Familiar strangers: the black radicals who civilised Britain

Familiar strangers: the black radicals who civilised Britain

When the story of radical politics in Britain during the second half of the 20th century comes to be written by future historians, pride of place will surely be given to the black activists drawn from the post-war generation of migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. This thought occurs after reading reviews of Familiar Stranger, the recently published collection of autobiographical essays by Stuart Hall, who was – in Tim Adams’ words in the Observer – ‘perhaps the most significant figure on the British intellectual left over the course of the last 50 years,’ and learning of the death of Darcus Howe, who once described himself as having come from Trinidad on a ‘civilising mission’, to teach Britons to live in a harmonious and diverse society. Fresh out of university in the early 1970s and fired up by student and anti-apartheid protest, I drew inspiration from these black activists and the struggles they spearheaded, fused with the rebel music of reggae and 2-Tone music. Continue reading “Familiar strangers: the black radicals who civilised Britain”

Tony Benn: we need to think about something more radical

Tony Benn: we need to think about something more radical

Tony Benn in 2009

Tony Benn in 2009

I’ve always thought there was some epochal significance in the fact that when, in 1981, we had friends round to hear the live coverage of the results of Tony Benn’s bid for the Labour deputy leadership, I was upstairs in the bathroom being violently sick.  He lost, of course, defeated by a sliver of votes cast by those who were shortly to abandon Labour to found the SDP.

It was the shock and awe of Thatcher.  Another two years and I was on the doorsteps, trying to persuade voters to support ‘the longest suicide note in history’, the 1983 election manifesto that called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Economic Community, abolition of the House of Lords, and the re-nationalisation of recently industries like British Telecom that Thatcher had recently privatised.  Punch drunk from that, a year later we were doing what we could to support the miners in their doomed strike.

These memories returned hearing of Tony Benn’s death today.  The arguments about the extent to which he was responsible for the disaster endured by the Labour Party in the 1980s have resurfaced in the obituaries, but his unswerving political career seems somehow estimable.  He never ceased to believe that there could be an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus that was heralded by Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and sealed by Tony Blair’s ascendancy.

And when it all came crashing down in 2008 and, outrageously, the Labour government was blamed exclusively for the rapaciousness of banks, Benn calmly challenged that view:

What happened in 2007-8 is now used by the government as an example of the failure of the Labour party. But the changes that were brought about led to a need to think about something more radical, and more radical ideas – on, for instance, public ownership and education – would win popular support if they were presented to the public.

Reading those words today reminded me of the superb 2007 conversation between Stuart Hall and Philip Dodd that was repeated shortly after Stuart Hall’s death at the beginning of February.  Dodd put it to Hall: You’ve been fighting for fifty years, which is a long time in any lifetime. It must seem hard that it seems further away than it ever did?

This was Stuart Hall’s reply:

I feel the world as stranger to me than I ever felt before. I feel out of time for the first time in my life.  I do feel the world turned in the 1970s; it turned, you know, fundamentally turned.  The end of that post-war social democratic period in Britain.  The end of Keynesianism.  Glimpsing the end of the welfare state.  This is the big historical shift; it’s the beginning of globalisation, though we didn’t understand that it was.  It’s a move by capitalism away from the constraints of the welfare state, the attempt to tax capital in order to maintain social peace.  It got to the point where they said, ‘if you tax us any more we’ll go out of business’.  This is what Marx said: at a certain point you come to the limits and then you either change the system or the system will go somewhere else, and we are in the middle of ‘all that is sold melts into air’.

Should we have a political party that believes we should tune ourselves up to the global economy?  Of course we should – but not two, or two and a half!  It’s when everyone is operating in so many of the same parameters that the only debate you can have is a sort of Swiftian debate – you know, shall we eat the children now or later on?

It will unravel.  Since that unravelling will mean the death or suffering of large numbers of people, I can’t say I’m glad about that.  But unravel in a way that I can’t now predict, I don’t have any doubt at all.

