cover of Paris Match differently.


Coding and de-coding

[The implication for identity theory is that the formation of collective and individual identities is inter-active with the media.



Film is one of the cultural media that shapes our perceptions of ourselves, our identity. In the introduction to a 1980s conference featuring Stuart Hall, the film critic Ray Durgnat is quoted as describing film as

"that cultural arena in which society reflects upon and adjusts its image of itself" (page 4).

That was probably said at the time of mass cinema audiences, but, the introduction argues that

""British cinema is alive and well and living on television" (page 6).

But our imaginary Oxford scholar would not want to know about this.

In the 1950s he was coming to terms with an influx of working class graduates who had an education in good classical literature.

Films and television were the concerns of another cultural class.

Popular Culture

In 2010-2011 79.6% of pupils in their last year of compulsory education in the UK achieved 5 or more GCSE grades A*-C or equivalent. In 2003-2004 39.2% of the relevant age group passed two or more A levels or equivalent.

# Josephine Hope was one of the many innovative teachers who taught in secondary schools Back in 1953-1954 10.7% of the relevant age group passed five or more GCE O levels at schools in England and Wales. 5.5% of the relevant age group passed one or more GCE A level

In the mid 1950s the majority of children (including me - standing left) went to schools designed to train us for undemanding jobs to fit our undemanding abilities. A minority of children were selected for an elite education in schools that could prepare them for university.

Stuart Hall taught in schools for children who were not the cultural elite.

# In 1957, Richard Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of working-class life, with special reference to publications and entertainments and, in the same year, Roland Barthes published Mythologies, analysing film images, wrestling, detergent advertisements and similar items as items of culture.

Inaugurating the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1963, Richard Hoggart, criticised the narrowness of the way English literature was taught in schools and suggested a broadening to what he "provisionally called Literature and Contemporary Cultural Studies"

# The cover design shows a vinyl record, a film reel, a symbol for a studio microphone encircling a transistor radio and a 1960s television.

Talcot Parsons says we are 
actors in a social system

White politics as creative a perfomance

In 1979, Stuart Hall argued that

"political and ideological work is required to disarticulate old formations, and to rework their elements into new configurations".

This work had something in common with artistic or theatrical work. He spoke about a "moving right show" as if politics was a drama whose plot, scenes and presentation had to be created.

From what he wrote we can imagine two acts of the drama to be Powellism (1968) and Thatcherism (1979)


20.4.1968 Wolverhampton West MP Enoch Powell's speech to the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre

Reporting that a constutuent had said "In this country in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man."

# What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking ... in the areas that are already undergoing the total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history. In fifteen or twenty years, on present trends, there will be in this country 3 and a half million Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants...

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre."
the legislation proposed in the Race Relations Bill is the ... is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood."

White politics as creative a perfomance two:


"The Great Moving Right Show" Marxism Today January 1979


In "The Great Moving Right Show", Stuart Hall wrote:

"Gramsci insisted that we get the "organic" and "conjunctural" aspects of the crisis into a proper relationship. What defines the "conjunctural" - the immediate terrains of struggle - is not simply the given economic conditions, but precisely the "incessant and persistent" efforts which are being made to defend and conserve the position.
# "If the crisis is deep - "organic" - these efforts cannot be merely defensive. They will be formative: a new balance of forces, the emergence of new elements, the attempt to put together a new "historical bloc", new political configurations and "philosophies", a profound restructuring of the state and the ideological discourses which construct the crisis and represent it as it is "lived" as a practical reality; new programmes and policies, pointing to a new result, a new sort of "settlement" - "within certain limits". These do not "emerge": they have to be constructed.

"Political and ideological work is required to disarticulate old formations, and to rework their elements into new configurations.

"The "swing to the Right" is not a reflection of the crisis: it is itself a response to the crisis.


"Race constitutes another variant, since in recent months questions of race, racism and relations between the races, as well as immigration, have been dominated by the dialectic between the radical - respectable and the radical-rough forces of the Right. It was said about the 1960s and early 70s that, after all, Mr. Powell lost. This is true only if the shape of a whole conjuncture is to be measured by the career of a single individual. In another sense, there is an argument that "Powellism" won: not only because his official eclipse was followed by legislating into effect much of what he proposed, but because of the magical connections and short- circuits which Powellism was able to establish between the themes of race and immigration control and the images of the nation, the British people and the destruction of "our culture, our way of life". I would be happier about the temporary decline in the fortunes of the Front if so many of their themes had not been so swiftly reworked into a more respectable discourse on race by Conservative politicians in the first months of this year."

"New Ethnicities" is a paper that Stuart Hall wrote for a conference in 1988 on Black Film, British Cinema. [See paper].


In it, Stuart Hall discusses the development of ethnic identity in relation to recent films including My Beautiful Launderette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) - Handsworth Songs (1987) - and Dreaming Rivers (1988) - The Passion of Remembrance (1986).

Hall argues that the struggles represented by and in these films had moved from an older focus on "blacks", as a single entity, and "white" culture, to more diverse issues and identities. He suggests that

"a significant shift has been going on... in black cultural politics...".

This is not a movement from one to the other but

"two phases of one movement which constantly overlap and interweave".

He identifies diversification as the second "moment" in the movement.

