Stuart Hall: Selected Writings on Marxism, an online roundtable

To mark the publication of Stuart Hall, Selected Writings on Marxism, edited by Gregor McLennan, the Stuart Hall Foundation partnered with publishers Duke University Press to host an online roundtable taking place on Wednesday 30th June. A panel of esteemed authors each presented their response to the book, followed by further exchange and discussion reflecting on Stuart Hall’s political and intellectual relationship to Marxism:

  • Gregor McLennan, Professor of Sociology, University of Bristol
  • Angela McRobbie Professor of Cultural Studies, Coventry University and Emeritus Professor, Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Bruce Robbins, Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities, Columbia University, New York
  • Brett St Louis, Senior Lecturer in sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Chair: Catherine Hall, Emerita Professor of History and Chair of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, University College London.

On Wednesday 7th July, the Stuart Hall Foundation an online roundtable as part of their #ReconstructionWork series to think through the possibilities of decolonising the museum. The event included short presentations from the panel of guest speakers followed by a chaired discussion:

• Mohammed Ali, Artist/Curator, Founder of Soul City Arts and Trustee of Birmingham Museums

• Sado Jirde, Director, Black South West Network

• Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Writer and Poet

• Ahdaf Soueif, Writer

• Intro: Bridget Byrne, Director, the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE)

• Chair: Orsod Malik, Digital Content Curator, Stuart Hall Foundation

What can the concept of decolonisation look like in practice and in relation to the museum? We welcomed Ahdaf Soueif, Mohammed Ali and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan to share their experiences working within and without the museum to examine whether or not the museum can be a space for realising disruptive and radical possibilities. The panel explored what and who the museum is for, the relationship between the museum and the construction of racial hierarchies as well as the museum’s entanglements with the history and legacies of colonisation.

In partnership with the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) with support from Arts Council England.

Stuart Hall, the British-Jamaican cultural theorist, would have been open to and pragmatic about the ideas of the younger generations of anti-racists now in the making.

There are some scholars and intellectuals whose indispensable work one returns to over and over again. For me, as for so many others, it is the late Cultural Studies’ founding father, professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014). For though much of Hall’s rich oeuvre came in response to  concerns in the context of Black and anti-racist struggles in his adopted homeland of the UK in a period spanning from the 1950s until his death in 2014, it still feels remarkably prescient and relevant to the present conjuncture.

Read the full article on Africa is A Country.  

In many ways, the pandemic has deeply unsettled the routines and rhythms of social life. That which seemed immovable or unquestionable suddenly appears much less perennial. The disruptions of the pandemic have been particularly apparent in education. In the UK, schools were closed or moved online and, almost unthinkably, examinations were cancelled or replaced by algorithms and then teacher predicted grades. As the UK begins to emerge from the pandemic, in education, as elsewhere, the conditions in which we find ourselves are ripe for exploring how things might be different; how things might be better.

Whilst some things may look less immutable, if we look beneath the surface, some things remain depressingly intransigent – this is evident in the global distribution of vaccines, as well as racial patterns in exposure to the virus and in responses to the pandemic (policing, for example). In education, specifically, the negative impacts of Covid-19 have been particularly detrimental for working class students, and students of colour. This was evident in the furore over how examination alternatives will (re)produce inequalities, and the way that the uneven distribution of resources (between schools and between families) have shaped capacities for home learning, exacerbating a ‘learning gap’ or, more accurately, a provision gap.

As we imagine brighter futures, propelled as we are by a sense that things will never be the same again, our task necessitates a focus on systemic transformation with the most marginalised in mind. This is not a question of simply rearranging the furniture but one of dismantling and rebuilding the whole structure.

Amidst the devastating impact of the pandemic, the grassroots education movement ‘No More Exclusions’ (NME) has insisted that we need a moratorium on school exclusions, an urgent call that has since garnered the support of the National Education Union, amongst others. They highlight the extensive use of exclusions through the pandemic, often in a deeply worrying attempt to ‘manage the additional pressures, turbulence and trauma of the pandemic and its impact on children and young people’.