See also

The Stuart Hall Project: who are we, what are we and what could we become?

The Stuart Hall Project: who are we, what are we and what could we become?

The Stuart Hall Project 2

When I saw John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat in November 2012 I was deeply moved.  Like everyone else I know who saw the three-screen installation based on the life, work and thoughts of the Jamaican-born sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall, I loved it so much, I had to go back and see it again several times.

Since then, Akomfrah has expanded his exploration of Hall’s life and legacy in a documentary film, The Stuart Hall Project, that was released last year. Following the news of Stuart Hall’s death, we watched the film on DVD last night. However, watching the 90 minute film turned out to be very different to the experience of being immersed in the multiple screen poetry of The Unfinished Conversation. At twice the length, The Stuart Hall Project obviously shares the same genes as the installation, but is a quite different creature: the film, mainly utilising different archive footage, is structured in a more linear fashion, and is less lyrical, poetic and moving than its antecedent.

If that makes it sound as if I am unimpressed, I must make clear that The Stuart Hall Project, although having a more conventional documentary format, is nevertheless intellectually stimulating, and beautifully composed.  At the film’s close Akomfrah adds a personal dedication, ‘with deepest gratitude and respect’, and now that Stuart Hall is dead, Akomrah’s lovingly compiled film will stand as a testament to Hall and the ideas of the British New Left to which he contributed so much.  In the generous booklet that accompanies the DVD, Akomfrah explains:

I always wanted to try to do a film about the New Left in Britain, that postwar period that is so often ignored. And the more we looked at it the more we realised that we could tell this whole story through Stuart’s amazing life.

Akomfrah’s film is not a straight biography, although it is more conventionally chronological than the installation in the way it organises its material. Crafted from a meticulous sifting of over 100 hours of archival footage featuring Hall (mainly gathered from the BBC and Channel 4), it unfolds simultaneously as a tribute to a great academic and communicator, a study of the emergence of the New Left and its political ideas, and as an essay on post-colonialism and diasporic experience in Britain.

There’s another key element: the music of Miles Davis. The soundtrack is dominated by the cool, languid music of Hall’s favourite musician: Miles ‘put a finger on my soul’, Hall says. Akonfrah – quoting Hall’s words, ‘nostalgia for what cannot be is in the sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet’ – uses Miles’ music to structure the film’s narrative, an alternative, intersecting route through the same historical period that the film tracks.  This is more than just a question of favourite music – it is also symbolic of the contention by Hall and other New Left thinkers in the late 50s and early 60s that shifts and insurrections in popular culture were as significant as economic and ideological questions.  In other words, Miles’ music and persona represent not just the Birth of the Cool, but also the birth of cultural studies.  Having recognised its significance, however, I do feel it was a mistake to insert a caption on screen every time a new Davis track floated on the soundtrack: distracting and a little too pedantic.


‘I was an outsider from the time I was born,’ Hall says at one point.  He identifies himself as a ‘twenty-first century man’ who does not ‘belong anywhere any longer’, a man of many ‘routes’ (he chuckles as he spells out the word he means).  Hall, then, is representative of the strand of thought with which he is most associated – the social and political implications of post-war immigration patterns that created a multicultural Britain, a country with an increasingly mixed heritage inhabited by growing numbers of people of mixed heritage. Hall identifies himself as a man of many origins, born into a middle-class Jamaican family of mixed Portuguese-Jewish, African and English descent, he was ‘three shades darker than my family’.

This is the Unfinished Conversation that was Stuart Hall’s personal experience and the subject of a lifetime’s analysis:

Identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history.  Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.

Akomfrah’s film traces Hall’s trajectory, from his childhood in Jamaica to his career as a very public British intellectual. ‘Stuart Hall was kind of a rock star for us,’ Akomfrah writes in the DVD booklet:

For many of my generation in the 70s… he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. His very iconic presence on this most public of platforms suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities.

