Stuart Hall died last week and since hearing the news I’ve been feeling weary and blue. Last night I had a dream about my father; he was puttering around in the basement and I think I was trying to help him build something. He was ten years younger than Stuart Hall—and died ten years sooner—but both men left the Caribbean in search of something more. Both stayed abroad, married white women, and had two
daughters children. I don’t think I was able to understand myself and my difficult relationship with my father until I read the work of Stuart Hall. All week I’ve tried and failed to write about that particular moment in my life. So last night, after reading an interview Hall gave in 1992, I put on some melancholy music (Adele’s “Hometown Glory”) and waited for the words to flow. But they’re still stuck. I could have met Stuart Hall back in 2008 or 2009. I was at a conference (either London or Paris) and folks began to whisper that Stuart Hall had arrived. I turned and saw him surrounded by a tight circle of colleagues; he had a cane and seemed rather frail but I could have reached out and touched his arm. I could have told him how much his essay, “Minimal Selves,” meant to me, how I discovered it just as I decided to leave graduate school and pursue my dream of becoming a novelist. This week if I had Stuart Hall within reach I would probably blurt out, “I love you!” Which wouldn’t be untrue, though it may seem unlikely and certainly inappropriate in an academic context. But I am not an academic and have no shame admitting that some texts—some voices—have spoken to me at just the right moment. Just when I felt certain that graduate school had been an utter waste of time, I took a seminar with Tricia Rose, read two essays by Stuart Hall, and wrote an essay in a voice that I truly recognized as my own. And I was able to do that because Stuart Hall modeled a kind of honesty in his own work that was both startling and liberating:
Migration is a one-way trip. There is no ‘home’ to go back to. There never was…The truth is, I am here because it’s where my family is not. I really came here to get away from my mother. Isn’t that the universal story of life? One is where one is to try and get away from somewhere else. That was the story which I could never tell anybody about myself. So I had to find other stories, other fictions, which were more authentic or, at any rate, more acceptable, in place of the Big Story of the endless evasion of patriarchal family life. Who I am—the ‘real’ me—was formed in relation to a whole set of other narratives. I was aware of the fact that identity is an invention from the very beginning, long before I understood any of this theoretically.
I’m giving a talk about Canada at Harvard next week and I’m sure there won’t be more than half a dozen people in the room. My host let me know that even he won’t be in attendance but I want to do a good job nonetheless. Jamaica Kincaid teaches in the English Department there and part of me wants to email her and ask her to attend. Like Hall, her books also found me when I needed them most. And yes, it might be awkward to stand at a podium and say, “Once I was drowning and your words kept me afloat.” But shouldn’t an author know how their words operate in the world—the good that they do? Did Stuart Hall know about the tremendous impact he had not only on the field of cultural studies but also on individuals outside of academia? I hope so.