Stuart Hall, Race, and Black Diaspora Memory

February 2024

Stuart Hall, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, ed. Kobena Mercer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); 256 pages; ISBN978-0674976528 (paperback)

Stuart Hall, Selected Writings on Race and Difference, ed. Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021); 376 pages; ISBN 978-1478011668 (paperback)

In September of 2015, I attended a two-day conference titled “Policing the Crises: Stuart Hall and the Practice of Critique” at Barnard College in New York.1 Taking place shortly after Hall’s death, the conference convened an impressive array of thinkers from across a range of disciplines, institutions, and nations. I open this review by recalling that conference and an exchange that came toward the end of the event. During the final panel, “Policing the Crises: Thinking it Forward,” Barnor Hesse presented a paper in which he referred to Hall as a Black political thinker. One of the conference attendees, Rinaldo Walcott, a Black Studies professor then based in Canada, picked up on that point during the Q&A and asked Hesse to elaborate:

Rinaldo Walcott: You ended your fifth proposition by stating that Stuart Hall is a Black political thinker. I was wondering if you could say more about what is at stake with that remark, which opens the possibility that he might be and is read another way. Could you say something more about that?

Barnor Hesse: When I grew up in the UK I heard references to Stuart Hall, went to university and heard references to Stuart Hall. I never knew Stuart Hall was Black. One night I saw Stuart Hall on TV, and I nearly fell out my chair. How is this possible? And I have been in situations, more precisely academic situations, where Stuart Hall’s name is invoked, and no one made references to the fact that he was Black. No one made references to the fact that he was Jamaican. No one made references to race. How is this possible?2

When this exchange occurred, I was still a doctoral student. I too had grown up reading Stuart Hall but primarily and foremostly as a Black thinker. To me and my contemporaries, Hall was a Black British scholar of Jamaican descent as well as a diasporic thinker, and it was surreal to be present at a conference where the discussion of his Blackness came to be relegated to the last panel of the last day. This sidelining of Hall’s Jamaican background, his racialization, and his Blackness—which in my own work I do not read as synonymous—brings Walcott’s query into center view entreating what might be risked in eliding questions of race, Blackness, and Caribbean descent when appropriately framing and grappling with Hall’s memory and legacy. What are the ways Hall’s diasporic biography, his racialization and Blackness, constituted his thought? Past biographies and edited collections have relegated such queries to the background. Two volumes that intervene in this space, both of which are the subject of this review, are the 2017 The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, edited by Kobena Mercer and with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the more recent 2021 Selected Writings on Race and Difference, edited by Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

The Fateful Triangle collects Hall’s Du Bois lectures, published for the first time, and centers on questions of multiculturalism and identificatory politics filtered through the prisms of race, ethnicity, and nation.3 And in typical Hall fashion, he offers readers a sweeping treatise on the history of difference from the Renaissance to Enlightenment and contemporary society while demonstrating how concepts such as race, ethnicity, and nation—while appearing fixed—have indeed themselves been privy to constant flux and change. Hall puts the components of his fateful triangle to what he terms a “discursive-genealogical analysis” (“Race—the Sliding Signifier,” 32). Hall asks us

to see the question of ethnicity—alongside and in an uneasy and unresolved relationship to race, on the one hand, and to nation, on the other—as posing a key problem that radically unsettles all three terms. Posing the question in this way presents us with what I see as the problem of the twenty-first century—the problem of living with difference—in a manner that is not only analogous to the problem of the “color line” that W. E. B. Du Bois pointed to more than a hundred years ago but also a historically specific transformation of it. (“Ethnicity and Difference in Global Times,” 85–86; italics in original)

In these lectures, Hall offers readers the malleability of once perceived hardened concepts through the modality of language. Speaking to the conjuncture of the moment, Hall reads the globalization of the mid- to late 1990s as a moment to face head-on the fateful triangle of race, ethnicity, and nation and to meet these challenges anew with the powerful resonance that “diaspora” offers.

Hall presents some of his most prescient thinking on the possibilities that diaspora can offer us to meet what at the time was thought of as a moment of endless migration and movement. While we might read globalization and the optimism surrounding it differently now, Hall’s thinking on diaspora and what it might offer contemporary scholars—in terms of metaphor and method as well as new readings of contemporary subjectivities—remains still relevant today. As Kobena Mercer notes in his introduction, The Fateful Triangle is based on “handwritten lecture notes and amended transcripts” (3). Mercer offers a succinct and quite effective overview of Hall’s changing methods, orientations, and intellectual commitments from his more sociologically orientated work in the 1970s, to questions of race and ethnicity in the 1980s, to where he landed in the late 1980s to the 1990s, which were questions and possibilities offered by the unsettledness diaspora offers.

Comprised of three lectures, The Fateful Triangle opens with “Race—the Sliding Signifier,” Hall’s early questions on the ways race persists as a category for thinking and demystification despite repeated attacks on its validity. Even as its biological basis is repeatedly and effectively questioned, for Hall race persists because it is a sociohistorical concept, which means its persistence and symbolic resourcefulness is endless. As Hall reminds us throughout The Fateful Triangle, race does not need biology or science to persist, and it never did—it has culture. In the second lecture, titled “Ethnicity and Difference in Global Times,” Hall continues with this line of thinking, asking what might be fraught in adopting ethnicity in the place that race held in our thinking. Hall details the many ways both closed- and open-ended forms of ethnicity offer as many problematic political realities as they aim to resolve and in many ways operate in the same mode or fashion as the idea of race. Finally, in “Nations and Diasporas,” the last of Hall’s Du Bois lectures, he deals directly with the matter of migration and how the endless movement of people from perceived origins destabilize the narrative hold that nation-states have on who belongs where and when. Hall provides a subtle yet profound insight: when people move, culture moves, and with this scattering of people, their cultures and ideas provide openings for dealing with difference differently; put another way, migration and movement open diasporic possibilities. But Hall is quick to caution that diaspora must be met with caution and scrutiny, because while riddled with the possibility of unlatching our senses of belonging to fixed absolutist essential notions of ethnicity attached to nation, diaspora is itself not to be thought of or thought with as a panacea.