Certainly, one of the remarkable things about watching this film is the revelation of how deeply committed Hall was to the task of communicating complex and challenging ideas to a mass audience.  The clips from the archives of the BBC and the early Channel 4 that have been excavated from the archives by Akomfrah take us back to a time when television discourse was much more open than now, when audience share and marketing are the prime drivers of programming.

I think that it is this to which Mark Fisher refers when he writes in the DVD booklet:

I wept when I saw The Unfinished Conversation at the Liverpool Biennial – not something one expects to do in the largely arid and affectless terrain of contemporary art. Others told me that they, too, had cried. We were weeping because we had only recognised the full extent of what we had lost when Akomfrah recovered it.

Akomfrah’s film follows Hall from his arrival at Oxford University, through the foundation of the New Left following the crises of 1956, to his founding, with Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, of the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies and his work with the Open University.  Throughout, Hall writes for New Left Review and other journals, travels the country addressing public meetings and lectures extensively on the subjects of race, identity, and social change in Britain.  And, as the archive footage assembled by Akonfrah makes evident, Hall is constantly on TV – articulate and assured, with that mellifluous voice explaining matters with clarity and forthrightness. That voice spoke from and for a new kind of Britain – one in which you need not be white, or speak with a Home Counties accent, to be respected and accepted as an authority.

In the DVD booklet, Akomfrah pinpoints the impact which Stuart Hall’s TV appearances had for him and other black teenagers in the 1970s:

In those heady, mono-cultural days, he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. I loved all the athletes and singers and dancers too but when you are a black teenage bookworm in seventies West London, let’s just say a public intellectual of colour disseminating ideas on television offered other more immediate compensations. Stuart Hall was a kind of rock star for us; a pop icon with brains whose very iconic presence on this most public of platforms – television – suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’. By just being there in our bedrooms and living rooms, he opened up pathways into that space that he has referred as the place of ‘the unfinished conversation’, that space in which the dialogue between us and the external world begins, that place of identity. With him and through him we began to ask the indispensable questions of that conversation: who are we, what are we and what could we become.

In his essay for the DVD release, Akomfrah states that all of his work has been concerned with ‘the presence of memory’, as a way into describing all our lives:

It begins there; with memory, with uncovering the stems of memory, the ghosts of history sifting through the debris and detritus of past events for traces of the phantoms. It begins with searching and rummaging through all those itineraries, those collective unfinished conversations that tell us something about how a bright young Rhodes scholar from colonial Jamaica, became ‘Stuart Hall’. In understanding him and the movements he shaped and was shaped by, we begin to understand something about how we became what we are: the Suez crisis, the Hungarian revolution, the anti-colonial project, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the new Left, feminism, class politics, cultural studies. All these interventions, these unfinished conversations. And, in honouring him, we honour the best in ourselves.

‘Amen to that’, Akomfrah concludes, and one can only agree, heartily.  For those events, issues and changes are what have  shaped all our lives, whatever individual routes we traced through the postwar decades. We have all benefited from the legacy of that politics of inclusion, the values that Hall fought and argued for. As Akomfrah – a migrant of another, younger generation, the son of Ghanaian political activists – told Tim Adams of the Observer:

Every time I look at my own life here, and the lives of my children, I see something that the work of Stuart and others allowed. They helped to create a way for us to really live here. It didn’t happen by accident but through example and struggle; looking back it might be easy for some to be dismissive of that, but I think my daily life is a validation of that work.

In his Observer article, Tim Adams remarks that:

Watching Akomfrah’s film, which traces Hall’s journey from childhood in Jamaica, through his arrival in Britain and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1950, to now, you come to see how pivotal his voice has been in shaping the progressive debates of our times – around race, gender and sexuality – and how an increasingly conservative culture has worked lately to marginalise his nuanced understanding of this country.