NME’s call is important for at least three reasons. Firstly, it highlights, and pushes back against, the reliance on punitive and disciplinary responses to crises. Such punitive authoritarianism has been evident not only in schools but at the level of government which – consistent with the direction of travel in recent years – has put policing and ‘law and order’ at the heart of its response.

Secondly, and relatedly, the call is based upon a recognition that in schools, as in wider society, the effects of such approaches have been deeply racialised and classed. That is, a reliance on school exclusions, like a reliance on the police, disproportionately impacts upon working class and racially minoritised communities.

Thirdly, and crucially, NME’s call is important because it brings us to the question of imagined futures. It offers a glimpse of a brighter future, an indication of how we might transform society for the better. Though the call initially focuses on the pandemic period, particularly highlighting the need for care at a time of such monumental upheaval, it has the potential to serve as a catalyst for the permanent abolition of school exclusions: radical long-lasting change beyond the pandemic.

Amongst an abiding sense that things will never be the same again, the conditions seem ripe for social change. Imploring us to keep those at the sharp end in mind, NME’s moratorium shows how communities engaged in resistance can push to ensure that such change transforms, rather than reinforces, the status quo.

Imagining schooling without exclusions points to a more caring and nurturing education system. In this regard, the moratorium call ties in with the work of other campaigns to offer a fuller vision of a transformed education system. For instance, the work of the Halo Collective, a group of young Black organisers ‘fighting for the protection and celebration of Black hair and hairstyles’, points to a future in which school policies no longer discriminate against Black students and other students of colour, and the No Police in Schools campaign imagines a future in which schools are supportive environments free from the presence of police officers. Relatedly, the work of young activists at Body Count encourages us to imagine educational futures that looks to transformative, rather than punitive, approaches to justice.

As the Black Studies scholar George Lipsitz observes, ‘domination produces resistance, and resistance plants the seeds of a new society in the shell of the old’. With this in mind, those of us committed to social justice would do well to take these oppositional movements as a springboard for our imaginations.


Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Presidential Fellow in Ethnicity and Inequalities at the University of Manchester. He writes on race, ethnicity, racism and anti-racism, particularly in the context of education and policing. He is co-author of the forthcoming ‘Anti-Racist Scholar-Activism’, author of ‘Black Mixed-Race Men’, and co-editor of ‘The Fire Now’. He has also authored and co-authored several reports recently on race and racism in education. He is a member of the Northern Police Monitoring Project, and the No Police in Schools campaign.

This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.

The abolitionist call to ‘defund the police’ was dismissed tout court as ‘nonsense’ by Labour leader Keir Starmer last summer, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and at the height of Black Lives Matter protests in the UK. Starmer added that he would have ‘no truck with that’, as his support for the police was ‘very, very strong’. More recently, home secretary Priti Patel declared herself in full agreement with a colleague who justified the police’s violent response to the Sarah Everard vigil on the grounds that it had been hijacked by ‘those who seek to defund the police and destabilise our society’.

At the heart of this knee-jerk rejection of the calls to ‘defund and divest’ is a distorted vision of abolitionism as a crude attack on the police that undermines a vital public service for the maintenance of the ‘natural’ order. However, if policing does not deliver safety and destabilises community life instead, shouldn’t we be able to advocate for alternatives?  Increased funding for policing (new weaponry, the expansion of the immigration and counter-extremism units, the embedding of quasi paramilitary squads in multicultural working-class neighbourhoods) has coincided with neoliberal economic policies that privatise state assets and shrink the welfare state. Abolitionists’ daring response to the social crises that this has engendered is to suggest that we divest from ‘law and order’ and redirect resources upstream so as to address mental ill-health, fund youth clubs, build affordable homes, and counter the harms done by racism and sexism at their roots. That’s not ‘nonsense’, or ‘anti-police’, it’s a simple demand for a more rational and more humane use of resources.

Today, abolitionists are under attack from those who believe that the violence of policing is necessary to maintain the existing order. Imagining a world where state violence is no longer an acceptable way of resolving social problems necessitates an active engagement with history.

