It was a portentous 10 days. Between February 1 and 10 2014, a strong sense of foreboding haunted me.
For the past several years I have communicated with Stuart Hall at least three times a year. I would email him once on his birthday, February 3, and twice a football season. Stuart was an Arsenal fan and I am a partisan of God’s Own Team. He told me that he watched Arsenal with his grandsons. My grandfather, I told him, had been an Arsenal fan; at least he wouldn’t be overseeing a divided house.
Arsenal had beaten us 2-0 at the Emirates in November, so I wrote to congratulate him. “You were better than us,” I offered. Thank you, he replied, but, always slightly cautious about the way Arsène Wenger manages, Stuart went to say – maybe he was being gracious or he might have been genuinely worried – “there are many twists and turns in the road”.
Arsenal came to Anfield the day before Stuart’s 82nd birthday and, as the Liverpool way demands, I did not mention it in my birthday greeting. We were up four goals within 20 minutes, so there really was nothing to say. The final score was 5-1; it obviates the need for commentary. My birthday wish met with an unusual and ominous response: it bounced right back. If you need to reach him, Stuart’s email said, write Catherine Hall, his wife. This was not a good sign. But, promptly, I did. A day later I received a message from Catherine thanking me and promising to pass along my regards. I replied, in jest, that even at 82 Stuart was a more adroit passer of the ball than the ungainly, clumsy and rather hopeless Liverpool central defender Kolo Touré, a former Arsenal man, no less.
Between Catherine’s response and February 10, a profound sense of unease persisted. On the morning of the 10th, just as I was about to board a flight for Cape Town, my phone rang. It was a colleague. He thanked me for helping him with a project and then he said, “I also called to offer you condolences”. “What?” I replied, unsure of his meaning. “Stuart Hall died,” he offered. “NO!” I exclaimed, my voice rising above the dull din of the departure lounge. I called my wife. I contacted friends who knew Stuart, one of them being my adviser, Andrew Ross, who had guided a chapter of my doctoral work in Stuart’s direction.
In that moment, in a departure lounge filled with strangers, I was filled with a deep, unutterable sense of loss. Something fundamental had shifted in the world, in the world of all who had come into touch with him, in one way or another. Stuart was, not formally, but in every intellectual way that matters, my teacher. (I could not claim that he had taught me as he had instructed, at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies – CCCS.) He was my teacher because I learned from him; I learned from him not only because I read his work, voraciously. His work was the focus of a chapter of my dissertation, a project that would later become a book, What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals. I learned from Stuart because, in my every encounter with him, from listening to him present his work at conferences in the United States to my first face-to-face with him at the European Café at the Tottenham Court Road tube station in London and my meetings with him in the Caribbean and later in the US, I knew I was in the presence of a remarkable mind. Stuart Hall was one of the great minds of the 20th century.
Just for a moment, contemplate this: Jacques Derrida (1930), Fredric Jameson (1934), Edward Said (1935) and Stuart (1932) were all born within five years of one another. What an intellectual generation they constitute.
At the European Café we talked of many things. One remark, however, has remained with me these many years later. When I mentioned my unease about the ANC coming to power in a newly democratic South Africa, he responded, memorably: “You only get one chance at the first opportunity.” The recently departed Nelson Mandela did not seize that “first opportunity”. The black poor in South Africa, unlike the national (black) bourgeoisie, has lived to rue, 20 years later, the “chance” Mandela did not take.
When I was around Stuart I knew I was in the presence of thinker not only because of what he said, but because of his capacity to allow me to see my own work more clearly. Moreover, I knew that I was talking with a man of immense integrity, honesty and generosity. In that European Café meeting, he explained to me what psychological violence, emanating from within his own family, directed at his sister (the family would not permit her to have a relationship with a dark-skinned medical student), had driven him out of the Caribbean. His sister, he related poignantly, was subjected to electroshock therapy from which she never recovered. She never had anything like a life after that. He explained to me, with the kind of clarity that is perhaps possible only with the benefit of hindsight, why it was important for him to vacate the directorship of CCCS. There were changes afoot, and he was not the best person to guide the Centre through its next phase. There are not many who understand that new conjunctures call for new hands at the tiller.
One of the most difficult moments of my intellectual career required me, in both my dissertation and What’s My Name?, to be critical of him. (I raised the problem in these projects of his late turn to race after his arrival in Britain; it pained me to have to articulate that, to be critical of him. Stuart, on the other hand, agreed with my argument. He was, as I said, a generous man.) “The Scholarship Boy” was the most painful chapter of What’s My Name? to write because it required, nay, demanded, that I be intellectually felicitous. It was right and necessary to say what I did in that book (and first my dissertation), but it pained me. It pains me still to have been critical of him. After the book was published, we met at a conference in Jamaica and I approached him gingerly about the book. “You have nothing to worry about, Grant,” he said, splendidly clad, the Caribbean heat notwithstanding, in a blue suit. No one can wear a blue suit with such élan and grace.
I boarded my flight to Cape Town with his image in my head. I could not, mercifully, shake that wry, urgent sense of humour. The sound of his voice, marked as it was by that distinctive, run-on, melodic lilt, eyes twinkling, was almost audible. I was filled with a sense of a keen sense of loss, en route to a country – to the city of my birth – that had failed to heed him, that had turned from a radical black bourgeois nationalism into one of the most unequal societies in the world. In that moment, because of what he had taught me, because of the politics he advocated and to which dedicated his life, I could not have been more honoured to have known him. On the Sunday after his death, Arsenal beat us 2-1 in the FA Cup. For Stuart, I am sure.
Photo Credit: Mesut Özil taking a free kick for Arsenal in the 2013/2014 season by Ronnie MacDonald