If Stuart Hall heard in Miles Davis’s music a ‘nostalgia for what cannot be’, watching John Akonfrah’s account of Hall’s life, with its commitment to multiculturalism and progressive ideas, evokes a different nostalgia – for a time when such ideas and arguments made a vital contribution to debate about British identity.

See also

Remembering Stuart Hall and The Unfinished Conversation

Remembering Stuart Hall and The Unfinished Conversation

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

Sad news today of the death of Staurt Hall, a giant force in post-war intellectual life on the left in Britain.  Born in Kingston into an aspiring Jamaican family, Hall received a classical English education in Kingston before winning a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University.

Hall arrived in Britain in 1951, part of the Windrush wave of Caribbean migration. He found himself in a country that was both familiar and yet one to which he never entirely felt he belonged: he once recalled that when he took the train from Bristol to Paddington station in London, he saw a landscape familiar to him from the novels of Thomas Hardy.

Throughout his career as academic, activist and polemicist, Hall produced countless articles, essays and collectively written volume, as well as radio and television talks.  In 1979 he became professor of sociology at the Open University, attracted by the idea of teaching those who had previously missed out on educational opportunity. He remained at the OU until 1998, focussing on questions of race and postcolonialism, and on theorising British society and culture from a migrant perspective.

From the mid-50s he wrote for New Left Review (he was a founder member) and Marxism Today in the company of such figures as EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, Raymond Williams and Ralph Miliband.  The impact of his writing on race, gender, sexuality and identity, and the links between racial prejudice and the media was felt far beyond academia.

Stuart Hall explains racism on British TV

The Spectre of Marxism: 1983 Thames TV documentary written and presented by Stuart Hall

Last autumn a documentary about his life by the film-maker John Akomfrah, called The Stuart Hall Project, was released. Writing in the Observer, Tim Adams wrote of the film:

You come to see how pivotal his voice has been in shaping the progressive debates of our times – around race, gender and sexuality – and how an increasingly conservative culture has worked lately to marginalise his nuanced understanding of this country.

That film grew out of The Unfinished Conversation, a three-screen video installation that I had the privilege of seeing at the Bluecoat Arts Centre in 2012.

Here is the post I wrote in celebration of Stuart Hall after seeing The Unfinished Conversation:

John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

In one of his last interviews, with the Guardian two years ago, Staurt Hall expressed his pessimism about politics generally and the Labour party specifically (in a fine assessment of Stuart Hall’s legacy for the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries reminded me of that line of Gramsci’s that Hall would quote with approval – the one about ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit’):

The left is in trouble. It has not got any ideas, it has not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore it has got no vision. It just takes the temperature: ‘Whoa, that’s no good, let’s move to the right.’ It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.

Amen to that. A great voice is silenced.  The conversation left unfinished.

See also

John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

‘Difference is what is really exciting about the world’.
– Stuart Hall

I haven’t seen much of the contemporary art on display in the 2012 Liverpool Biennial – somehow the hermetic, jargon-laden language that seems to permeate this year’s jamboree makes me feel like an unwelcome guest at a party strictly for those in the loop.  But one work I have seen is a gem: John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat is a three-screen video based on the life, work and thoughts of the Jamaican-born sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall.  Remarkably, for a film about sociology and theoretical approaches to cultural identity, Akomfrah’s presentation manages to be beautiful, lyrical and poetic; it is moving, intellectually stimulating, and pushes the boundaries of documentary film-making.

I loved it so much, I had to go back and see the work several times.  Though Akomfrah’s film unfolds against images and events from the life of one man who arrived on these shores as an immigrant from Jamaica in 1951 and went on to graduate from Oxford University and build a career as an academic and media commentator, immersed in the flood of images on Akomfrah’s three huge screens, there are wider, deeper and more personal resonances: these are the times through which we have all lived these last 60 years.  The carefully selected images of British society in flux and of rebellion and resistance in the decades following the 1950s represent my own history, if not my own experience.

Identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history.  Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.
– Stuart Hall

In this remarkable, multi-layered film Stuart Hall’s ideas about identity, immigration and selfhood (Hall’s own mellifluous voice captured in archive TV and radio clips) unfold against a kaleidoscope of images (newsreel footage and family photos and film) juxtaposed with readings from William Blake, Dickens, Mervyn Peake and Virginia Woolf, and music – the jazz that Hall loves, and a rich mixture of other tonalities, from the gospel voice of Mahalia Jackson to the ethereal, wordless chanting of Stephan Micus. The result is a brilliant work that combines biography, social and cultural history with a meditation on individual memory and personal identity.

It is dawn, England, across the city in the countryside the light grows. On the soundtrack, lines from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves:

The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore …Now, too, the rising sun came in at the window, touching the red-edged curtain …The wind rose.  The waves drummed on the shore, like turbanned warriors, like turbanned men with poisoned assegais who, whirling their arms on high, advance upon the feeding flocks, the white sheep.

Sunlight slants across the verandah of the Hall family’s house in Jamaica.

‘I lived in the most exquisitely differentiated class system in the world.’

On Desert Island Discs in 2000, Hall tells Sue Lawley how, growing up in a middle-class Jamaican family of mixed Portuguese-Jewish, African and English descent, he absorbed a deep sense of an ambiguous identity from an early age: ‘I was three shades darker than anyone else in my family’. He felt an outsider even in his own home as a child, and was no less alienated as a student:

‘I was too black in my family…an outsider from the time I was born.’

Akomfrah punctuates his film with occasional titles, and one appears now: the promise of beyond.

I was brought up in a lower middle class  family in Jamaica.  I left there  in  the  early  fifties to go and study  in  England.  Until I left, though I suppose 98 per cent of the Jamaican population is either Black or coloured in one way or another, I had never ever heard anybody either call themselves, or  refer to anybody else as ‘Black’. Never. I heard a thousand other words. My grandmother could differentiate about fifteen different shades between  light  brown and dark brown. When I left Jamaica, there was a beauty contest in which the different shades of women were graded according to  different trees, so that there was Miss Mahogany, Miss Walnut, etc.

People think of Jamaica as a simple society. In fact, it had the most complicated colour stratification system in the world. Talk about practical semioticians; anybody in my family could compute and calculate anybody’s social status by grading the particular quality of their hair versus the particular quality of the family they came from and which street they lived in, including physiognomy, shading, etc. You could trade off one characteristic against another. Compared with that, the normal class stratification system is absolute child’s play.

In an interview with Caryl Phillips in 1997, Stuart Hall recalled:

Most of my life had been spent thinking that the apogee of scholarly work and education was to get a scholarship and go to England to be finished off, and then come back, as it were, civilized. A good proportion of my life as a schoolboy was spent in the study of English literature, romantic poets, British history and so on. When I came to England in 1951 I came by boat. I arrived in Bristol and took an early autumn journey from Bristol to Oxford, and I thought, I know this place, I know everything about this place, it’s absolutely completely familiar. It was a homecoming.

In Akomfrah’s film the needle drops on a Miles Davis lp and Hall speaks of going to Oxford University: ‘I had to go through it, but I couldn’t leave it behind’. The improvisation and spontaneity of the jazz unfurling on the soundtrack a contrast to the rigidities of his Caribbean upbringing. At Oxford he played in a jazz band with a saxophonist and a drummer who were Oxford bus drivers and conductors who had migrated from the Caribbean with their families. Someone reads from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone:

‘Suddenly his eyes were wide open.  Where was he? Who was he?  There was no knowing’.

