Familiar Stranger

A Life Between Two Islands

Familiar Stranger

Stuart Hall: Selected Writings

More about this series

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 12 illustrations Published: April 2017

Author: Stuart Hall

Editor: Bill Schwarz

Caribbean Studies, Cultural Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

"Sometimes I feel myself to have been the last colonial." This, in his own words, is the extraordinary story of the life and career of Stuart Hall—how his experiences shaped his intellectual, political, and theoretical work and how he became one of his age's brightest intellectual lights.

Growing up in a middle-class family in 1930s Kingston, Jamaica, still then a British colony, the young Stuart Hall found himself uncomfortable in his own home. He lived among Kingston's stiflingly respectable brown middle class, who, in their habits and ambitions, measured themselves against the white elite. As colonial rule was challenged, things began to change in Kingston and across the world. In 1951 a Rhodes scholarship took Hall across the Atlantic to Oxford University, where he met young Jamaicans from all walks of life, as well as writers and thinkers from across the Caribbean, including V. S. Naipaul and George Lamming. While at Oxford he met Raymond Williams, Charles Taylor, and other leading intellectuals, with whom he helped found the intellectual and political movement known as the New Left. With the emotional aftershock of colonialism still pulsing through him, Hall faced a new struggle: that of building a home, a life, and an identity in a postwar England so rife with racism that it could barely recognize his humanity.

With great insight, compassion, and wit, Hall tells the story of his early life, taking readers on a journey through the sights, smells, and streets of 1930s Kingston while reflecting on the thorny politics of 1950s and 1960s Britain. Full of passion and wisdom, Familiar Stranger is the intellectual memoir of one of our greatest minds.


"Hall, characteristically, refused such easy identifications, as either deracinated man of the New Left or postcolonial black theorist. Nowhere is this clearer than in Hall’s own ego-histoire, Familiar Stranger. . . [which], like the two volumes in the series already published by Duke, reminds us that for Hall thinking historically was essential to understanding ourselves and the conditions in which we live." — James Vernon, Public Books

"Familiar Stranger is a homecoming of sorts, a hybrid of memoir and meditation, a spirited voyage around the complexities of race, colour and class. . . . Familiar Stranger reads as a subtle and subversive memoir of the end of empire." — Colin Grant, The Guardian

"[T]he most significant figure on the British intellectual left over the course of the last 50 years. . . . Reading this book is to be reminded of the quiet rigour of his conversation...."
  — Tim Adams, The Guardian

"In Hall’s case, as a mixed-race or 'coloured' Jamaican, his journey to the imperial core involved a very particular kind of disenchantment. This posthumously published memoir tells that story with a thoughtful fair-mindedness that illuminates not only his own struggles with identity and a sense of place in the world, but also those of postwar Britain and its seemingly endless efforts to come to terms with class, race and empire." — Maria Misra, Financial Times

"[A] rich resource of Hall’s swift, lucid and beautifully turned theories of black identity...."
  — Fred Inglis, Times Higher Education

"Hall is a key thinker. His analysis remains profound. In these days of Brexit we need his nuanced view of identity more than ever. When his voice comes through in this book it is rich with longing and the constant stretching of asking how we think about who we are and where we come from. Hall in full flow was quite something. He remains one of the best speakers I have heard."
  — Suzanne Moore, New Statesman

"There has never been a better time, in the context of the re-emergence of racialized modes of thinking, racism and discrimination across vast swathes of the Western world, to read and re-read Hall." — Sindre Bangstad, Africa is a Country

"This is a compelling portrait of Hall’s own struggle to forge his own identity and sense of belonging as well as a grim history of slavery, colonialism and racism in modern Jamaica and Britain. Hall’s humanity and honesty pour from every page as he connects the ideas that formed his thinking to his own life." — Angela Cobbinah, Camden New Journal

"Readers of Familiar Stranger expecting a purely personal traditional memoir will instead find themselves reading a much more rewarding intellectual autobiography, through which Hall s life is threaded.... Familiar Stranger succeeds in casting his life as a conduit to a larger discussion about race, history, and politics." — Gretchen Gerzina, TLS

"Hall’s work has become especially resonant as Britain has voted for a narrower identity and a more isolationist attitude to the rest of the world.... There is a generosity and literary imagination in his writing—a recognition that humans are complex, contradictory creatures shaped by, among other things, what they believe, where they live, how they shop, and who they sleep with." — Jessica Loudis, The New Republic

"This is an extremely rich and fascinating memoir.... The centrality of race, of colonialism, and Familiar Stranger’s account of the forces which go make a diasporic intellectual will, I think, fill out a lot of the gaps in readers' conceptions of Stuart Hall." — Graeme Turner, Europe Now

"What makes the memoir a fascinating and novel read is Hall’s sustained attempt to understand himself as a psychosocial subject, both during his upbringing in Jamaica and his early years living and working in Britain."
  — Tony Jefferson, Theory, Culture & Society

"Hall presents a portrait of a divided self, of what it meant to be not merely an object but a damaged subject of racial thinking." — Gaiutra Bahadur, Dissent

"Familiar Stranger adds substantially to our knowledge of the way Hall’s origins informed his work. . . . 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." — Nikil Saval, New Left Review

Familiar Stranger provides a rewarding feast of history, sociology, theory, politics and—oh yes, biography.” — Lawrence Grossberg, American Book Review

“Stuart Hall’s greatly accessible autobiography is a welcome edition that can hopefully provide impetus for a renewed pursuit of multiculturalism and academic self-critique.”

