Conversations between the Closer Kin

February 2024

bell hooks and Stuart Hall, Uncut Funk: A Contemplative Dialogue (London: Routledge, 2018); 128 pages; ISBN 978-1138102101 (paperback)

I remember the sound of mahjong tiles, clicking musically as they were being shuffled on a table above my head. A melody of hushed tones, smoke, and gossip escaped the aunties’ mouths and floated down through the air to me listening to the talk and play of “grown folk.” The mélange of voices rose and fell in pitch and tone, with laughter and drama permeating the air as they speculated about recent family departures and returns, about who showed up and “showed out,” about who was doing well, and who was going straight to hell. Under that table I learned about sex, love, sickness, death, disappointment, madness, politics, and violences, big and small. Occasionally, one of the “aunties” would remember I was in the room, and I would be sent to play outside, to retrieve something that was not necessarily needed, or to get snacks from the kitchen where my older cousins held court. But usually, under that table I kept my head down and eyes glued to pages of books given to keep me occupied. Sometimes I actually read them and ignored the clicking tiles and tongues above me; sometimes it was a matter of me simply not being able to understand what was being said, my language skills not being up to par. More often than not, I strained my ears to hear the grown folk, trying to learn what to do, what not to do, what to care about, what to deem “foolishness” and leave behind.

Years later I found myself encountering another aunty in the form of a Black American feminist whose work would shape my intellectual being. As a teenager I was given bell hooks’s Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), a text that offered language for frustrations I did not know how to name. Later, in undergraduate coursework, it would be Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) that would show me there was a space for me in the academy, and it would take me in the direction of cultural and literary studies where I would find my own voice. As a graduate student I experienced intellectual provocations in the form of Black British cultural studies, specifically in works by Stuart Hall, beginning with “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse” (1973), then “Negotiating Caribbean Identities” (1995), “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance” (1980), “New Ethnicities” (1998), “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” (1990)—the list goes on. I was evolving. I would return to hooks’s work, specifically Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994), when I found myself in front of a classroom. These scholars, their works, were my touchstones. With each return to these texts, I grew as they expanded my archipelago of thought.

Still years later I found myself in a room on the eighth floor of the City University of New York Graduate Center, less than a year after Hall’s transition in 2014, listening to David Scott talk with feeling about intellectual genealogy, friendship, influence, and what Stuart Hall had meant to him. The work Scott presented would later become part of his Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity. I remember looking around the room, seeing compatriots from grad school, professors who had taught me, colleagues, and I realized in that moment that I was part of not just an intellectual genealogy but also a complex ecosystem shaped by the pain, love, disenchantment, and opportunity diaspora provided.

When I started reading Uncut Funk: A Contemplative Dialogue, with a foreword by Paul Gilroy, I found myself eagerly listening again to the grown folk talk about love, sex, death, trauma, family, defining and redefining home and kinship and what it means to survive as intersectional diasporic subjects. Gilroy’s foreword frames these conversations, which began in 1996, as meetings “in the rubble of past defeats,” specifically in the aftermath of failed radical Black political movements (xi). He is quick to signal to readers that the intimacies created by and in Hall and hooks’s conversations were possible only in the then-current moment when “the personal could still be political without becoming hostage to disabling narcissism” (xii). Further, Gilroy, instigator of this “meeting of the minds,” highlights not Hall and hooks’s myriad differences but their shared engagement with feminist praxis and oppositional stance to anti-intellectualism.

This “contemplative dialogue” between two figures who shaped generations of thinkers demands that the reader also become interlocutor. I came to this conversation with what David Scott, in “The Temporality of Generations: Dialogue, Tradition, Criticism,” refers to as an unease, a generational apprehension, that is both a critical lens and a phenomenon legible in the dialogue itself.1 The differences of age, gender, cultural and intellectual inheritances between Hall and hooks produce inevitable asymmetries. Some of these are revealed in moments when the “dialogue” tends toward interview, and hooks functions more as interviewer than dialogue partner. Then there are moments when their voices blend, and others when deep generational philosophical fissures are revealed. This is most certainly a conversation; however, at different points one might also ask what genre of conversation. The text deftly vacillates between interview, dialogue, and exploration.

They begin their discourse by defining conversation and its relationship to their “work.” For hooks, writing is intimately tied to “conversation,” in that she imagines herself constantly in dialogue with those around her. This is not the case for Hall, for whom thinking is dialogic and writing, an “internal conversation” (8). For both Hall and hooks good conversation has explicitly erotic valences, a discursive “teasing, flirting and reflection in it,” a kind of intellectual edging where the focus is on “all those moves made, never to completion, never finalized, . . . a delight in those unfinished moves” (51). This opening exchange establishes a pattern and is one of the pleasures in reading the text. We voyeuristically take in their rhetorical virtuosity and wait for vulnerabilities, confirmation or refutation of rumors, and the unknown to reveal themselves, along with a little love, sex, and death. We witness the cheeky oscillations of hooks’s prodding in their discussion of desire and can almost feel the curve of Hall’s smile and see the twinkle in his eye as he pushes hooks on her opinion of Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People and she gives it (44–46).