In the same moment that he graduated from Oxford, Stuart Hall’s politics were shaped by the crucial events of 1956 – Suez and Hungary. The ‘idea of democratic socialist anti-imperialist politics was born’.  With figures such as EP Thompson, Ralph Miliband and Raymond Williams he launched the New Left Review.  From 1959 to 1961 he edited the journal whilst working first as a supply teacher in Brixton and then teaching media studies at Chelsea College.  In 1957 he was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

For Akomfrah, this represents ‘the coming of transmutation’: his three screens immerse the viewer in footage of Hungary and Suez, CND and the Aldermaston marches, the Notting Hill race riots and murders, Hall at a demonstration speaking out for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Sometimes a blood red screen punctuates the flow of images.  Words from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone are heard: ‘his gaze wandered for the first time … to the north … and came to rest on a city’.  This was a time when Hall spoke at meetings up and down the country, when he encountered the cities and working class people of northern England for the first time. Lines from Dickens’ Hard Times murmur above the images:

Coketown … was a triumph of fact. … It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it. … It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long …

It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same payments, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

Ellington plays alongside images of the Sharpeville massacre and Hall articulates why he thinks equality was the driving force behind freedom movements:

‘I question the opposition between liberty and equality.  It has been the idea of equality that has mobilized nationalist movements.  When they said ‘we want to be free’ what they meant was ‘I want to be free not to be unequal”

Hall appears in clips from a BBC TV film, England Our England, made in  1964 with Richard Hoggart.  It’s an examination of English provincial working class life and people, and appears in the same year that Hall in effect launched the discipline of media studies with Teaching Film, examining  the new wave of northern British film-making, co-wrote The Popular Arts and was invited by Hoggart to join his newly established Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Four years later, in another year of cultural and political turning points, Hall will be appointed director of the Centre. Lines from William Blake echo images of the turbulent times:

I heard an Angel singing
When the day was springing 
Mercy Pity Peace
Is the worlds release 
I heard a Devil curse
Over the heath & the furze 
Mercy could be no more 
If there was nobody poor

The question of identity becomes urgent: it’s a question for all young people but is, above all and at this time, one for young blacks. Who they’re going to be? Every child – white or coloured – wants to belong to the world, but what does it signify when the price of belonging is that you want to change the colour of your skin?  Words from Gormenghast again:

‘To the north, south, east or west, turning at will, it was not long before his landmarks fled him. Gone was the outline of his mountainous home. … Gone boyhood. Gone.  It was no more than a memory now.  … From the gold shores to the cold shores:  through lands as harsh as metal he made his way.’

It’s here that Akomfrah arrives at the core of his exploration of Stuart Hall’s geographical passage from the Caribbean shore to the cold and unwelcoming shores of Britain and his metaphysical journey into black identity and the meaning of multiculturalism. Hall had been worrying at the fabric of this question for some time: Akomfrah has earlier offered us a clip from one of Hall’s earliest TV appearances – presenting a documentary on the 20th century experience of Jewish immigrants to Britain – and now we hear his voice in a clip from a BBC radio series, Generation of Strangers.  Akomfrah leads this passage with a screen caption: ‘Roads to freedom’.

Hall had married and begun raising a family. He and his wife had experienced racism in Birmingham and elsewhere, and the experience was leading to him shifting his sense of class identity to one rooted in what, for most English people at the time, was the most tangible badge of his identity – the colour of his skin.

‘Britain is my home, but I’m not English’

Akomfrah has located an evocative clip from Ebony, the 1970s BBC TV magazine show for ethnic minorities, of Stuart Hall making a rousing speech about the new generation of British youngsters who proudly and defiantly identify themselves as black.  This was a crucial moment in the evolution of Hall’s thinking – and his own personal sense of identity, necessitating a shift from a view of his place in society that was class-based:

‘I went home and my mother said ‘I hope they didn’t think you are one of those immigrants’

When I went to England, I wouldn’t have called myself an immigrant either, which  is  what we were  all known as.  It was  not until I went back home in the early 1960s that my mother who, as a good middle-class colored Jamaican woman, hated all Black people, (you know, that is the truth) said to me, “I hope they don’t think you’re an immigrant over there.”

