What did Stuart Hall mean to me?

By Nusrat Faizullah, Educationalist

Stuart Hall is a figure that I have only come to know well recently but in that short time he has influenced me deeply. There are points in life where you stop and reflect on where you have come from in relation to where you are going. These points of reflection often take place at junctions where you examine who you are amidst the changes and necessary evolution that takes place in life. Stuart Hall who sadly died yesterday, helped me to understand these feelings but most importantly taught me to be comfortable with them and the ambiguous nature of identity in these modern times.

As the first generation child of a Bangladeshi family in London, identity and belonging are issues I have continuously grappled with. How do you define where you are from and who you are? How do you embrace the difference between yourself and those around you? How are you able to imagine your own future without having people to look to with similar experiences to you? In a fast-changing world the answers to these questions are complicated. With age my identity becomes more separate from that of my parents and I have found it increasingly difficult to find that balance between the different ways in which I viewed myself, now less anchored by my roots and Bengali origins. A Londoner, the child of an immigrant, a woman, a Muslim, an Asian, a Bengali, straight, British, English. Stuart Hall saw that no one thing could tell us who we are.
Many announced Stuart Hall’s death as the loss of “the Godfather of multiculturism”. He is widely agreed to be one of Britain’s leading intellects, the co-founder of the first Cultural Studies programme in Birmingham and a prominent figure at the Open University. His voice shaped progressive debates around sexuality, gender, race and identity. In the 70s his studies looking at the links between racial prejudice and the media was described as ground breaking. Born under colonial rule in Kingston Jamaica in 1932, Hall’s work on culture and identity was incredibly personal, stemming from his experience of being “at least three shades darker” than the rest of his light-skinned middle class family and the rejection he felt as a result of this. This position of being an outsider stayed with him in 1951 when as a Rhodes Scholar he came to study at Merton College at Oxford University. He told the Guardian in 2012. “I’m not English and I never will be. The life I have lived is one of partial displacement”. John Akomfrah last year released the documentary “The Stuart Hall Project” which presented an intimate and engaging portrait of Hall. In this documentary Hall describes the first time he heard the music of Miles Davies. He said it was if “Miles Davies put his finger on my soul … the moods of Miles Davies matched the evolution of my own feelings”. I too have experienced that powerful moment of finding something for the first time that seemed to be made from the same thing as me. In my case it was music that emerged from artists such as Asian Dub Foundation in the late 90s.
Stuart Hall saw that identity was not a fixed thing but something that “becomes a moveable feat: formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems around us”. More poetically he describes identity as “an endless, ever unfinished conversation”. In a tribute featured on yesterday’s Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman suggested that some of Hall’s work had fallen out of fashion in the last few years. The truth is that his ideas have always been relevant, more so now that ever, which is why he was such a dominating figure through the 60s, 70s and 80s. Whilst personally the work of Stuart Hall have been of interest of me I have also been searching for ways in which to apply his ideas to public services and my field of interest; Education. How can more complex views of identity revolutionise the way in which we work with communities and meet the needs of children? Can a greater awareness of cultural identity in schools help to close the achievement gap?
As a multicultural state where inequalities correlate with demographics such as gender, class and race, I believe there is great potential in using Hall’s approach within the education system. One of the failures of the UK’s education system is our one-size-fits-all approach with all children. When reflecting on my own experiences I can see that my culture impacted the way in which I learnt and engaged with school. Lucky for me my own identity suited the current system and I was able to do well academically but for so many others this is not the case. I have spent the last 10 years working in education to try and understand why I was able to succeed when so many other children fail and what can be done to level the playing field. In countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand cultural identity has been used as a tool to both understand and tackle educational disadvantage. However these approaches classify people into clear ethnic groups and cultural identities are still seen as restricted to ethnic minorities. Stuarts Hall’s idea of ‘new ethnicities’ suggests that we as individuals speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience and particular culture. In an education system where certain communities and groups consistently underperform in schools, a more complex picture of cultural identity based on Hall’s ideas could really change the way we understand teaching and learning. Rather than just having a superficial awareness and respect for different cultures, we could create an education system with schools that have a deep understanding and authority on how cultural identity can be used to ensure every child is able to succeed.
Stuart Hall’s death leaves large shoes to fill. Who like him will be able to define the cultural politics of the future? His impact on the world will be felt for generations to come as he has inspired so many and will continue to do so.