Professor Stuart Hall and Class Advantage in a Jamaican Context


I gave up a reasonable life in Jamaica in the 1990s to come to Britain to study and support my family. In hindsight, I might have benefitted from an easier political landing had I had self-identified with the pretentious Jamaican middle class I had left behind.  Deep down inside of me while living in Jamaica- I ached for a British education, having read the woks of Caribbean luminaries such as Michael Manley, Louise Bennett-Coverley, Roger Mais, Andrew Salkey  and Walter Rodney who had studied in the UK and went on to become influential political and cultural  leaders in the Caribbean. Perhaps the reason why I have choked politically is as a result of my own over ambition and indecisiveness. None- the- less, as a Jamaican from a lower middle class background I have straddled the political landscape of both metropole and colony as a social activist and I continue to do so in an unrelenting manner. If the truth is to be told, I am torn between metropole and my island home mainly because of family reasons and my secular beliefs. However, if I was forced to make a definite choice between political loyalties I would undoubtedly choose Jamaica. Indeed, being black, poor and politically ambitious is a difficult task both in Jamaica and the UK – becoming an astronaut may be a far easier undertaking for ambitious West Indians with itchy political feet.

Conversely, other influential academics such as the late Professor Stuart Hall remained in the UK and became hugely influential in shaping political and cultural ideas in the UK at the highest level, despite instructional racism within the Public University System in the UK. This essay seeks to examine his life between Jamaica and the UK and to examine class and social opportunities for black people on both sides of the British colonial empire. Professor Stuart Hall’s life story –in this regard- presents a unique set of historical circumstances that is worthy of analysis.

This brief discourse will examine the legacy of Professor Stuart Hall’s contribution to British political life. It will draw upon Professors Hall’s experience in Jamaica and the UK as a site to explore sociological notions of the impact of colourisation, racialisation, creolisation and the ‘diasporisation‘ of the Jamaican culture. Professor Stuart Hall life as a “brown skin Jamaican” was imbued with its own privileges in the Jamaican class hierarchy inherited from slavery and reinforced by the legacy of colonialism. In his book Familiar Strangers, narrated to his best friend Bill Schwarts he laid bare his mother a “brown” middle class woman- bevy of disdain for other Jamaicans from a black working class background.  He acknowledged ashamedly that his middle class mother had retained some residual attachment to plantation life. The hope is that this article will contribute towards a contemporary understanding of the state of race relations in Jamaica.

Born into a Jamaican middle class family, Stuart Hall at 19 years of age arrived in Britain in 1951 as a recipient of a Rhodes scholarship where he studied at Oxford University up to a post graduate level. As a lone black student living on campus at Oxford University he had an experience of otherness which he shrugged off and resiliently participated in the universities political student activities. He remained in Britain and is one of the most cultural thinkers of our time. In 1963 he met Catherine Barret a white British historian at a Nuclear Disarmament march from Aldermaston to London. A year later they married and moved to Birmingham where he worked at the Birmingham University lecturing in cultural studies. Stuart’s academic commitments, his political activist involvement together with his family commitment prevented him from returning to live in Jamaica. As a result he immersed himself in British political life. Alongside Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, these men are regarded as founding figures of the school of thought that is now known as British Cultural Studies or The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. In the 1950s Hall was also a founder of the influential New Left Review, a bimonthly political academic British journal covering world politics, economy, and culture established in 1960. In 2003, the magazine ranked 12th by impact factor on a list of the top 20 political science journals in the world.

In 1979 he became professor of sociology at the Open University, engrossed by the prospect of appealing to those persons who had fallen through the conventional educational system. He remained there until 1998.  During this period he was promoted to emeritus professor and launched a series of courses in communications and sociology. Subsequently, he focused more upon questions of race and post colonialism. He was President of the British Sociological Association 1995–97. Additionally, he also spent time on theorising the migrant view of Britain that he had always cherished and is widely known in academic circles as a cultural theorist, political activist and Marxist sociologist.

In 2005 he was made a fellow of the British Academy. His published work includes the collaborative volumes Resistance Through Rituals (1975), Culture, Media, Language (1980), Politics and Ideology (1986), The Hard Road to Renewal (1988), New Times (1989), Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (1996) and Different: A Historical Context: Contemporary Photographers and Black Identity (2001).The quality and depth of the scholarship of his work is befitting to his intellect life and legacy. He was an international academic figure who played a significant cultural role in putting race into the mainstream media.