I went back to England and I became what I’d been named. I had been hailed as an immigrant. I had discovered who I was. I started to tell myself the story of my migration. Then Black erupted and people said, ‘Well, you’re from the Caribbean, in the midst of this, identifying with what’s going on, the Black population in England. You’re Black.’ At that very moment, my son, who was two and half, was learning the  colors.  I said  to  him, transmitting the  message  at last,  ‘You’re Black’. And he said, ‘No. I’m brown’. And I said, ‘Wrong referent. Mistaken concreteness, philosophical mistake. I’m not talking about your paintbox, I’m talking about your head’. That is something different.  The question of learning, learning to be Black. Learning to come into an identification.

Something new was being born. Mahalia Jackson hums and sings ‘Christ the Saviour is born’ as a mother gives birth.  Disasters abound: the Torrey Canyon, villages bombed and burning in Vietnam, cities in flames in America. Family snapshots of Hall, his wife and children holidaying by the sea.  In apartheid South Africa, a whites-only beach is invaded by protestors who are brutally manhandled by police.

‘As the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after the other, beneath the surface … ‘

People fleeing repression  flail desperately at the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain. Marchers in Selma, banners unfurled, have their eyes on the prize. In England, Enoch Powell warns of rivers of blood to come. Stuart Hall asserts: ‘We are here to stay‘.

‘It was not until the civil rights and decolonisation movements that I understood my identity.’

Stuart Hall published Policing the Crisis (1978) before being appointed Professor of Sociology at the Open University the following year. One of many more key texts was Questions of Cultural Identity published in 1996.

There’s not much respect for black PhDs from Oxford, which was one of the things I learned. People looked at me as an immigrant, they couldn’t tell me apart from another boy just knocking around. Notting Hill—the New Left Club had a club in Notting Hill that we were involved in. You know, walking with families back to Palace Terrace, protecting them against the Mosleyites. In a sense race made it possible for a connection to be made.

In ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, a lecture published in Culture, Globalization and the World-System (1991) Hall discussed the way in which the Black diasporas who settled here in the  period of post-war migration in the fifties  and sixties transformed British social, economic and political life, and, at the same time, came to a new understanding of their own identities:

In the first  generations, the majority of people had the same illusion that I did:  that I was about to go back home.  That may have been because everybody always asked me: when was I going back home? We did think that we were just going to get back on the boat; we were here for a temporary sojourn. By the seventies, it was perfectly clear that we were not there for a temporary sojourn.  Some people were going  to stay and then the politics of racism really emerged.

Now one  of  the  main reactions  against  the  politics  of  racism  in Britain was what I would call   ‘Identity Politics One’, the first form of identity politics. It had to do with the constitution of some defensive collective identity against the practices of racist society. It had to do with the fact that people were being blocked out of and refused an identity and identification within the majority nation,  having  to find some other roots on which to stand. Because people have to find some ground, some place, some position on which to stand. Blocked out of any access to an English or British identity, people had to try to discover who they were. This is … the crucial moment of the rediscovery or the search for roots. In  the  course  of  the  search  for  roots,  one  discovered  not  only where one came from, one began to speak the language of that which is home in the genuine sense, that other crucial moment which is the recovery  of lost  histories.  The  histories  that  have never  been  told about ourselves that we could not learn in schools, that were not in any books, and that we had to recover.[…]  The identity which that … produced in Britain, as it did elsewhere, was the category Black. […]

Anti-racism in the seventies was only fought and only resisted in the community, in the localities, behind the slogan of a Black politics and the Black experience. In that moment, the enemy was ethnicity. The  enemy had to be what we called ‘multi-culturalism’. Because multi-culturalism was precisely what I called previously ‘the exotic’. The exotica of difference.  Nobody would talk about racism but they were perfectly prepared to  have ‘International Evenings’,  when we would all come and cook our native dishes, sing our own native songs and appear in our  own native  costume.  It is  true  that some  people,  some ethnic minorities in Britain, do have indigenous, very beautiful indigenous forms of dress. I didn’t. I had to rummage in the dressing-up box to find mine. I have been de-racinated for four hundred years. The last thing I am going to  do is  to  dress up in some native Jamaican costume.

