The Godfather of Multiculturalism: Stuart Hall

You may be in favour of Black History Month. You may hate the idea. You may believe that Black History should be a year-round affair and that giving it just one month is an insult to Black Culture. Truthfully, I understand both arguments. It’s why Brits + Pieces have a dedicated space for Black History content all year round. The work should never stop. However, in a world full of distractions, it’s good to put aside a month to be extra celebratory and to really sit and study our history.

It’s why as Black History 2018 comes to a close, it’s a perfect time to talk about a figure in Black Britain who is widely respected for his work as a Black Academic. His name is Stuart Hall.

Quick Facts

Stuart Hall (1932- 2014) was a pioneer, a sociologist, a cultural theorist and a prolific writer. He is known as ‘the Godfather of multiculturalism’. Hall pioneered ‘Cultural Studies’ which today is common practice but then was new, niche and underground.

  • Born and raised in Jamaica. In 1951, at age 19, he received a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford and relocated to the UK along with the rest of the Windrush generation
  • Founded the New Left Review in 1960
  • Founding editor of Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture which publishes leftist political thinking
  • President of the British Sociological Association in the 90s
  • Director of Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham
  • Formed the first Cultural studies course in Britain, taught at UoB
  • A bibliography compiled of his works is 79 pages long, including books, audio, journals etc
  • His memoir Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands was published a few years after his death in 2017
  • He’s the subject of the docu-film The Stuart Hall Project which has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes

And all that is just a snippet of a very long and successful career. He has been an intellectual icon of the modern day, with work spanning decades.

People often critique academia in favour of more active practical work. Even Mr Hall himself did:

“Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God’s name is the point of cultural studies?… At that point, I think anybody who is into cultural studies seriously as an intellectual practice, must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything. If you don’t feel that as one tension in the work that you are doing, theory has let you off the hook.”

However, it is through creating mental frameworks to understand everyday phenomena and sharing cultural perspectives that we can begin the work of exploring the whys and hows of social change. Is this why things are the way they are? Should they be the way they are? If so, can we and should we change them?

His thinking obviously resonated with people. Hall appeared regularly on late night tv to share his perspectives. He has also featured in several films and documentaries.

His Ideas

One of his most famous theories was the Encoding/Decoding Model of Communication. Though it has its criticisms, it’s interesting to think about especially with Diversity’s growing spotlight in today’s world.

The theory explains that a reader or viewer of media creates their own meaning from a message or piece of creative work

‘Encoding’ is the production of the work and the intended message of the creator e.g. the message being sent by Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum. The ‘decoding’ is the message taken by the viewer or listener. It’s fair to assume the message taken from the series will be different between a 40-year-old working class man from a small Scottish village and a 15-year-old Afro-Caribbean girl from Birmingham? And though it seems obvious, people don’t always take this into account.

Hall’s theory showed that there are three hypothetical ‘decoding positions’.

The dominant-hegemonic position, where a work is encoded and decoded in the same way, often because the creator and the consumer have similar cultural biases.

The negotiated position, where there is a mixture of acceptance and rejection of the producer’s message. Think of ‘urban/street’ movies where certain viewers could be saddened by a character’s death but also believe that it’s not that tragic as they shouldn’t have ‘mixed in certain crowds’.

The oppositional position is when the viewer takes a very different view to what the creator intended and usually different from the majority of viewers/readers.

Thinking about this theory in 2018 is so important when Culture, Multiculturalism, and Representation are becoming more widely talked about. Black people, especially Black Brits, are often the decoders, but very rarely the encoders of content. We consume and enjoy and we dissect so many narratives but we often aren’t given the platforms to share our ideas and messages.

Even worse, we often have to digest and decode messages about ourselves, usually consisting of messages from encoders who come from a dominant culture. It’s a very uncomfortable experience, especially because its a depiction or a message that often isn’t quite right.

Even within the Black Diaspora, Black Hollywood in the West and Nollywood in Africa are usually in the front seat when it comes to media. This isn’t a criticism or a complaint but an acknowledgment of reality.

We’re pushing for Black British encoders. And we’re pushing for Black Media to have the complete creative freedom to be authentic and true to itself without having to dilute itself to be more widely accepted or understood by the mainstream. I’d even hope that Black Media doesn’t think about the mainstream at all. We push for the freedom from worry of how our work will be decoded.

Stuart Hall was an example of a Black Brit who worked hard to share his perspectives and ideas – even at a time when they were easily rejected by mainstream academia and Britain. This Black History Month, we pay our respects to Stuart Hall and his legacy. The Stuart Hall Foundation and its award, Professor Stuart Hall Building in Goldsmiths College and Stuart Hall Library at the Institute of International Visual Art (InVia) are a few examples of how respected his study of Culture and Sociology became over the years.

We draw inspiration from him, in how he convinced Britain that different Cultures were important to study and how he dedicated his whole life to sharing his knowledge with the world.