The tumultuous period we are living through is redolent of earlier periods when ordinary people rejected the existing order, whether it was the divine right of kings or tyrannical forms of governance.  Rejecting the idea that history was made by the great and the good, or educated, professional modernisers, they set out to make history themselves, and abolitionist demands – far from being new – were at the centre of such calls for justice.

Today’s abolitionist arguments, associated with Critical Resistance and the  Movement for Black Lives (MBL) in the US reverberate across continents and time, echoing the English Diggers of the seventeenth century (abolition of the aristocracy and property in land),  Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Ellen Craft,  Robert Wedderburn  and Harriet Tubman (abolition of slavery), the Communist organisers Rosa Luxemburg and Claudia Jones  (opposition to militarism/abolition of   imperialist wars), the Brazilian indigenous environmentalist and trades unionist  Chico Mendes (abolition of the savage extraction of resources from the Amazon). And there are pre-democracy resonances too. For even before the existence of the modern state, subjugated people, rebelling against exploitation, illegitimate authority, cruel punishment and oppressive laws, spoke from their unique abolitionist frameworks. such as the 1381 Peasants Revolt against the poll tax. Taking advantage of periods when ‘the old world… is running up like parchment in the fire’, the leaders of rebellions, their visions of a fairer world immortalised in abolitionist tracts, voiced scepticism about institutions, beliefs and systems of punishment. Each and every one of these abolitionist thinkers were ridiculed and condemned in their times. Their persecutors were those who believed that the seemingly ‘natural’ order was sacred and immutable.

Looking back gives us the historical tradition in which to contextualise abolitionist demands but they do not explain the current moment. We need to acknowledge that the modern state and modern policing are very different to those of the past. It is the state that provides the authority and scaffolding from which all other violence flows – its power, to paraphrase Bertold Brecht, is the ‘storm’ that ‘bends the backs of the roadworkers’ – we need to understand how the state operates in the neoliberal context.

In a neoliberal market state – where government serves the interests of the market – state power is far less constrained than it was in the twentieth century. After the Chartists, and following the rise of the trade union movement, the industrial working class had bargaining power and clout. Today, the power of trades unions has been dissipated and working-class communities have been decimated by decades of neglect and austerity.  Much of ‘law and order’, including the running of prisons, is provided by private security companies. Today’s private/public police corps keeps a lid on the crisis, while serving the interests of both state and market.

As shown by death after death in police custody (Sean Rigg, Leon Briggs, Kevin Clarke, George Nkencho, to name a few), the escalation of police force is lethal. If the police cannot be trusted to take someone experiencing a mental health crisis to a place of safety then we need to create a community corps trained in de-escalation techniques and motivated by a creed of care. This is what is meant by an abolitionist step based on a pragmatic demand to de-escalate violence.

This is the time when a dynamic counter culture to an unbridled capitalism can take root. But counter cultures can fail when they (however inadvertently) replicate the violence of existing power relations. Many of the social movements that we were involved with in the 1980s and 1990s failed to remove harmful power relations from their structures, replicating the state’s racism and patriarchy, for instance. State power today has become more opaque – and herein lies a new challenge for contemporary abolitionism.

Repeated panics about law and order, as Stuart Hall famously said, serve an ideological function related to social control, creating public support for ‘policing the crisis’. Under neoliberalism this involves mass criminalisation and an expanded prison state. It is not ‘nonsense’ to suggest we take money away from the police and redirect it upstream. What abolitionism offers is a road map to the future, which begins with addressing the social crisis and misery in front of us. If this is utopia, it is within reach.

“Progress is the realisation of Utopias” – Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891)


Liz Fekete is Director  of the Institute of Race Relations and  author of A suitable enemy: racism, migration and Islamophobia in Europe (Pluto press, 2009) and Europe’s Fault Lines: racism and the rise of the Right (Verso, 2018)  which won the Bread & Roses award for radical publishing 2019. Active in anti-racist movements since the 1980s , she was  an expert witness at the Basso Permanent People’s Tribunal on asylum and the World Tribunal on Iraq.