For the purpose of brevity this section will consider notions of class, colourisation, and racialisation in a Jamaican context as they are inextricable bound and bear out nuanced and opposing complexities traversing slavery to this current epoch. By Professor Stuart Hall’s account, the twentieth century Jamaica that he emerged from was structured around social divisions such as class race colour and gender. To be quite cynical not much has changed as we are nearing the first quarter of the 21st Century.

Broadly speaking, race, class-based stereotypes and myths are generally unhelpful as they pose a threat to social equality and a challenge the deconstruction movement that I actively support. Recent advances in in the study of genetics has collapse the myth of race while it will take a lot of effort to debunk class as it has a material capitalist component. In this section I attempt to decipher the definition of a brown man as a racially and masculine descriptive metaphor and as a biological maker in order to tease out the different experiences that Professor hall would have had by virtue of self-identifying as a brown middle class Jamaican. Had Professor Hall returned to Jamaica on completion of his Rhodes scholarship he might have been fast tracked up the political and educational system similar, as was Nigel Clarke the current Finance minister. Yet, for family and other unknown reasons he remained in the UK.

The distinction of class, race and coloration are inextricably connected and regarded by sociologists and cultural anthropologists as responsible for creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. Classism is often rooted in similar disputed racial identities drawn from colonial, enslaved, and post-emancipation experiences. In practical terms class and skin colour hierarchies can also generate many looser and a handful of beneficiaries. In fact, the American civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois theorized that the intersectional paradigms of race, class, and nation might explain certain aspects of the black political economy. Within the Jamaican class and colour context, Professor Stuart Hall is considered as a brown man; in his writings he has self-identified as a brown middle class Jamaican. In Britain for the purpose of contextual description, he is defined as a black Caribbean man. If he was born in Britain to a biracial family he would be considered as mixed race man that ascribes to him similar status to a black or black British person of Caribbean descent. The experience of ‘brownness’ in Jamaica is more nuanced. Within the context of wealth acquisition and privileged mind-set a black person with wealth in Jamaica is considered as a brown person if he or she espouses class prejudice or use his enormous wealth and educational advantage to exploit his black counterpart.

Western Sociologists, since the time of Carl Marx, C Wright Mills and Max Webber, have struggled to comprehend the nature of class identity and its essential properties. It is credible to assert that an individual’s place of birth, their biology, their cultural heritage and family determines their life opportunity from a Rawlsian and sociological point of view. Five hundred years of slavery and colonisation have had a huge impact on the social composition of Jamaicans, political history, their class consciousness, social and cultural composite in addition to their self- identification as a people. The present post-independence motto of Jamaica, “Out of many we are one people”, was intended to convey a sense of multicultural harmony. However, always lurking beneath those comforting narratives is the legacy of class prejudice and colour coded advantage and unequal existence. In reality the open secret is that Jamaica is a country within a country, where the many blacks are beholden to the brown few, both politically and economically. Things have improved, albeit, to a lesser extent than when Professor Hall left Jamaica in the 1950s for the UK. But the language, metaphors, coloration and geographical markers that reinforce class prejudice are difficult to deconstruct. So for example in our daily vocabulary Jamaicans still talk about up town and down town as a psychological and geographical maker that maintains a process of othering, division and demeaning of their personhood. In daily communication the metaphors that Jamaican often uses are masculine descriptive verbal representations that lack sensitivity and gender neutrality. There is also a reluctance to collapse the brown and black false colourisation scheme associated with class as it benefits the status quo brown man power arrangement.

The term diaspora or diasporisation is used to denote the scattering of the Jews to countries outside of Palestine after the Babylonian captivity. In this discussion I would like to supplant the term to mean any Jamaicans post- slavery that has been dispersed outside of their traditional homeland in search of education, economic opportunities. It includes those migrating to developing countries to seek economic opportunities. The assumption is that these migrants created communities in countries such as The USA, the UK and Canada which contributed to the spread of Jamaican culture, food and music. The historical evidence  seem to suggest that the diasporisation of the Jamaican society by immigration created a process of hybrid minorities retaining their unique Jamaicaness but also creating a cultural  hybridisation process based on their experiences and struggles as minorities in the diaspora. So the Wind Rush Generation who migrated to Britain in the 1950s had their struggles with racism and social exclusion. However, by integrating with other communities they created an edgy form of youth language which is popular lingua franca in London used today among young people of other cultural backgrounds.

