When I began my grad studies program in 1993 at Madison, I was asked to do a second M.A. before I could embark on a PhD. My first M.A. had been 12 years prior, and in English. I knew very little about sociological perspectives, the Birmingham School, or that thing called hegemonic formation. I did however know one thing in particular: I had a keen interest in the way Black people were depicted on British television. Many of my colleagues and students found it curious that I, an African American, would express an interest in researching the BBC. However, after visiting in the early 90s and viewing television there, I found it curious that so many programs were actually of American origin, and so many people on “telly” were not of color, despite the BBC’s public service doctrine. After my acceptance to the program under John Fiske, I traveled to England for the second of well over twenty visits, and spent time with Black Britons who were journalists and actors. As part of my empirical intent, and ethnographic study, I hoped to interact with them, and others, working in some aspect of British media. After a series of lengthy conversations, I began to wonder if these new associates perceived television and its texts in a similar fashion. Within days, I spoke with several actors, journalists and academics, and I was not surprised when these diverse individuals shared almost identical concerns.
It was only a few years later when I met the BBC’s Jan Oliver. Oliver, who then served as “special assistant in charge of multicultural affairs,” allowed me an interview. Her concerns with limited representations of Blacks on television in the UK corresponded with those expressed by others I had met, as well. Having worked for the television service for a number of years, Oliver provided a great degree of opportunity and insight. However, I was incredibly overjoyed and smitten when she volunteered to put me in touch with Professor Stuart Hall. We spoke via long distance one blustery October, of 1999. In the course of our interview, he discussed his appreciation for the steady integration of “a Black presence” within contemporary English culture. One particularly important part of our discussion revolved around a British television program we had both seen and its treatment of multiculturalism as a fact of British life.
The series — Prime Suspect 2 written by Allan Cubitt (the famed producer and writer Lynda LaPlante had written others) — continued to examine the challenges of then Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren), a serious minded homicide detective who commands a Black officer named Oswalde (Colin Salmon). As the story begins we notice that Tennison is interviewing a brooding Black male suspect who is allegedly a rapist. Within moments of a somewhat harsh interview, the viewer realizes that the man is a detective as well, acting the part for a police-training course. Within a few scenes, the same character is intimately connected to Tennison as they lay in bed discussing their relationship. Ultimately the relationship fails, but only after he and Tennison are exposed in a London tabloid.
However, despite the problematic framing of this interracial relationship, the presence of this Black detective is important to Hall’s notions of a multi-cultural England. He noted that “if you’re watching an interesting film about the London or Manchester police force, you’re likely to see detectives who’re black as well as white. The focus is not on race. Race is a lived part of an increasingly multi-cultural society.” Hall also expressed a great degree of pleasure in watching the BBC mini-series from 1997, Holding On, a character study of the intertwining lives of Black, white and Asian Londoners. He compared the relationship of two characters from the series with Tennison and Oswalde from Prime Suspect: a black security guard Lloyd (Treva Etienne) and a white public relations professional Hilary (Leslie Manville). He noted how “London has been completely transformed in the last fifteen or twenty years and become a multicultural city,” with two issues unfolding simultaneously: the attempt to “carve out a distinctive space in which blacks can explore, in a variety of genres, and in as complex and as culturally diverse a way as possible,” and a “reflection of their presence in a multi-cultural society, across the broad span of British television coverage, as a whole.” Professor Hall and I spoke for hours more, as he gave me access to his life in Jamaica and England, opinions on British television, and on constructs of race and class. He also loved and respected my doctoral advisor and friend, John Fiske. Subsequently, Professor Hall gladly provided even more perspectives, perspectives that are still quite topical, as is his groundbreaking work. Though we never met personally, in that three hour transatlantic conversation, I came to understand why he is so loved.
Years before I spoke with Professor Hall, there was an occasion in which I attended a birthday party for an employee of the BBC. This Black British woman and her husband had given a gathering complete with refreshments, food, and music that ranged from American Rhythm and Blues to Caribbean Calypso, and Jamaican Ska. There came the opportunity for me to partake in a friendly, though somewhat heated, discussion about race and culture. The hostess, her husband, and several other Black Britons at the party had begun a discussion that posed this question: do they, as Black folks feel a sense of allegiance to “Mother England,” or to their Afro Caribbean heritages? I, as an academic researcher, couldn’t help but play devil’s advocate.
Some spoke of aligning themselves with the belief that they were Afro Caribbean first and foremost. Her belief was that she and others like her could always “go home” should this “host society of Britain” become too formidable to bear. Race, as a social construction, was not nearly as important as their rich intrinsic culture. However, a Black program producer argued (as did others) that they were Black Britons first. She posed the argument that they were second-generation British citizens because of the pain and hardship their West Indian immigrant parents had endured. Others agreed, saying that their “home was London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool…in short, England.” My questions to each group had led to their pronouncements of pride and place.
During the middle of this discussion, each of us sipping a varied number of cocktails couldn’t help but gyrate rhythmically to the music that filled the house. The intelligence that was so carefully gleaned from many of these new found friends had found a place in my heart. The music and warm camaraderie had found places in each of our bodies. We soon after retired to the dining room where we began to dance, still lightly debating the issues from the patio. However, despite our differences, we were still seemingly one group of people, each dancing to the same rhythm, but with slightly different movement and steps. Whiteness, imagined communities, and the cultural production attempted by the authorship function of television will never have definitive power over Black British images due, in part, to the multiple communicative abilities of our diasporic conditioning. I told Professor Hall of the gathering and the ensuring debate. “I wish I had been there,” he noted.
As I write this, I find myself getting a bit misty over a man I’ve never met in person, yet respected more than these few words can express. Wherever you are Stuart Hall, I wish you had been there, too.