Reading Stuart Hall’s 1993 essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” for the first time, I’ve been reflecting on his February 10, 2014 passing, which generated eulogies of a most glowing—and ideologically suspect—nature. Akin to the defanging lionization of the late Nelson Mandela, Amiri Baraka, and, as of February 25, Chokwe Lumumba (see differences here and here), Stuart Hall has been christened as the “godfather of multiculturalism” as his revolutionary socialist politics have been simultaneously evacuated from the record of his life’s work.
In 1917, Vladimir Lenin presciently warned of this embalming phenomenon that he too would endure:
During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.
In Hall’s essay on the ever-changing positioned contours of cultural identities, he welcomes Frantz Fanon into the text to warn why oppressed people must accurately define their own past, present, and future existence. Fanon writes, “Colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it.” Without a sense of people’s thoughts, actions, and relationships situated in a history that “undergoe[s] constant transformation”—the concrete who/what/when/where/why/how of Africa, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, New York, etc.—Fanon warns that colonizers can expropriate and deform an intersecting nexus of cultural identities into essentialized “individuals without an anchor, without horizon, colorless, stateless, rootless—a race of angels.”
I fear that the people in power who Stuart Hall confronted throughout his life will turn him into such an angel. I fear that the academic institutions that hail his work participate in this unmooring mystification. I fear that Hall’s writing and actions committed to revolutions on the page and in the streets of Hungary (1956), Egypt (1956), New Left Review (1960), the Centre for Cultural Studies (1964), Vietnam (1967), global revolts (1968), Iran (1979), to name several, are rarely recognized as the swinging anchors from which he wrote. I fear that Hall’s opposition to neoliberal thatcherism, racialization of crime during economic crises, and ideological warfare of visual culture will be scrubbed from his biography at the same time he is hoisted aloft by the United Kingdom, academic kingdoms, and elite intellectuals as “our man.”
Solutions to this enforced amnesia are like clues sprinkled throughout Hall’s work to potentially inform ours. In “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” he suggests, “what is then constituted within representation is always open to being deferred, staggered, serialized.” The legacy of Hall’s dynamically re-positioned fields of cultural identity, media, politics, and diaspora can perhaps flourish more powerfully in these years and decades ahead if we collaboratively will it so. This différantial décalage of Hall’s relevance invites us to weave his unexpurgated memory into our own “becoming” as well as “being.”
One place to begin with is John Akomfrah’s 2013 film The Stuart Hall Project. Part biography, part cultural history, part musical suite, the film chronicles the late radical intellectual by splicing existing news archives together, the keys to remembrance hidden in plain sight. Akomfrah’s “passionate/profound research” of Stuart Hall should be required viewing for anyone who wishes to eulogize this man whose greatest work may yet emerge.