Conversations on Cultural Identity – Stuart Hall Project

Jamaican born Cultural Theorist, Stuart Hall, says identity is an ongoing conversation. We are sitting quietly in a dimmed space, peering into Hall's tired eyes as his words fall out of the screen and land in the room. I meet Hall for the first time by way of this documentary, so I try to enter his archived life with an open mind. The first thing I encounter is the concept of cultural identity as a bending, malleable thing. My immediate response to this is protest. The question of a cultural self, for me, has always been as fixed as the book stand that hangs in my living room. Born to parents of the same ethnic group, same state and town, I am — initially — unable to lay claim to Hall’s multilayered cultural identity.

In the film, we follow Hall to his Jamaican roots, the space where he was born and raised for eighteen years. And then we see his acquired Britishness, having moved to England and lived there most of his life. His ancestry, Hall also reveals, is peppered with Indian, Portuguese and Jewish blood. As though this mix of genes was not enough, Hall, to the dismay of his mother, carried dark skin pigmentation, a sharp contrast to other members of his bourgeoisie family. As a young adult, Hall stumbled through the internal conflict of being perceived as a singular thing, a color. To be so labeled within the margins of racial politics, I imagine, is to be seen in a fixed, flawed way. So Hall carried this anguish, first with great discomfort, then through scholarly probing, resisting and challenging imposed margins on human existence.

The documentary feels faraway until Emeka Okereke, our host, suggests we interpret Hall's concept of identity within the Nigerian context. It occurs to me then that there is an eye with which I did not view the film. A sense in which, feeling removed, I shut every door that could connect me to the narrative. I respond by playing catch up, letting my mind travel back to pieces of the narrative that resonate with me. One of such is the beautiful rendering, by Hall, on identity as something more than that unnameable internal sense of self, but rather, one that we get to choose.  

As an Igbo woman living in Lagos, I am familiar with the burden of social prescriptions.  To be Igbo in my father's house, for instance, where our conversations in English are spiced with traces of our local accent is different from being Igbo in a larger social and outside sense. There is that constant dangling between feelings of exclusion and inclusion. Because while a dented English accent may feel like home to family, it is a mark of foreignness when spoken elsewhere. In this sense, to be one thing is to immediately be excluded from other things. This kind of marking that is particular and permanent is what Hall spent his life trying to expand. His great legacy, as captured in the film,  stands on the right to forge our own cultural identity, to live in hybrid, where our existence is nuanced with our diverse and collected human experiences. His idea is audacious. But I stagger through it, wrestling in my head, the idea of touching any part of the world and claiming it as my own.

Born and raised in Lagos, I wonder how implicative it would be to follow Hall's suggestion. How much of this city can I really claim even after decades of living here?  And I wonder if my experience of the city can be explained to the colleague who jokingly addresses me by the slurs reserved for people of my tribe. Or if I have the patience to explain to others, that I do not feel affinity to a man notorious for organized crime merely because he comes from the state where my parents are native. And so, because I neither have the temperament or energy for these exchanges, I remain a quiet, grateful dweller, with many verbalized reminders of my unbelonging. 

In addressing Hall’s imperative to forge one’s cultural identity, one is left to wonder what happens if what is claimed does not claim one back; or if a cultural self is something that can be shed off, put away for ease of convenience. At the point the conversations after the screening begin, Innocent, a vibrant young man whose presence looms above every person in the room, pitches to share his experience. When he speaks, it is to tell the particularity of his own conflict. Born in Owerri, raised in Ijebu, speaking two languages, peddling two selves. He carries this duality of identity, one burdened with ancestry, the other with his lived experience.

Innocent says, in hurried sentences, that in the case of an eventual secession of the South East, he is not entirely sure he would defer to an Independent State of Biafra. It is a choice neither simple nor straightforward. And one that is further complicated by the burden of having to be only one thing. Another lady in the room, whose name escaped me, says in a measured comment, that one is pressed to choose, one may necessarily have to defer back to their roots.

The arguments slowly take its own form, a chaos of words and experiences and emotions; each new opinion somehow knotting the previous thought, layering it with distinct, urgent and necessary perspectives, so that there are many opinions and many validations but not entirely a proffered answer.  Yadichinma, an artist whose words come out like song, insists against an imposed labeling. Why do we feel the need to identify? She asks. The question lingers, with several urgent attempts to explain why a thing like identity is implicative of larger social and political expression.

Emeka Okereke, who has mostly played the patient listener, capturing the session on video, eventually enters the dialogue. He says that people are storied, and every specific thing is situated within a context, with its own history and its own network of influences. One cannot merely refuse to identify without assuming a kind of blindness. He cites Baldwin as a kind of reference on the role of  self identity in advancing the trajectory of a people.  It occurs to me, at this point, that the thrust of conversation  has transcended our distinct cultural backgrounds and layered histories. We are at the intersection of our artistic interests, a tribe of burgeoning creatives. And Okereke, speaking with his hands cutting through the air and his voice intonated with emphasis, explains that the imperative of an embraced cultural identity— for him — is for the opportunity to exercise a larger socio-political agency. 

By the end of the evening, the conversations, expectedly, are still inconclusive, merely tapered down and archived in our minds where the image of Hall still sits vividly. I leave without knowing if old things should be cast away, even things as deeply rooted as blood or skin or the people with which you share a history. But one thing I know is this. My existence as a named thing, within a socio cultural context, will always now be probed. The questions are a necessary assertion of a self that is evolving, a reminder perhaps, that we are never fully just one thing.

Image Credit: Emeka Okereke 

More from aKoma