The first moment was the construction of blackness as a concept of resistance:

See the Bernie Grant Archive
"Politically, this is the moment when the term 'black' was coined as a way of referencing the common experience of racism in Britain and came to provide the organising category of a new politics of resistance, amongst groups and communities with, in fact, very different histories, traditions and ethnic identities.... Culturally, this analysis formulated itself in terms of a critique of the way blacks were positioned as the unspoken and invisible 'other' of predominantly white aesthetic and cultural discourses." (page 27)

An example of the use of "black" to describe a primarily Asian group is Southall Black Sisters, established in 1979 to meet the needs of Black (Asian and African-Caribbean) women. This group "aims to challenge all forms gender related violence against women". It was not, therefore, formed a resistance to white racism and illustrates both the use of the collective term "black" and the diversification of issues that Stuard Hall sees as the second phase.

Films and diversity

"a film that gives a mosaic impression of the different generations of a Black experience... poses some important questions within the drama: What emotions remain in the silences left by the unfinished business of the 60/70s - the continuing business of sex and gender?"

Omar, a Pakistani, asks Johnny, white leader of a racist Punk group, to work with him to establish a laundrette. The film shows their sexual relations.
16.11.1985 My Beautiful Laundrette first shown in London. Stuart Hall described it as "one of the most riveting and important films produced by a black writer in recent years and precisely for the reason that made it so controversial: its refusal to represent the black experience in Britain as monolithic, self-contained, sexually stabilised and always 'right-on'"


John Akomfrah: Were the riots acts of criminality beyond discourse? beyond narrative?

Sound track of Handsworth Songs: The Home Secretary visiting the riot area is heard to say to journalists: "These are senseless occasions, completely without reason" Somebody said behind him "The higher monkey climb the more he will expose". Another voice: "You don't see the problem"

"The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is 'knowing thyself'as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory." - Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

"there are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories".

Seeking to know who is to blame for the riots we must trace the stories of the experiences of those who came to Britain from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. In the traces of their hopes and experiences we may find an explanation.

Dreaming Rivers - (external link). Miss T., from the Caribbean, dies alone in her one-room apartment. Her family and friends gather at her wake. An "impressionist rendering" of "the past, present and future". "Fragments of a life lived, but only partly remembered." "Three young people discuss the loss of" their mother as a metaphor for their Caribbean identity that is fragmented with the passing of each generation." "..remarkable for its syncretic use of Afro-Caribbean rituals and Christianity, the Creole language, and other Atlanticisms which indicate that Britishness is no longer the terrain of whiteness and Christianity." (Manthia Diawara, Black American Literature Forum) (source)

The creativity of representation

In his paper, Hall speaks of the idea that the film "represents" a reality outside of itself. He says this idea is grounded in the "mimetic theory of representation": the idea that representations, like film, mime or imitate an exterior reality. But representations, he argues, can also form or shape reality.

"... events, relations, structures do have conditions of existence and real effects, outside the sphere of the discursive; but ... it is only within the discursive"... [that they have] ... "meaning. Thus, ... how things are represented" ... [plays] ... "a constitutive, and not merely a reflexive, after-the-event, role. This gives questions of culture and ideology, and the scenarios of representation - subjectivity, identity, politics - a formative, not merely an expressive, place in the constitution of social and political life." (Hall 1988 p.-)


Stuart Hall's analysis of identity in contemporary societies examines the effects of migration and dispersal of ethnic groups within and between countries.

Long Term International Migration, 1964 to 2012, into and out of the United Kingdom. (Office of National Statistics)

He argues that migration is the archetypal 20th/21st century experience, and that this has profoundly destabilised individual as well as collective identities.

"Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel so dispersed, I become centred. What I've thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes, paradoxiacally, to be the representative modern experience" (quoted page 5)

On the issues of race and ethnicity, Hall has argued that there is no such thing as a single, or unique black identity. On the contrary, just as the whole idea of Britishness is now the subject of endless dispute, so also there are endless debates about what it means, for example, to be black British.

Hall adopts a historical and sociological perspective in order to understand of the global context in which individual and group identities are fashioned:

"If the black subject and black experience are not stabilised by Nature or by some other essential guarantee, then it must be the case that they are constructed historically, culturally, politically - and the term that refers to this is 'ethnicity'. The term ethnicity acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity..." (page 29)

British identity, he argues, was shaped, not by some essential quality of Britishness, but by its global network of trading and other relationships, especially with its former colonies. British identity is, therefore, intrinsically related to the historical structures and relations that underlie migration.

Stuart Hall is therefore critical of those who argue that there is - or ever has been - any such thing as a unified, national identity, such as Britishness, or Englishness. The idea of a national culture or a national identity is a social construction, a device which allows something as ethnically diverse and fragmented as, e.g. present day Britain, or USA, to be represented as a unified entity - as one nation.

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White and black subjects

History and sciology

Mixed race family and different colonial class fractions

Roland Barthes

Imaginary Oxford scholar - 1 - 2 - 3

Encoding and decoding

Popular Culture

White politics as creative a perfomance one: Powellism

Two: Thatcherism

New Ethnicities

Black as reponse to white

New ethnicities:

The Passion of Remembrance

My Beautiful Laundrette

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid

Handsworth Songs

Dreaming Rivers

Theorising the issues:

The creativity of representation

Identity and migration