This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.

“The guerrilla studies! The guerrilla studies!” — exclaims Huey P Newton to an amorphous assembly of believers. The camera is zoomed a little too close to his face, abstracting him, abstracting expression. Huey is grieving, as one does when one is black and alive and a revolutionary. Grief is a revolutionary fervour, except when it isn’t.

I’m watching a documentary, piecing things together, studying I guess, that’s how you learn about the map, you listen to stories told by decipherers, you decipher, you study, you play.

A believer himself — you have to see it to believe it — Huey is stark, animated, severe, his body willing other bodies, to believe-see-become, to know for themselves the flailing common sense of deprival, to gather each other together, to gather in order to grieve-rename-articulate. To gather in order to trust.

Huey is grieving and/or I am grieving the dreams I did not or could not or would not author, but clung to nonetheless. Perhaps they are never dreams, instead, illusions. We are asleep for and/or to our dreams, awaking to persistent allusions of longevity and/or protection, illusions of a safety somehow unmade, uninsured insurance, ensured endurance.

Sleep! Where dreams come to live and die and be born, in the juice-dark renewal of rest. This is what happens in the dark, between dust and books and soil, left vulnerable to misinterpretation — is this, too, a tactic? — to the labour play of prayerful solutions, aghast, empty, disbelieving believers, containers of the lost colony, found over and again in jest, unjust, extrapolated and fed to children, to pigs rolled around and worn, as masks are and are not.

“The guerrilla studies!” — it’s been a riff slow roasting in the oven of my mind. I have painted it black and called it something holy, wrapped it up and swallowed it, hole. I have looked in the mirror and seen no answers, then I looked in other mirrors and saw some thing, discovered someone else that already discovered this; that other someone long ago and soon, who left some thing for the undead guerrillas.

In the annals of our freedom finding, we find our way, our treason trail. Feverishly, mouthful by unwholesome mouthful, we gather recipes, a cataclysm and another, again, we are reminded of the violence of this process, again, this blood-filled wreckage, its choppiness. We acquaint ourselves with the ingredients of our undoing, yes, we must be undone by our finding, our study — study will undo you — the this/them/that will graduate and be gone from our makeshift nests.

Won’t it? Will it? I? We? Us? All? Our pieces? What? Will be? Will be? — “The guerrilla studies!” — the warfare, the welfare, of the people — yours — people, which is to say community, except that it isn’t that simple, you can’t go around saying things like that, you won’t be believed, you won’t be able to believe it, and there must be something drifting beyond the sanctity of black and alive and revolutionary, something else in motion, tangible, in front of you. An imagined community, un-starved of touch, contactless, held because of it, within it, despite it — in order to spite it, this notion of a nation. We feel for each other in the night light.

To be sure, we must untether from this ghostly wifi, the unseverable connection of illusory cords, turns out your mother is a liar, if she ever was a mother, with all that interference. Abolition is — well, you will have to study it to be sure, — entailing admonition, admittance — in the future we will call abolition history, we will call it presence.

The guerrilla knows that the history of abolition is all around them, adding salt to taste, dividing portions, plating up, washing cutlery with an alkaline preparation. We grieving abolitionist guerrillas, having fessed up to our guilt, our deviant flagellant shame, having consented to each others flesh and mortified it, having been wrong wrong and wrong-er, without the rest of our maps — at a certain point your study will become you — we will eradicate this oppressive vocabulary of pretence, this warlike ledger, water-logged, waterlooed, blue as in hue, as in 14 and 92, hear we, re-membering our recipes, studying how to feed ourselves…


Imani Robinson is an artist and interdisciplinary writer whose practice combines performance, oration, poetry and critical theory, exploring themes of black geographies, the afterlives of transatlantic slavery, abolition and radical resistance. They are one half of Languid Hands, an artistic and curatorial collaboration with Rabz Lansiquot.

This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.

Words of Colour Productions and the Evidence for Equality National Survey (EVENS) present Poetic Licence – a digital series featuring black poets and artists speaking on identity and the impact of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder during a time of crisis.

