Stuart Hall: “Culture is always a translation”

Jamaica-born, London-based cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall on his Jamaican background, Caribbean culture, and the conference held in his honour

  • Stuart Hall
  • Stuart Hall

I was born in Jamaica, and grew up in a middle-class family. My father spent
most of his working life in the United Fruit Company. He was the first Jamaican
in that position; before him, those jobs were held by people sent down from
the head office in America.

My parents’ families were both middle-class, but from very different class
formations. My father belonged to the coloured lower middle class. His father
kept a drugstore in a poor village outside Kingston. The family was ethnically
very mixed — African, East Indian, Portuguese, Jewish. My mother’s family
was much fairer in colour; if you had seen her uncle, you would have thought
he was an English expatriate, nearly white, or what we would call “local white”.
She was adopted by an aunt and brought up in a beautiful house on the hill,
above a small estate where the family lived.

So I grew up in a lower-middle-class family that was trying to be a middle-class
Jamaican family, trying to be an upper-middle-class Jamaican family, trying
to be an English Victorian family. In 1951 I won a Rhodes scholarship and
left for England. I used to joke that I migrated in order to get away from
my family. I wasn’t really joking, though. The problem, as I discovered, was
that since one’s family is always already “in here”, there is no way in which
you can actually leave them. Of course, sooner or later, they recede in memory,
or even in life. I wish they were still around so that I didn’t have to carry
them around, locked up somewhere in my head, from which there is no migration.

I left in 1951, at the age of 18. I’ve never lived in Jamaica
since then. I haven’t written a lot about Jamaica. I’ve written a bit about
the Caribbean, but mainly in the context of my work on the black diaspora.
I’ve written a lot about the black diaspora, and I’ve been preoccupied with
the black diaspora throughout my life there. In fact, not only is my work
on the black diaspora, but all of my work in cultural studies is done through
the prism of the Caribbean. My writing on diaspora, my thinking about culture,
is shaped by what I know culture is in the Caribbean.

Cultural studies was provoked for me by trying to think about Caribbean
culture. What is it? What is Caribbean culture? When I went to England, I
thought I was escaping Jamaica, and then, within two years, all of Jamaica
arrived in London, so that no escape was possible. I said to myself, well,
what is the culture from which we folks are coming? Here’s something that
is very distinctive, I’m part of that, what is this culture?

And the second question: What is it going to be in the diaspora? Is it going
to stay the same, is it going to evolve, is it going to be destroyed by racism?
And one of the things that I discovered about that is that we are ourselves
the diaspora, the Caribbean is a diaspora. The peoples in the Caribbean are
all from somewhere else. The people who belonged here were stamped out by
the Spanish conquistadores within 100 years.

Everybody else comes from somewhere else: the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese,
the English, the Africans, the Lebanese, the Indians — you know, they’re all
from some other place, so this is first a diaspora. Although there is a black
diaspora in Britain, that is the diaspora of a diaspora, so I’ve been obliged
to think about the culture of the black diaspora in Britain and the diasporised
culture that has settled down and grown up in the Caribbean in diasporic

So this shaped my understanding of what culture is and how it works. The
reason why I say culture is always a translation — there’s no pure culture,
it’s always a translation — is because Jamaican culture is a translation of
European and African and Indian cultures. And Jamaican culture in England
is a translation of that translation, composed out of African, European, and
Indian cultures in the Caribbean, now further translated in relation to 21st-century
Britain and Europe. That is what culture is; it’s not something which stands
still, which never moves, which is intrinsic — born inside each of us — which
will never change, you know, we can never be something else, etc.

Culture is produced with each generation. We reproduce our own identities
in the future, rather than simply inherit them from the past. Of course we
make them in the future, out of the past. So it’s not that I want people to
forget the past — not at all, I want them to really remember it. For many
years I lived in the Caribbean as a colonial subject in a society which did
not remember Africa! So I don’t want people to forget Africa, but I don’t
want them to mistake the Africa that is alive and well in the diaspora for
the Africa that is suffering the consequences of neoliberal development in
Africa — where they’re not waiting for us to go back; they’re suffering their
own fate there.

If you think of culture always as a return to roots — R-O-O-T-S — you’re
missing the point. I think of culture as routes — R-O-U-T-E-S — the various
routes by which people travel, culture travels, culture moves, culture develops,
culture changes, cultures migrate, etc.

So, I’ve never written about the Caribbean, though much of what I’ve done
has been inflected by the Caribbean. I was never part of the project of writing
the national Jamaican or Caribbean story. What’s more, more to my regret,
I wasn’t part of the political events of the last 50 years that shaped Jamaican
independence. I know about them, I knew all the people involved, I went to
school with half of them, you know, I’ve come back every two or three years,
I’ve followed the story from the inside, but I have not been part of it, so
when asked if I wanted to think about being a Caribbean intellectual or coming
to Caribbean intellectual thought, well, this is an ambiguous thing.

What entered my mind was — these people have never really been interested
in your work, you know, they think it’s from over there, it’s from somewhere
else, you’re not part of us, and a certain resentment. Why didn’t you come
back? Why aren’t you part of us? And a certain — dare I — dare I call it provincialism?
What we’re preoccupied with is Jamaican things, because we’re affirming that
against the time when we couldn’t — we don’t have time to think about what
is happening in England, we’re too occupied. So while that national moment
— the moment of national independence — was supreme — governing people’s
lives, ambitions, taking up their energies, why should people be interested
in my work?

When I got an honorary degree, finally — which was only four or five years
ago at the University of the West Indies — they said “Stuart Hall has been
a well-kept secret”, and I felt this is quite true. But this invitation seemed
to me timely, because my suspicion is that that national moment is over. I
don’t mean that what happens in Jamaica is not important. But the moment when
everything can be defined in terms of the territorially bounded Jamaica is
finished — globalisation has finished it. The fate here is being decided elsewhere;
it’s being decided in Washington, and it’s going to be decided in Baghdad,
decided in the World Trade Organisation, etc.

What’s more, migration, which is the underside of globalisation, is happening
everywhere — people are landing up displaced by poverty, under-development,
civil war, ethnic cleansing, ecological devastation, environmental disaster,
HIV — you know, millions of people are on the move inside Africa itself. Millions
of people are living in transit camps, not to speak of the millions of Palestinians,
millions of people on the borders between India and Pakistan that are displaced.
The world is defined by displaced people, migration, and domination of global
capital. So the idea of the nation state, which is going to winnow out this
little window for its people, and the world’s going to leave it alone to
prosper in its little backyard, is finished.

This is a moment when this might be beginning to be understood in Jamaica,
and if that is so, it’s a moment when I can be recognised.


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