The diasporisation of the Jamaican man has to be understood from the point of view of Professor Hall; following the first and Second World War a number of influential middle class Jamaicans migrated to Europe and North America and made an impact on both colony and metropole. These Jamaicans contributed to the post war reconstruction of Britain and toward the Harlem renaissance. Mary Seacole, Claude McKay, Harry Belafonte Roger Mais, Andrew Salkey Alexander Bustamante Norman Manley, Michael Manley and Louise Bennett Coverley come to mind readily. Among them were a few Rhode Scholars such as Dudley Thomson and Edward Seaga. These Jamaicans contributed to the rich tapestry of Jamaica’s, politically, culturally social and institutional development. Luminaries such as Marcus Garvey and Claud McKay contributed to the Harlem renaissance while others such as Professor Stuart Hall and many of the aforementioned, with the exception of Edward Seaga and Sir Alexander Bustamante, contributed to the emergent socialist international order. Not to be forgotten is the late Dr PH Lecky pioneer cattle breeder who studied at McGill University in Canada and the first Jamaican to get a PHD in agriculture at the University of Edinburgh. Doctor Lecky’s pioneering work impacted on the development of cattle in many tropical countries around the world. All these Jamaicans have one thing in common – they can be labelled as middle class for the purpose of identifying them as a category of people with a certain set of privileges ascribed to them. Conversely I will argue, they should be considered as a group of middle class people by stratification as there is no psychological consensus among them to be ascribed that label according to identity theorists. The only credible evidence of their validity is that they self-identify culturally as Jamaicans.

By Kingston-mouth’s contemporary account and on a lived experience, the Jamaican upper middle class is the social class composed of those who are rich, born into or acquire large property and wealth, sometimes well educated, powerful, or a combination of those. The Jamaican middle class wield the greatest political power. They maintain a superior version the English mother tongue. They have an advantage to political systems of power because of their wealth and have first choice on political office. The do not take public transportation and are educated at tertiary level outside of Jamaica. They do not use public healthcare in Jamaica, they use private health care and critical healthcare services outside of Jamaica. They exude a false entitlement and a denial of their own reality of equality as a basis of human dignity. They exude a bloated sense of their elevation in terms of ordinary Jamaicans. They jump the bank queues, resent being stopped by the police, bribe their way out of awkward situations and hate to pay their fair share of taxes.  Ultimately, they view working class Jamaicans as beneath them.

To conclude, institutional class discrimination in Jamaica is the underlying cause of crime, suspicion, and stifles opportunities and the lack of a progressive and cohesive social identity. Discrimination by class means treating a person or group unfairly because of a particular characteristic, such as gender, disability, age, where they live, ethnic origin, skin colour, nationality, sexuality or economic background. This results in negative consequences for the person or group, reducing their opportunities, excluding them from communities and restricting their ability to contribute to society and accrue the benefits and dignity of citizenship on an even keel. Discrimination at the base level in Jamaica is accepting putting prejudices into practice without challenging it. Kingston-mouth has opened the discussion with a view of sparking a meaningful and extended debate that might shift entrenched attitudes towards class. We ask you to contribute your views.

This article was written by Donovan Reynolds CEO and edited by Ann Smith Managing editor of Donovan Reynolds is an Independent blogger and Human Right’s Activist of Jamaican descent and a legal Academic who has an interest in Human Rights, Culture and International Development issues. Readers of this article are welcome to provide feedback at the space provided at the end of this article at useful commentary made on our Facebook and Kingsonmouth@twitter pages.

Donovan Reynolds is an Independent Blogger and Human Rights Activists who is of a Jamaican descent and a legal academic that has an interest in Human Rights, Culture and International Development Issues.
Donovan Reynolds CEO and edited by Ann Smith Managing Editor of Kingston-Mouth .com.
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Donovan Reynolds is an Independent Blogger and Human Rights Activists who is of a Jamaican descent and a legal academic that has an interest in Human Rights, Culture and International Development Issues. Donovan Reynolds CEO and edited by Ann Smith Managing Editor of Kingston-Mouth .com.

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