MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to take a few minutes to pay tribute to scholar Stuart Hall. He was widely known and respected in academic circles as the godfather of multiculturalism. He died this week in England at the age of 82. Born in Jamaica, he studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.
There he became a trailblazer in the field of cultural studies, and because his ideas about race and gender became so influential, we wanted to take a closer look at his life and his work. So we've called Mark Anthony Neal. He is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University. And he's with us once again. Welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Oh, no problem, Michel.
MARTIN: So for people who've never heard of Stuart Hall, particularly the non-academics among us, what's the most important thing to know about him?
NEAL: He was a big thinker and really bridged the gap between thinking seriously about the everyday lives of peoples, particularly in terms of popular media and popular culture. He was a fellow at the University of Birmingham in 1964 at their Center of Cultural Studies. Eventually, he would head the Center of Cultural Studies there. And it was with his ideas as a Jamaican immigrant trying to find his own space in Britain looking at popular culture, looking at vernacular culture.
He began to write about ideas that really connected culture to politics in ways that we hadn't seen before. When you think about figures like Cornel West or Michael Eric Dyson, in many ways, they're not legible or visible to us without the influence of a figure like Stuart Hall.
MARTIN: A documentary about him just premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival. He tells some kind of painful stories about his own early life and some formative things. Can you just tell us a little bit about it?
NEAL: It is a black immigrant story. I mean, we're talking about someone who's born in Jamaica, who comes to Britain trying to find his voice and part of a generation of folks who are trying to find their voice within that space. They're listening to music that doesn't quite resonate with their British peers.
And at least intellectually, he worked through that in terms of creating ideas that really politicized the reasons why they were listening to the music they were listening to, politicize why they chose the type of films they wanted to see and wanted to make. You mentioned the worker John Akomfrah, you know, who did the Stuart Hall documentary. John Akomfrah or Paul Gilroy are examples of those folks who come the next generation who just take, you know, Stuart Hall's ideas about how we talk and write and think about culture and took it to a whole other level.
MARTIN: I actually have a clip from the film. Let me just play a short clip from it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE STUART HALL PROJECT")
STUART HALL: We always supposed, really, something would give us a definition of who we really were, our class position or our national position, or our geographic origins or where our grandparents came from. And I don't think any one thing any longer will tell us who we are.
MARTIN: He tells this painful story about being several shades darker than other members of his family back in Jamaica...
MARTIN: ...And his parents forbidding them to bring home friends who were darker skinned. And I just wonder how he took an idea and how an idea like that would kind of guide an intellectual idea that would become a big idea that the rest of us would understand, if you understand what I'm asking you.
NEAL: I mean, yeah. I mean, for Stuart Hall, I mean, in - you know, here in the United States, we're familiar with that kind of color-ism at least, you know, within the black community. I really caused Hall to interrogate his class position as a middle-class Caribbean immigrant. And I think it made him pay much more attention to what we might have defined at the time as kind of working-class black culture to really see what are the motivations for what's being created out of that space.
I think for Hall, it wasn't just bridging the gap between Jamaican and Britain. It wasn't simply about closing the gap between middle-class and lower-class or black and white. It really was about connecting to working-class Jamaican-Caribbean culture in a way and finding the language to describe it as important.
Again, when we go forward and think about this 30 years later when figures, like Wahneema Lubiano here in the United States or Michael Eric Dyson, as I mentioned before, when they start writing about hip-hop, you know, as being a space where big ideas, you know, working-class black youth culture critiquing the world - you know, this is all stuff that's coming out of the - for lack of a better way to describe it - the Stuart Hall playbook.
MARTIN: As a scholar yourself, do you remember your first encounter with his work? Or can you tell us some way in which he influenced your work? Yeah.
NEAL: Yeah. There was a wonderful collection that came out in 1991 called "Black Popular Culture" that was edited by Gina Dent. And Stuart Hall's piece - "What is this Black in Black Popular Culture?" opens the piece. And he has a little riff, you know, about three pages in where he talks about, for many mainstream critics, you know, style is just, you know, sugarcoating. But in terms of black culture, you know, style is everything, right.
Style is a space where politics is articulated, where culture is articulated. It's both style and content. And very much everything that I've done in my career going forth, at least writing about black popular culture, has been influenced by, you know, reading that piece from Stuart Hall more than 20 years ago.
MARTIN: So when we read academic treatises where they're explaining where somebody like Lady Gaga fits into the culture, or when we read about the ways in which people look at, say, something like a "Saturday Night Live" and ask what questions it's asking and talk about that, is that the kind of conversation that Stuart Hall opened up?
NEAL: Exactly. That's the import of British cultural studies onto the American, you know, on the one hand, the American academic landscape. But of course, this is now stuff that we see, you know, in highbrow magazines and even in, you know, daily newspapers in terms of folks trying to critique culture.
MARTIN: Why do you think he's not better known in the U.S.?
NEAL: I think, one, because he's - just to be quite honest, you know, we live in a fundamentally anti-intellectual society. He was a public intellectual more so on the British landscape. But he wasn't necessarily someone who wanted to be on television all the time. And so I think those were the things that kind of kept him away from more American audiences knowing of his work, you know, outside of the academy where, again, I think it was fascinating watching how many responses to his death on social media, Facebook and Twitter, just spoke incredibly to how extensive his influence was as a thinker.
MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. And he was kind enough to join us from his office in Durham, North Carolina. Professor Mark Anthony Neal, we thank you once again.
NEAL: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.