Their “conversation” is wide ranging, each “owning” their temporal specificity and reflecting on how they were shaped by revolutionary discourses of Marxism and feminism, but this is no dry recounting of their perceived places within Western intellectual traditions. It may, however, be a cautionary tale about the fatigue one experiences in a career shaped by responsive redefinitions of the work of the sainted titans of Western canons. There are affecting moments. The majority of us recognize ourselves in their discussion of the emotional cost of being Black in diaspora and in the “academy,” in having to reconcile the distances we create, intentionally and otherwise, when we choose this life (88). Particularly affecting are the passages where hooks considers the quagmire of having hurt family members in her writing and Hall’s palpable combination of pain and guilt of having left his sister behind in Jamaica, a sister who never fully recovered from psychological and emotional breakdown, and the happiness he felt at having escaped (86).

Together they explore Black pain, trauma, fatigue, illness, and healing, with both pushing at Cornel West’s discussion of Black nihilism in Race Matters and both acknowledging the need for psychoanalytic frameworks specific enough to address the particular trauma and despair experienced by Black diasporic subjects (106–7). When hooks shifts the conversation from desire to mortality, noting that historically death “was something done at home” (58), Hall laments having lived too long—rather, of living long enough to anticipate one’s own death in the deaths of contemporaries with whom you shared politics and history (59). Implicitly and explicitly, both take up the question of legacy and what it might mean. While Hall describes himself along the lines of the last man standing, hooks laments having given over so much of her life to “work” and being unable to escape the feeling that she had not lived the life she wanted (62). One cannot help but reflect on the text with an eye toward the elegiac. hooks was grieving Hall when she finished editing the dialogue in 2017, three years after Hall’s death. In 2021 hooks would, like Hall, succumb to kidney failure.

Despite her confession in her short preface of being intimidated by Black British intellectuals, Hall in particular, hooks identifies him, and by extension others, as “the closer kin,” affirming kinship with an explicit acknowledgement of relational differences signaled by her use of the qualifier “closer.” Hall acknowledges the male privilege he received and admits his struggles with taking up too much space and needing to “stop talking” at home, a site of incredible support to him in his career (102–3).

The dialogue concludes much in the same way it begins, with openings for more exchange, more debate, more provocations. Their last discussion is about “home.” Easy, comfortable narratives are unsettled, however. hooks resists any reductive model where geographic specificity is privileged over “the union of different locations that become the making of home. It’s not the single location, but it is a romance that comes into being within the mixture.” Hall counters that he “had to live without romance, without those coming together,” articulating here a melancholic or sustained dispossession of “self” in relation to home (125). Hooks intervenes with a clarification that she never felt “at home at home,” suggesting that who she became was an extension of unease (126). Even, at the end, we see the intricacies, the tensions of and in “intimacy” being negotiated. The “Hall” and “hooks” that readers know were produced by very different sets of circumstances. hooks’s circumstances required her to produce monographs for her career. And she did, producing almost forty monographs, across genre, from collections on popular culture, pedagogy, and love to children’s fiction. She insisted on writing inside and outside the academy to express the different “dimensions” of her being (48). Hall’s circumstances allowed him to exist and work differently inside and outside the “Academy” and in the genres of essay and speeches. I read this dialogue as an exchange taking place on a perpetual cusp of sociopolitical transformation, an iterative exchange and rethinking of cultural and intellectual inheritances. I cannot think of these two figures, or their work, atrophying in some kind of Black intellectual ossuary. hooks wrote and wrote and wrote. Hall’s many articles/essays have been taken up, anthologized, packaged, and repackaged. While I cannot imagine feeling diminished, only enriched, in their textual presences, many of us of "a certain age" can remember the moment we stopped (enthusiastically) reading their newer works. Perhaps this dialogue is an invitation back to their work and their thinking about conversation and voice. The history of both these scholars’ relationship to academic publishing and to the broader “academy” and how they chose to live their lives as public intellectuals allows us to think through questions surrounding Black intellectual legacies and relevance.

Tzarina T. Prater is an associate professor of English in the Department of English and Media Studies at Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts. Her book project, “The Aleatory Nature of Things: Afterlives of Chinese Indenture in Jamaican Literary and Cultural Production,” is under contract with SUNY Press.

[1] See David Scott, “The Temporality of Generations: Dialogue, Tradition, Criticism,” New Literary History 45, no. 2 (2014): 158.

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