Book Reviews Reviews

Review of “Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands” by Stuart Hall

by Brant Roberts
“Stuart Hall is arguably one of the most important Marxist intellectuals of the past century. That Familiar Stranger ends in 1964 is one of its weaknesses, but it provides a glimpse into the early life of one of Britain’s most important theorists.”

“My understanding of the world was creolized from the start.” – Stuart Hall[1]

Stuart Hall’s Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands is a key text for understanding much of where the internal logic that structures his seminal works on politics, race and cultural studies begins. Originally written as a book of interviews conducted with scholar Bill Schwarz,  Familiar Stranger is less an autobiography and more a series of reflections on a variety of topics that impacted Hall’s intellectual development from his childhood in colonial Jamaica to his middle-age in post-war Britain where the book ends. While this would be a weakness for most memoirs, the reworked answers to many of the questions makes the writing far more approachable than most of his works.

Hall’s family, which lived in a nice home away from the working-class neighborhoods of Kingston, was middle-class. His father was a middle-management accountant for the United Fruit Company, and his mother carried all the pretentious airs of middle-class life. This status was reinforced by their position in the colonial racial hierarchy due to their lighter brown complexion. Being from the brown middle class was particularly important to Hall in understanding the social dynamics that existed in colonial Jamaica and how they structured access to employment and higher education. Throughout much of the book, Hall makes it abundantly clear that he did not appreciate his mother’s petit-bourgeois values nor his father’s outwardly apolitical stances.[2] He was growing up during a turbulent period when Jamaicans were beginning to fight for independence and watched as the 1938 Rebellions took place across the island. He was of a similar background as much of Jamaica’s future political class, having known many of the nation’s future politicians from an early age, including future democratic-socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley. Reflecting on the anti-imperialist politics of Manley, Hall recounts a story where Manley “had thrown a book at a particularly patrician English master of history who, I presumed, had offered some outrageous colonialist interpretation during one of his classes.”[3] Had Hall stayed in Jamaica then he might have become part of that political class.

The story of Michael Manley rebelling against his teacher was not likely an isolated incident. The colonial education afforded to Jamaican youth was composed entirely of British history, British literature, Latin and Roman history – everything that made up the so-called ‘cradle of Western Civilization.’ Like many other well-known West Indian intellectuals, Hall had to absorb the pedagogy of the colonial metropole and view Britain more as the center of the world than the very place he grew up. Even the social customs of British education were forced onto Hall and his classmates as he recounts having to wear blazers, caps on their heads, buy items from tuck shops and watch as his teachers attempted to grow ivy over their school like in Britain. No room was made for students to learn Jamaican nor Caribbean history. Ironically, it was in this stifling environment that Hall began to engage with socialist thought for the first time, “I remember finding in the library a paperback copy of The Communist Manifesto, my first encounter with the captivating prose of Karl Marx. The more the British Council pamphlets thundered at the iniquities of the Russian Revolution and of Lenin on imperialism, the more intrigued I became.”[4] The more the British empire rapidly lost ideological hegemony in the colonies, the more interesting alternatives became for those who had struggled underneath their imperial system – especially the ideas of socialism.

Detailing the labor rebellions and strikes that imprinted Jamaican history throughout the late 1930s, Hall writes “Jamaica was torn apart by insurrections which inaugurated the drive for self-determination and eventually Independence. That was when this other Jamaica, publicly dramatically asserted its presence.”[5] Despite the rebellions that took place, Jamaican politics never went the route of armed rebellion, and, like the rest of the Anglo-Caribbean, decolonization by the post-war period was far less radical and more protracted than the rest of the Third World. Unable to even claim a republic, Jamaica to this day is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations with the queen of England as the legal head of state. Hall remarked that “popular resistance made the wheels of history turn faster,” implying that if the rebellions of 1938 had not happened then Jamaica would have struggled for independence at a much later period.

When analyzing much of what Hall says about Jamaica since independence in 1962, it is clear that popular culture is not in-itself the leap to revolutionary change and that much of what takes place in the realm of culture can be a hindrance as well. This is not to imply that Hall ever believed that popular culture was an end in-itself either but that there were severe limitations to Jamaican popular culture by way of “black Afro-centric consciousness, of the Rastafarians, of Black Power and of reggae” as vehicles for any profound political changes.[6] What this form of popular culture did change was the stultifying colonial culture that had been in practice since the British expelled the Spanish from the island in 1670. Hence, the institutionalized two-party state, the elaborate system of personal allegiances throughout much of Kingston and the surrounding towns, the political violence that played out literally in the streets, and the machine politics that operated without any serious challengers. In short, culture was not up to the task of changing the state, and the new political parties that entered into the halls of power could not utilize it to create the popular hegemony that Hall would later go on to theorize about. Popular culture has in some places been able to create political momentum for revolutionary parties but this was not the case in Jamaica. 

