Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Eds.

Stuart Hall: Selected Writings on Race and Difference

Duke University Press, 2021

376 Pages


Reviewed by Lindsey Holmes

In collaborating on this remarkable collection of writings by British Marxist, sociologist, and educator Stuart Hall, editors Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have made an incredible curatorial achievement in their own right. Stuart Hall: Selected Writings on Race and Difference is grouped into three parts, each consisting of selections that move sequentially through each decade of Hall’s career. Part I takes together portions of Hall’s early writings from the late 1950s up to the early 1980s, with Parts II and III continuing into the 1980s, 1990s, and mid-2000s. Instead of a strict content-based grouping, the editors’ choice to flexibly adhere to a temporal reading captures the breadth and depth of Hall’s projects and interests during various periods of his professional activity. Sacrificing (some) thematic rigidity is well worth the opportunity it offers readers to chart the evolution of Hall’s theorization of the formation of race, race relations, and racism in Britain and the globe. The introduction is clear on this point: the aim is to present the reader with selections that give a closer look at Hall’s analysis of racial formation. This analysis is embedded within the larger structure of Hall’s oeuvre. However, quoting Hall, Gilroy understands how “race has provided a ‘prism’ through which (British) people are ‘called upon to live through, to understand, and then to deal with crisis conditions.” Further, Gilroy foregrounds one of Hall’s most important theses: the notion that race is not at the margins of society but is “one of the most important keys” to understanding British and concomitant global Western capitalist culture.

Part I revolves around three sites of racial formation in Britain in the 1960s and 70s: popular culture and the media, policing and the concept of law and order, and what was known as the Secondary Modern (sec mod) system of British public education. All three of these sites structure processes of racial formation and the emergence of what Hall terms an “indigenous” or home-grown, populist, naturalized form of modern racism. Threaded through these diverse writings are Hall’s investigations of how to foment a popular (and populist) anti-racist movement. Hall notes the failures of the British political Left to constructively imagine a populist anti-racist message– one that could be distributed and consumed en masse. In “Race and ‘Moral Panics’ in Postwar Britain,” Hall writes of a new wave of racist, nationalist ideology that reinvigorates structures of law, which surveil and subjectify minority populations in the late 1970s. What is especially alarming to Hall is “the construction of the police as an active “Law and Order” lobby, and ideological force, mobilizing public opinion behind a very special and particular set of “Law and Order” policies.” In “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media,” Hall lays out a general theory of racist “common sense” ideology in Britain as well as “strategies and tactics” for ideologically countering it. In this essay, which closes the first section of the volume, Hall’s thesis can be seen as a culmination of observations made in the previous selections: the construction of a popular and effective anti-racist movement is sorely needed.

Part II picks up with selections from the 1970s and 1980s. This section shifts thematically from early observations of the political volatility of the 1960s and early 1970s in Britain to a more sustained meditation on the “intellectual work” the Left needs to effectively engage the culture wars that continued to wax heavy even as public demonstrations and uprisings waned in the 1980s. The editors have thoughtfully framed this section with two of Hall’s essays that reflect the cultural theorist’s concern with the institutions and infrastructures of education. The first essay, “Teaching Race,” deals with the material realities public teachers encounter when attempting to practice an ad hoc pedagogy of race and racism in the UK. The last selection is the 2002 Guardian piece in which Hall takes up the role of public educator himself. Hall offers a brief history of the West Indian popular tradition of Calypso music for a broad English-speaking audience. His focus on the tradition of Calypso reflects his sustained interest in the importance of pop culture, in particular Black British and Caribbean popular culture that was and is diasporic. Complementing the more “academic” essays on the theories of Gramsci and Althusser in this section are Hall’s beautifully written expository pieces on the concept of diaspora itself. In “‘Africa’ is Alive and Well in the Diaspora,” Hall offers analyses of Caribbean cultural producers and artifacts such as C.L.R. James, African “cult” practices, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Bob Marley and Rasta Farianism, the Windrush generation, and the legacies of enslavement to form a “historical dynamic of culture.” This insight leads Hall to the question, at the heart of this volume, “How then, to describe this play of “difference” within identity? The common history…has been profoundly formative…but it does not constitute a common origin, since it was, metaphorically as well as literally, a translation” (emphasis in original). Hall’s essays gesture to the possibilities that might occur if we took the problems of this historical and cultural splitting and reforming as sites of possibility and meaning in themselves, not as problems to solve, and inevitably, elide.

While these essays, which discuss debates in Marxist theory of the 1980s, could cause readers who are less acquainted with Marxism to feel out of their element, they also afford deep insight into how Hall emerged from a critical Marxist tradition. Hall’s ability to flesh out meaningful insights from Marxism’s most inaccessible, unnavigable corners evinces the essay “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” which acts as an entry point into the third and final section of the volume. This essay highlights one of the most significant achievements of Hall’s entire oeuvre, as well as his theorizing of race and difference—the invaluable contribution of a practical method with which to investigate historical and contemporary enactments of racism and how scholars, students, teachers, and activists might actively respond to injustices. Hall makes it clear that the value of theorists, whether they be Marx, Althusser, Gramsci, or Foucault, is not merely academic. Rather, theory should “inform political practice,” while the role of the academic is to inquire how “[theoretical] concepts may still be useful [in] thinking through the adequacy of existing social theory paradigms.” In addition to the selections in which Hall takes up Gramsci and Althusser, the essay “Why Fanon?” emphasizes the importance of shifting focus from static structure to relations between structures, a reorientation which leads to “a far more complex and differentiated type of analysis.” Likewise, the essay on Fanon argues for any theoretical text—and indeed, any engagement with a text—to be always “fundamentally an open text, and hence a text we are obliged to go on working on, working with” (emphasis in original).

Part III covers topics as diverse and complex as diaspora, identity, multiculturalism, transnationalism, and globalism. Yet like the earlier writings on Secondary Modern Education and anti-racist pedagogy, the offerings from Hall later in his career are rooted in the frank and practical perspective of an educator. Threaded together by Gilroy and Gilmore, all of the selections offered in this remarkable volume offer not only theoretical frameworks to understand the historical emergence of “Indigenous racism” in the UK and abroad but also house Hall’s invitation to posterity—to always stay open and critical of our own methods, in thinking and in asking questions about our contemporary crises.