The posthumous publication of an autobiography by Stuart Hall—impassioned political activist and analyst, prime mover of Cultural Studies—holds the possibility of lifting a veil from one of the most reticent and self-effacing intellectuals of the post-war period.footnote1 It is an irony, if not an unexpected one, that one of the most liberating theorists of the everyday effects of culture and ideology was also one of the least forthcoming. It was easy to imagine how deeply personal motivations lay at the source of Hall’s ideas, activism and work. The co-authored volume Policing the Crisis (1978) was a landmark study of the eruption of ‘moral panics’ and law-and-order campaigns over race. Similarly, his essays from the 1990s on cultural identity in the Caribbean had obvious sources in his own experience of migration to England in the 1950s. But with some exceptions, the tone of his published record was serenely analytical, and he had a characteristic predilection for collaborative—co-authored or co-edited—work. The result was that Hall the black Caribbean intellectual was sometimes difficult to glimpse in the work itself. Late in life, Hall spoke more forthrightly about his relationship to Jamaica, where he was born and raised, and while still alive he enjoyed the unlikely transformation from respected academic to beloved cult figure, as he appears in the 2014 documentary film The Stuart Hall Project. (As readers of the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and viewers of the film I Am Not Your Negro will recognize, an analogous, albeit more belated, transformation of the African-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin—incidentally, one of Hall’s cynosures—who died in the late 1980s, is taking place in the United States.) But without a narrative of his life, the links between Hall’s personal story, his scholarly dispositions, and his nonpareil conjunctural analyses of right-wing movements have not always been evident.

For a time, it was common for many to be students of cultural studies and even more than passingly familiar with Hall’s work without knowing his origins and ethnicity, or—when they were known—fathoming their meaning. This may be more common outside Britain; inside it, he was a well-known television presenter and regular public speaker. Nonetheless, the disjuncture appears to be something that dogged Hall throughout his life, as he evinces:

Catherine [Hall’s wife] recently pointed out to me that, although close friends and political colleagues in the New Left during the 1950s and 1960s were committed anti-imperialists, well tutored in anti-colonial thinking, they never perceived me as a raced, colonial subject. Similarly, friends who knew me in the Jamaican context can’t really imagine me now, or see how the Jamaican became the other. Jamaican graduate students studying in North America in the 1980s discovered Cultural Studies, with which I had become identified, as a product of an English university, the University of Birmingham—only to find, when I turned up to lecture, that a black Jamaican had somehow been involved in the enterprise from the beginning! . . . Some Caribbean people in media studies who refer to my essay on ‘Encoding/Decoding’ still don’t know I am black.

What emerges from the memoir is how much Hall’s preoccupations came from his experience, and were forged in the heat of constant argument with that experience. The imprint of British colonialism on his middle-class upbringing in Jamaica was defining for him. But it was the nature of that definition to only make itself felt obscurely and vaguely; indeed, to make itself something he grew to understand only by doubting whether it really existed. Hall’s instinct was to turn his attention away from race, colonialism and class, until, upon migrating to England, he found and developed the resources to confront this inheritance directly. Early in the book, in one of its few candid expressions of emotion, he recalls reacting with ‘disproportionate rage’ to one of his earliest reviewers, ‘an intelligent and broadly sympathetic English sociologist, who said he didn’t understand why I kept banging on about being coloured . . . since I was from a well-to-do middle-class family, had been educated at a good, English-type school and studied abroad at Oxford’.

Still, Hall recognizes the force of the accusation: ‘Since the reviewer had—inadvertently, no doubt—identified the central contradiction of my life, I felt, perhaps unfairly, that someone who didn’t understand that wasn’t likely to get much else about me right.’ Even and perhaps especially in the caesuras of this small recollection, there are unmistakable signs of Hall’s critical personality: the generosity to the critic and the self-effacing doubt (‘inadvertently, no doubt’; ‘I felt, perhaps unfairly’). They express the ‘central contradiction’—the fact that he knew race to be fundamental to his story, even though race on its surface appeared to be no formal barrier to his acceptance into British society—as much as anything. Beneath the process of formal acceptance, Hall argues, was a growing alienation: ‘Being English, it seemed to me, was not a repository of potential identification—rather, it was just an unwelcome twist of historical fate.’ And race was at the heart of the matter the entire way, as he admits in one of his plainer formulations: ‘There was never a single moment in this trajectory which wasn’t impelled by my racial positioning.’ Impelled: it speaks to his drive, the mountain of his accomplishments, and also, of course, to his being driven. That paradox lies at the centre of Familiar Stranger.

Hall traces the ambiguities of his ‘racial positioning’ back to his upbringing. Features of his childhood are treated elliptically across several of the book’s chapters, but the portrait of his parents’ personalities, and their effect on his early worldview, emerges with clarity. His father Herman Hall came from a lower-middle-class background, went to ‘one of the “good” but less prestigious secondary schools’, and did well enough in exams to work for the United Fruit Company, where he rose up the ladder, rung by rung, the first non-white person at every position, ending his career as chief accountant. This business achievement nonetheless removed him from his family, and from his son’s admiration. Hall speaks reservedly of his father as a ‘model of probity in every department of his life’, and with a touch of acid remarks that the ‘annual visits of the United Fruit accountants from Boston were the high point of my parents’ social calendar.’