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From alienation to empowerment via the writings of Stuart Hall

A young woman from a poor London home was ready to give up on university

Coca Khan's Graduation Day, Warwick 2009

I never knew Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist who has died, aged 82. I didn't experience his charisma, how he held a room. I cannot describe with authority the timbre of his voice, nor his quick-fire wit. I don’t know if he knew as much about Miles Davis as he did about Marx. But Stuart Hall helped form me.

Let me explain. My mother had been in the UK just eleven years before I was born. When I arrived into this world, my father was long gone, and I found myself in East London, in an echoing council house with no central heating, a friendly supply of mice, and a shirtless next-door neighbour devoted to football anthems and aggressive dogs.

Coco with her motherMy adolescence was spent running rings around the bailiffs - the trick is to keep ground floor windows and doors locked, and negotiate weekly payments of £3.50 via the bedroom window. I might have been a ‘good Muslim daughter’, become a doctor. But I fainted at the sight of blood, and liked drinking underage. Still, I liked books. I loved them.

Yet there was much about fiction that made me uncomfortable. The classics seemed preoccupied with those born into money. Contemporary writers were too engrossed in killing their literary fathers to listen to voices from the fringes of society. When I was offered a scholarship at University of Warwick to pursue English I accepted, confident it would be my ‘way out’ of a dead-end, but my dislocation from the classics quickly proved a problem.

When I arrived at Warwick, the quiet nights gave me hope. Growing up in the city, I had never experienced an entirely silent night before. I thought the peace signalled a new beginning. I had hoped so strongly that academia would save me. I wanted with a terrible fire, to have some kind of purpose.

Instead, a deep sense of alienation. My peers were not like me. My lecture halls were entirely white-faced. (The campus shop had so many cheeses! I'd never heard of Roquefort before.)

I resented that religious respect for the cannon, the tyranny of tradition.

Was it arrogant to wonder what Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was going to tell me about me? Was musing upon my own diasporic self and not the white-narrative self criminally indulgent? Eventually, I felt academia was no longer about personal betterment and the pursuit of knowledge but about blithely admiring the creative ways History has favoured the few. I spent most of my time nurturing my saplings of alienation and worthlessness in the spiritual abyss.

And then I found Stuart Hall.

"…identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves, within the narratives of the past".

Position ourselves within the narratives of the past. I read it over and over, startled at the first breath of my own agency. That was from Cultural Identity and Diaspora, an essay that I can only describe as turning the lights on. After that, I devoured Hall’s academic work and journalism, leading me to Althusser, Foucault and Derrida, giving me the tools to carve myself an existence in culture, in history, in the shape of things to come. 

Hall wasn’t the first theorist I’d come by on matters of race (indeed Edward Said still impresses visitors to my bookshelf), but Hall was the first to come alive for me. He shook me with his lust for life, change, and progress, arming me with the skills to puncture the crippling social conditioning.

Predetermination had no hold over Hall, and this was an infectious conviction.

He refused to accept notions of higher culture and lower culture, nor that History was something unmovable. Instead he pushed and probed it, striving to make today the best it could be. I began to see Thomas Hardy was as much for me as any other. For me, Hall opened up the past.

Coco Khan, 2013When it was time to enter the world of work, inspired by Hall, I wanted to kick the doors down on oppressive cultural norms, norms perpetuated by the media. I went into arts journalism because I adore and recognise the importance of vigorous discussion on contemporary creative outpourings, but I always felt it wasn’t quite enough. Through Open University and his various arts projects Hall touched new audiences with ideas they would have otherwise been untouched by.  I wanted to do that.

Lately I've been working with a young person’s charity based on an east London housing estate not far from where I grew up. The families, many of whom are non-white, experience poverty, crime and health issues. The children often lack stability and are vulnerable to gangs, and predators. Most will not finish secondary school with five A-C GCSEs.

We don’t give them money, or practical advice. Instead we teach them philosophy, or at least engage them in philosophical ideas suitable for their age. We can’t stop a 13-year old girl wishing she could be lighter skinned, but we can equip her with the ability to see why she does, and how it came to be. We can empower her, arm her with thought, we can give her a fighting chance.

 

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