Making a Space for Blackness: Mourning Stuart Hall

by Andreana Clay*


The Stuart Hall Project, Stuart Hall, (c) Smoking Dogs Films 2013


Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose this week and I had all kinds of feelings about it: he was a brilliant actor, one of my favorites, who was very serious about craft. I immediately rented all his movies and holed up with my girlfriend to watch them over the weekend. His life and his death meant something to me: the skill he put into his craft, and the beauty that he brought to the world through said craft. It meant something; it means something, to me.

When Whitney Houston died almost a year ago to the day, it meant something different to me. She was an African American woman whose music had shaped my life at a time when I was discovering what it meant or was going to mean for me to be a Black woman, as a teenager quickly moving into that realm—one many Black girls race and/or are raced into.

I am talking about these two seemingly disparate celebrities and my relationship to them because Stuart Hall died earlier this week. It is because of him that, as a writer and an academic, I am able to describe why these folks matter, personally and more generally, to the world. It is precisely his writing and work that allowed me to care about the work of celebrities like Hoffman and Houston. To let it matter, in a bigger way.

I came to sociology through feminism and, specifically, women’s studies. Women’s studies was a place that I fit in, the only place I felt that I fit in. I was taught by women of color, schooled in women of color feminisms, and used that to develop my own voice. Sociology almost took that voice away, the one I had honed and worked on for years.

Until I found Stuart Hall. It was my second year in my PhD program and I was struggling to hang on. Ok, it may not be that dramatic, but I was struggling: the women of color feminisms and feminist ethnography that brought me to the program I was in were slowly disappearing amid professors taking long sabbatical leaves, others going on the market, and others already gone. So I waded through and into my cultural theory class, where I was introduced to Stuart Hall. Like others, “What Is This Black in Black Popular Culture?” was really all I needed to steady myself back into the discipline. To take myself seriously and, more important, to study the things that mattered to me: music, Blackness, and youth. But it was more than that. Stuart Hall reminded me—a poor, working-class Black woman—of things that I thought I had to hide: the ways I connected with popular culture, found myself in it when I felt like there was no other place for me to go, wrestled with it, and critiqued it when the representations of Blackness were so far from what I imagined and knew Blackness to be. He allowed for all of that in his writing and for all of that in sociology. He made a space for me, a space for those of us who really weren’t supposed to be there—multicultural/diversity (those words exactly) discourse aside.

That critique, in some ways, of multicultural discourse, while acknowledging the broad spectrum of Blackness and marginality, is another reason that “What Is This ‘Black’?” was such a turning point for me. “Gramsci’s Relevance for Race and Ethnicity,” “Encoding and De/Coding,” and the “Introduction” to Representation have made it into my writing and into my bones over the years, but “What Is This ‘Black’?” stands out because of the moment that it was written. In 1993, hip-hop, the music and culture I was able to write about seriously after reading Hall, was perhaps at its most diverse—including artists like Me’Shell Ndegeocello, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul, alongside folks like Tupac, Cypress Hill, and The Notorious B.I.G. It was a moment when the hip-hop generation distinguished itself in popular culture and Black political and cultural discourse from the generations before—in style, affect, and representation. I like to think that Hall acknowledges and speaks directly this when he states:

Within culture, marginality, though it remains peripheral to the broader mainstream, has never been such a productive space as it is now. And that is not simply the opening within the dominant of spaces that those outside it can occupy. It is also the result of the cultural politics of difference, of the struggles around difference, of the production of new identities, of the appearance of new subjects on the political and cultural stage. This is true not only regarding race, but also for other marginalized ethnicities, as well as around feminism and around sexual politics in the gay and lesbian movement, as a result of a new kind of cultural politics.

This and other passages solidified my relationship and love for Stuart Hall and are the reason I mourn so fully today. His never wavering acknowledgement of the ways in which Blackness and Black culture exist—the innovators, the new developments, and the ever-changing meanings. He allowed all of us a space in his definition, one that in sociology we need to continue to create.

Rest in power, Stuart Hall. You will be missed.


* Andreana Clay is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at San Francisco State University (e-mail: Her book, The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back, was published in 2012. Andreana blogs at


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