The concept of exile is scattered throughout the book both directly and via the concept of creolization. In the opening line, he writes, “Sometimes I feel I was the last colonial” and midway through the book he writes the following on not returning to Jamaica: “But it didn’t feel like exile at the time and, I must add, it doesn’t feel like that now.”[7] In discussing his views of being creole it becomes clear that creoleness is rooted in one form of exile or another – a concept not new to the Americas, even if not openly discussed – and that at some point return is no longer conceivable. Exile and creoleness not only make up a common theme in Caribbean literature with which Hall engaged in when debating diasporic writers in Britain, but they also gave the analytical building-blocks of a collective Caribbean identity to much of the Windrush Generation that came to the UK in the 1960s.

Hall appears to have been on good terms with many of the great writers who would later make up the Caribbean literary canon, from CLR James and Derek Walcott to Kamau Brathwaite and Aime Cesaire. However, one cannot help but point to Hall’s comments on the late Trinidadian novelist V.S. Naipaul with whom he attended Oxford. Several quotes in particular stuck out: “I knew Naipaul, but not well. Even then I didn’t find him friendly or engaging. He didn’t want to anything to do with other West Indians, especially black ones”; “I suppose his deep ambivalence and sneering attitude towards the Caribbean – coupled with his hostility to nationalism, his irritating and uncritical Anglo-centrism and what Derek Walcott has called ‘his genteel abhorrence of Negroes’, which so disfigures his later work and his great literary gifts were already a well-entrenched part of his persona, even in his Oxford days”; and “I once heard him at a public lecture at the South Bank refer to CLR James as ‘that vain, old, black man.’”[8] For those already familiar with Naipaul’s work, this may not come as a surprise as much what of Naipaul wrote about Islam, India and the Caribbean has been openly orientalist and anti-Black.

Perhaps most relevant are Hall’s views on Palestine and his criticism of Israel, which would likely have thrown him today into that now-infamous, phony antisemitism crisis that helped wreck the British Labour Party. Echoing Cesaire’s opening lines from Discourse on Colonialism, Hall writes:

“Europe has assuaged its guilt over its own long practice of anti-Semitism by colluding with the state of Israel in exacting revenge – not on Western anti-Semitism, which caused such a catalogue of horrors in the first place, but on the Palestinian people themselves, who had shared the land with the Jews for centuries. Thus the current political climate has arisen in which anyone who questions this state of affairs is immediately labelled anti-Semitic! It is a re-enactment of the primal crime scene, with a brutal twist.”[9]

It is opinions like these that should remind the British Left today, many of whom often quote Hall, that the underlying principles that guided his politics were deeply anticolonial and revolutionary.[10] It is not for nothing that much of his political and scholarly work was impacted by the anti-apartheid movement, the West Indian Society in Britain alongside future Trinidadian Prime Minister Eric Williams, and Third World movements against imperialist schemes.[11]

Hall’s time amongst the early formations of the New Left in Britain was a key part of his intellectual and political development. From organizing against nuclear weapons to founding the New Left Review, he found himself politically engaged with the British Left along a number of lines and in protest against both western imperialism and Soviet aggression. Perhaps most revealing are his experiences with the writers E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams; while both were very influential on Hall’s work, the former was against the project of cultural studies and the centering of race in works such as Policing the Crisis, the latter was far more supportive and his works on Marxist literary theory breathed new life into Hall’s later theories.

Stuart Hall is arguably one of the most important Marxist intellectuals of the past century. That Familiar Stranger ends in 1964 is one of its weaknesses, but it provides a glimpse into the early life of one of Britain’s most important theorists. One can only imagine what further reflections he could have added to the book if he had not passed away prior to its publication. In a time when British politics have swung hard to the Right and the concept of a ‘culture war’ has overtaken the discourse on socialism, Hall’s works are more relevant than ever to reassess what needs to be done in order to turn the tide.

About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, The Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.

[1] Stuart Hall Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 62.

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Ibid., 111.

[4] Ibid., 115.

[5] Ibid., 37.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid., 3 & 134.

[8] Ibid., 160-161.

[9] Ibid., 142-143.

[10] Ibid., 231.

[11] Ibid., 162.

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