— Andrew Kettler, H-Ideas, H-Net Reviews

"Familiar Stranger offers a profound portrait of Hall’s intellectual and personal growth during his most formative years as a colonial subject and an emigrant, as well as his insightful ruminations looking back on the complexities of his identities and sense of British imperial belonging." — Marlene Gaynair, Black Perspectives

"The most compelling feature of this book is its attention for, and grounding in, the everyday." — Soren Brandes, Soziopolis

"A very reflective account of Hall’s personal and political biography . . . A fine portrait not only of Hall’s biography but also of his particular voice and of what it means to be 'between two islands' (England and Jamaica). The experience of diaspora is richly detailed." — Michael W. Apple, Educational Policy

"Complicates our expectations of what a memoir should be, insofar as Hall’s narration of his story is ultimately more about the contexts.  . . . Hall manages to displace himself from his own memoir to such an extent that the real story here isn’t about him: It’s about explaining the historical conditions of possibility that enabled him to do the kind of political and intellectual work that he did." — Gilbert B. Rodman, Journal of Communication Inquiry

"Schwarz’s voice is silently present, his deft editorial hand evident. . . . A work of richness and depth that stands as worthy testament to [Hall's] life and ideas." — James Epstein, American Historical Review

"An utterly engrossing and profoundly moving book. . . . A remarkable book, rich with the insights and eloquence that we have come to expect from Stuart Hall." — Winston James, New West Indian Guide

"It is fascinating to watch Hall reframe theoretical ideas developed in a lifetime of publication in journals such as New Left Review as memoir." — Tom Overton, Biography

"Familiar Stranger ... provides a glimpse into the early life of one of Britain’s most important theorists. ... In a time when British politics have swung hard to the Right and the concept of a ‘culture war’ has overtaken the discourse on socialism, Hall’s works are more relevant than ever to reassess what needs to be done in order to turn the tide." — Brant Roberts, Houston Review of Books

“This extraordinary book tells us something of how Stuart Hall, this remarkable thinker, teacher, and theorist of a renewed Left, came to be. We see how his exceptional ability to weave together politics, history, depth psychology, and cultural identity is rooted in the never fully resolved displacements, tensions, and conflicts of his life. This work, fascinating and engaging as the story of his early life, is also immensely instructive as an account of an evolving theory, wide and many-facetted, capable of doing something like full justice to the important changes of our time.” — Charles Taylor

“The publication of Familiar Stranger is truly an event. Contemplative and incisive, heart-wrenching and hilarious, profound and thought-provoking, the book demonstrates why Stuart Hall was our most brilliant thinker on identity and struggle, and why in the age of Brexit and Trumpism he is sorely missed. He embodied a capacious understanding of race, nation, and diaspora, and drew on his own life to reveal the conjunctural relationships between structures of oppression and the spaces of possibility, between lived experience and modalities of power. For those unfamiliar with Hall, this book ought to be the starting point.” — Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times

“Stuart Hall analyzes the complexities of migration that left all British Commonwealth citizens puzzled by the political character of the word Black in the recent construction: British Black. He argues that race, which was always there, meaning difference, is now given a surprising interpretation in the social relations that define all people who are not white. This is a miracle of a book constructed by different hands but carrying always the dominant critical signature of Stuart Hall.” — George Lamming

“Much more than a memoir, Familiar Stranger is a fascinating insight into how a life shapes a brilliant mind.” — Andrea Levy

“Compelling. Stuart Hall’s story is the story of an age. He was a pioneer in the struggle for racial, cultural, and political liberation. He has transformed the way we think.” — Owen Jones

From Chapter 1
“I was born and formed in the closing days of the old colonial world. They are my conditions of existence. This is, as I see it, the starting point for narrating my life, the source of a curious, unreachable, and abiding unease. . . . As the great Trinidadian C. L. R. James once said of Caribbean migrants to the U.K., we are “in, but not of, Europe.” . . .In Jamaica, I wasn’t of course an exile. But there is a sense in which, although I belong to it, Jamaica worked to “other” me. As a consequence, I experience my life as sharply divided into two unequal but entangled, disproportionate halves. . . . Because of radically changing locations, I have belonged, in different ways, to both at different times of my life, without ever being fully of either.” — Stuart Hall, from Chapter 1


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Stuart Hall (1932–2014) was one of the most prominent and influential scholars and public intellectuals of his generation. He was a prolific writer and speaker and a public voice for critical intelligence and social justice who appeared widely on British television and radio. He taught at the University of Birmingham and the Open University, was the founding editor of New Left Review, and served as the director of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies during its most creative and influential decade. He is the author of Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays and Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, both also published by Duke University Press.

Bill Schwarz is Professor of English at Queen Mary University of London, author of Memories of Empire, Volume I: The White Man's World, and an editor of History Workshop Journal. Schwarz and Catherine Hall are Stuart Hall's literary executors.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations  xi
Preface / Bill Schwarz  xiii
Part I. Jamaica
1. Colonial Landscapes, Colonial Subjects  3
2. The Two Jamaicas  25
3. Thinking the Caribbean: Creolizing Thinking  61
4. Race and its Disavowal  95
Part II. Leaving Jamaica
5. Conscripts of Modernity  109
Part III. Journey to an Illusion
6. Encountering Oxford: The Makings of a Diasporic Self  149
7. Caribbean Migration: The Windrush Generation  173
Part IV. Transition Zone
8. England at Home  203
9. Politics  227
Works Referenced in the Text  273
Index  285
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