ICE blogs

November 2, 2014

STUART HALL; THE RELUCTANT CARIBBEAN?’

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, conferences — news_editor @ 4:40 pm

ICE CONFERENCE. OCTOBER 24TH 2014 JOHN MAIR

They were born ten years apart and died thirty five years apart. One assassinated by agents of his country’s government, the other of old age. Yet these two Caribbean mega-brains bear comparison. They are both towering intellectual figures of the region. But in this paper I want to ask what would Stuart Hall have achieved ‘back home’ if he had been more like Walter Rodney and simply more West Indian. Why was he such a reluctant Caribbean?

Rodney achieved much intellectually-his How Europe underdeveloped Africa is still a masterpiece and also politically in his lifte time. So much so that on his first return to the Caribbean from teaching in Africa he was excluded from Jamaica and his job by the government of Jamaica. People rioted in the streets in his support. How many intellectuals have achieved that?

He returned to Africa and then home to Guyana and another job offer given and withdrawn at the University of Guyana. Rodney then set up a radical, multi-racial, political party –The Working People’s Alliance -which so got under the skin of the dictator Forbes Burnham that he had him brutally killed in June 1980.A Commission of Inquiry In Guyana is currently investigating the exact circumstances of his life and death.

Rodney’s legacy lives on in the Caribbean and much further afield.

Stuart Mcphail Hall left the Caribbean to come to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951. His mother came too. He never properly returned intellectually or politically to Jamaica. Hall’s influence was intellectual and significant mainly in the white man’s world of the Metropolitan centre. His legacies are the New left Review Policing the Crisis and the canon of cultural studies in universities. The latter is double edged.
But the Big Question is just why did Stuart Hall abandon the Caribbean in his mind and his work?

One of the few times he applied his powerful intellect to his homeland was in the Walter Rodney Memorial lecture at the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick in 1993. Some clues lie in that text.

His initial premise was that Caribbean writers simply would not ‘leave worrying away’ about Caribbean identity. Hall understood the importance of that identity in the colonial and post colonial times where the question of identity dominated artistic endeavour.

But the origin of that identity is so disparate as to be dissolute. Just what Is the or a ‘Caribbean Identity’- Where does it reside? With the Caribs of the region, the African slave trade, the indentured Indians, the portugese traders or the European colonialists-my forefathers- who brought many of them to those parts under various forms of duress. Racial purity is a near chimera. How many of you for example know that East Indians as they are called are the majority ethnic group in Trinidad and Guyana and not far behind in Surinam?

It is all a ‘mix up’ as they say in the west indies. -very much like Hall’s own family background-;black, indian, white, jewish portugese. All human life is there in Stuart , His family were unsure of who they were but sure they who were not…pure black. His sister was stopped from marrying a Barbadian doctor whose skin was too dark. The fine graduations are what matters. My own mother who was nearly white had first cousins who were nearly black!
Race dominated Hall’s childhood and still dominates in the modern Caribbean. Black v brown v white v near white v carib . Hall was made acutely aware of them growing up in the Jamaica of the 1940’s. So was I in the Guyana of the 1950’s, full on race riots were yet to come but the tension was ever present.It still is.

So too the rewards(or sins) of colour gradation. In the banks in Georgetown the closer you were to white the closer you were being allowed to serve customers.

The Caribbean was and is in essence a series of diasporas from many native lands. It is still transitional.

Did Hall’s racial confusion dominate his ambivalent relationship with his mother and mother’s land? Did he really know who he was racially and culturally?
On his first return to Jamaica fifteen years after leaving for Britain Hall’s own family asked him ‘I hope they do not treat you as one of those immigrants over there’. ’Those’- the Jamaican. Bajan, Grenadian, Guyanese bus and tube drivers, nurses and so on -the Windrush generation tempted to the Colonial mother land to fill labour gaps before the 1961 Act all but closed the door were different to stuart.

They lived in a different world. Hall had been well whitened by Merton College Oxford at undergraduate and post-graduate level and the founding of the New Left Review by this point. His Anglo-Caribbean identity was always it seems to me transitional.

Hall did re-discover, like Rodney, his African origins through Franz Fanon. Rodney went to research and teach in Africa, Hall to my current knowledge never did. But Hall was also a fan of the Martiniquais poet and politician Aime Cesaire and his work . Cesaire very firmly remained a Caribbean but a French Caribbean-an heir to the 1789 legacy of liberty, equalite and fraternite but also acquetly aware of his African heritage….

Hall like others looking for meaning chronicled the rise of Rastafarianism in jamaica. The desire to worship a long lost Africa a literal Africa and an imagined chiliastic religion with a dead leader from afar from there is one I still find bizarre. Rastafarianism provided and provides some hope for the hopeless in poor areas like trenchtown in Kingston Jamaica but what else?

It also gave the world Bob Marley –another racial mix up(black/white irish/Jamaican. Hall naturally embraced Marley warmly,
Post independence from Britain in 1962 Jamaica had to some extent found itself as a ‘nation’ of sorts .In the words of Rodney and Marley it had ‘grounded’ itself. Post independence Jamaica had a series of racial ‘mix up ‘prime ministers usually with the surname Manley or Seaga)
In the 1950’s only ‘proper English’ had been allowed in public discourse. When Hall returned in the 60’s,he found to his surprise that the new regimens(had allowed the street language of creole and patois to break into the hallowed airwaves of Radio Jamaica. Hall called it a ‘cultural revolution’ and one which he applauded.

A by product of rastfarianism and a symbolic return to Africa Reggae music was a product of that Cultural renaissance. This was not historic in nature but simply a counter to the much softer commercial ska music which it replaced.

‘Identity is not in the past to be found but in the future to be constructed’ as Hall put it in his 1993 Rodney.

Bit like hall himself, The reluctant and confused Caribbean. It does seem to me that Rodney firmly considered himself black whilst Hall was unsure. Was his intellect European or African or Jamaican? What might he have contributed to Caribbean life if he had gone back and engaged earlier that he did and engaged politically as well as intellectually? .Would he like Walter Rodney have ended up on the mortician’s slab the result of provoking through joining the intellect to political action.

I wonder Stuart Hall will forever remain the ‘reluctant caribbean’

John Mair was born and partly brought up in the Caribbean in the then British Guiana.He has returned much since to the land of his foremothers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick and has been for the last decade. He is also an Associate Fellow at the University of Guyana.

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