In the same speech, Hall elaborated on the how, in his native Jamaica, social distinctions based on class and, as he puts it in  Akomfrah’s film, ‘exquisite’ gradations of skin colour trumped a common Black identity:

But the word “Black” was never uttered. Why? No Black people around? Lots of them, thousands and thousands of them. Black is not a question of pigmentation. The Black I’m talking about is a historical category, a political category, a cultural category. In our language, at certain historical moments, we have to use the signifier. We have to create an equivalence between how people look and what their histories are. Their histories are in the past, inscribed in their skins. But it is not because of their skins that they are Black in their heads. I heard Black for the first time in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, in the wake of the de-colonization and nationalistic struggles.  Black was created as  a political category in a certain historical moment.  It was created  as  a  consequence  of  certain symbolic and ideological struggles. We  said,  ‘You  have  spent  five,  six, seven hundred years elaborating the symbolism through which Black is  a negative  factor.  Now I  don’t want another term.  I want that term, that negative one, that’s the one I want. I want a piece of that action. I want to take it out of the way in which it has been articulated in religious discourse, in ethnographic discourse, in literary discourse, in visual discourse.  I want to pluck it out of its  articulation and re-articulate it in a  new way.”[…]

So identities are ‘never completed, never finished … they are always, as subjectivity itself is, in process. John Akomfrah is himself a migrant of another, younger generation, born in Accra in 1957, one of five children of Ghanaian political activists. He was educated in west London schools before graduating in Sociology from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982.  He co-founded the Black Audio Collective in the same year, with the objective of addressing issues of Black British identity.  His work always takes a deliberately questioning approach to documentary film-making, and that is very apparent here.  His first film was the remarkable Handsworth Songs (1986), which documented the 1985 disturbances in Handsworth and Broadwater Farm, reworking documentary conventions to explore the history of the black experience with an uncompromising intellectual rigour which some found disconcerting.  More recent films include Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), The Nine Muses (2010) and Mnenosyne (2010).

The Unfinished Conversation ends with a simple dedication – ‘for Stuart Hall, in gratitude and respect’ – and with these words from The Waves:

‘The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell … withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.’

I said at the start that Akomfrah’s film represents my own history (white, British), if not my own experience.  Yet, as Hall pointed out in ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, our experiences are in a certain crucial sense, shared.  As he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs, ‘our fates and histories have been connected irrevocably … we have been a part of this story from the beginning … Empire is something absolutely deep and at the heart of English identity … it’s an inside part of Englishness …we are part of you’:

People like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries; symbolically, we have been there for centuries. I was coming home. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth. There are thousands of others beside me that are,  you  know,  the  cup  of  tea itself.  Because  they don’t grow  it in Lancashire, you know. Not a  single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolization of English identity – I mean, what does  anybody  in  the  world  know  about  an  English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea?  Where does it come from?  Ceylon – Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English.  There is no English history  without that other history.  The notion that identity has to  do with people that look the same, feel the same, call themselves the same,  is  nonsense.

In his adulatory review for the Telegraph, Mark Hudson wrote that Hall’s story, ‘which might have appeared a rather obscure Caribbean tale, is told with a calm lucidity that makes it feel at once universal and profoundly British’. He noted that:

It is rare that there’s a degree of consensus, let alone unanimity, among critics and gallery-goers attending large contemporary arts events. But at the Liverpool Biennial (continuing until November 25), the main talking point has been The Unfinished Conversation, John Akomfrah’s beautiful and moving film about Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born academic and champion of cultural studies. Among the array of exhibitions and installations dotted about the city, many of them a touch lightweight or just plain opaque, Akomfrah’s film stands out as a work of substance that says important things about what Britain has become over the last half century.

See also