Selected Writings on Race and Difference, edited by Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, takes Hall’s Blackness, his Jamaican upbringing and background, and the viewpoint that this specific background afforded him and makes these the central fulcrum of their collection. Taking aim at those that would feign surprise at “discovering” Hall’s Blackness or Jamaican descent only in his passing, Gilroy makes clear in the introduction that he sees those “shameless remarks premised on an extraordinary ignorance of the breadth of Hall’s concerns, commitments and interests; they were also symptoms of a more widespread and telling failure to understand his political formation and trajectory.” In this volume, Gilroy and Gilmore start from the position that examining the place of race and racism in Hall’s thought is “indispensable for coming to terms with the meaning and the politics of his intellectual work as a whole” (1).

Spanning twenty-two chapters, the collected writings cover more than a half century of Hall’s writing, stemming from his activism, political writings, lectures, speeches, and essays. These writings were originally sourced from a range of venues, including political pamphlets, reports for arts organizations, government reports, and international bodies, as well as academic periodicals. Reading across this volume, which is divided into three sections—“Riots, Race, and Representation”; “The Politics of Intellectual Work against Racism”; and finally, “Cultural and Multicultural Questions”—readers will marvel at the range of audiences Hall has engaged, from secondary school teachers in his early days as a teacher, to young activists, policy makers, academics, scholars, Black filmmakers, and artists, and this is an abbreviated list. Among other things, what this volume demonstrates is how Hall’s thinking and writing remained at the center of debates not only on race and difference in British society but also on how they articulated and modulated the British peoples’ senses of self-perception, policy, and politics.

Selected Writings on Race and Difference offers both new and familiar readers of Hall’s thought an insight into how discerning and perceptive Hall’s thinking was on the integral and core role race and racism has always played in British society and by extension our contemporary social world. Stuart Hall was part of the generation of intellectuals who had to make a case for the inclusion of race, racism, and even Blackness in our collective analyses, and then make a case for it again. This volume marks that most necessary and vital work while also making clear what fruits such prolonged political and ethical commitments might bear. As Hall puts it in chapter 4, “Race and ‘Moral Panics’ in Postwar Britain [1978],” “This is not a crisis of race. But race periodizes and punctuates the crisis. Race is the prism through which the crisis is perceived. It is the justifying scheme by means of which the crisis is analysed and explained. It is the means by which the crisis is to be resolved” (65; italics in original).

This volume allows readers the gift of reading Hall not in the sporadic and scattered fashion in which they would have met these papers previously but with an insightful eye to genealogy, history, span, and scope. Said another way, this volume reminds past readers and illuminates to new readers that Hall was always influenced and imminently concerned with the ways race and racism constituted not only British society but also Euro-American modernity. It was this lens that provided for Hall a particular vantage point from which to think state multiculturalism, neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and neoliberalism—all of which are addressed in this collection. It provides for readers a more complex schema of Hall’s intellectual endeavors, putting front and center that his thought was always both grounded in British society but never bounded by its borders, and that Hall was a transnational and diasporic thinker, always in conversation with scholars and intellectuals but also artists, poets, and literary writers laying claim to various generations and locales from which he drew valuable insight. Selected Writings on Race and Difference collects for readers Hall the policy thinker, Hall the teacher, Hall the analyst of youth culture, Hall the media critic, Hall the critic of modernity, Hall the Black cultural critic, and Hall the analyst of multiculture and multiculturalism, and many, many more.

In bringing all these iterations of Hall’s thought together, the editors aim for readers to grapple with not only the concerns made visible through the prism race afforded him but also the concerns lucid to him because of his Jamaican descent and because of his Blackness. What might have been marginal at that conference with which I opened this review, and even perhaps in some previous texts, this volume lays bare. Hall’s race, Jamaican descent, and Blackness were never marginal to his thought, they were central.

Sitting with these writings now allows readers the opportunity to engage them differently, and yet the writings’ contributions, their methods, and their theoretical contributions and methodological structures remain useful for reading our present. New readers of Hall, who come to this work not having had the experience of encountering his essays in scattered venues and thus having to retroactively patchwork their chronology and genealogy, will appreciate this collection. They can instead, along with familiar readers, direct energies to understanding how Hall’s theoretical insights, methodological innovations, and analyses might offer tools for us now in this burgeoning conjuncture of hardened nationalisms based in closed notions of ethnicity and more and more fixed conceptions of race.

Engaging with these books will not only solidify Hall’s place as one of the foremost thinkers of how we might live with each other, and our differences, better, but also make it ever clearer that Hall’s thought is indispensable for how we might craft alternative futures than the ones our collective present seems to be currently offering. But of course, as Hall reminds us, there are no guarantees.

Sam Tecle’s research and scholarly work spans the areas of Black and diaspora studies, urban studies, and sociology of education. His work focuses on the analysis of diverse experiences, trajectories, and expressions of Blackness. He is an assistant professor in sociology at Toronto Metropolitan University.

[1] Details regarding the conference can be found here:

[2] The question and answer have been abbreviated for clarity. For the full exchange, please refer to, at 1:37:25–1:41:16.

[3] These lectures were delivered at Harvard University in April 1994, in the renowned W. E. B. Du Bois lecture series hosted by the Department of African and African American Studies.

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