With thanks to writer, poet, and mental health activist Derek Owusu.

Poetic Licence was curated by Words of Colour Productions in collaboration with the Evidence for Equality National Survey, the first and largest survey of its kind in the UK to document the impact of the pandemic and the lockdowns on black, ethnic and religious minority communities. Your experience of Covid-19 matters. Fill in the survey: or find out more on the website

Words of Colour Productions and the Evidence for Equality National Survey (EVENS) present Poetic Licence – a digital series featuring black poets and artists speaking on identity and the impact of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder during a time of crisis.

With thanks to poet, essayist and former Young People’s Laureate of London, Momtaza Mehri.

Poetic Licence was curated by Words of Colour Productions in collaboration with the Evidence for Equality National Survey, the first and largest survey of its kind in the UK to document the impact of the pandemic and the lockdowns on black, ethnic and religious minority communities. Your experience of Covid-19 matters. Fill in the survey: or find out more on the website

Words of Colour Productions and the Evidence for Equality National Survey (EVENS) present Poetic Licence – a digital series featuring black poets and artists speaking on identity and the impact of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder during a time of crisis.

With thanks to poet, playwright and creative entrepreneur Nick Makoha.

Poetic Licence was curated by Words of Colour Productions in collaboration with the Evidence for Equality National Survey, the first and largest survey of its kind in the UK to document the impact of the pandemic and the lockdowns on black, ethnic and religious minority communities. Your experience of Covid-19 matters. Fill in the survey: or find out more on the website

Words of Colour Productions and the Evidence for Equality National Survey (EVENS) present Poetic Licence – a digital series featuring black poets and artists speaking on identity and the impact of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder during a time of crisis.

With thanks to poet, playwright, producer and educator Tolu Agbelusi.

Poetic Licence was curated by Words of Colour Productions in collaboration with the Evidence for Equality National Survey, the first and largest survey of its kind in the UK to document the impact of the pandemic and the lockdowns on black, ethnic and religious minority communities.

Your experience of Covid-19 matters. Fill in the survey: or find out more on the website

Sky News set out to discover whether conversations around race and inequality after George Floyd’s death had made any impact on the lives of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds.

But it’s impossible to measure this with existing sources of data.

For example, the poet Louisa Adjoa Parker is one of only 1,000 Black people living in rural Somerset and experiences like hers are often overlooked by studies.

That’s why we’re following closely the Evidence for National Equality Survey which hopes to fill the data gaps to help politicians make better decisions.

The biggest project of its kind aims to fill the gaps in statistics on ethnicity such as small and unrepresentative samples – Read more

On Thursday 17th September 2020, the Stuart Hall Foundation welcomed world-famous author and activist Angela Davis for ‘An Audience with Angela Davis’, an online event hosted in partnership with Southbank Centre.

This video is an extract from the event, sharing Angela Davis’ keynote speech reflecting on what led us to this historic chapter in our history and what might come next.

Davis was also in conversation with lecturer and author Dr Brett St Louis about the political scene in the US heading into the upcoming election and the ongoing struggle for economic, racial and gender justice. Davis and St Louis then responded to questions submitted by the general public in advance of the event. We hope to make a transcript of this conversation available to the public soon.

‘An Audience with Angela Davis’ marked a highlight in the Stuart Hall Foundation’s #reconstructionwork online conversations, launched in June 2020 and bringing together writers, artists and activists, for a series of intergenerational conversations considering how we can build a better society and culture, connecting education, culture and politics, as Stuart Hall did. The event was also the inaugural event for Southbank Centre’s new Inside Out series as part of their Autumn season of events.

On Tuesday 11th May, the Stuart Hall Foundation and the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) hosted #ReconstructionWork: Racial Disparities in Mental Healthcare – a conversation between James Nazroo, Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, and award-winning director and choreographer, Lanre Malaolu, to explore the racial inequalities and injustices that surround mental health in the UK. The event included an introduction from Child Psychotherapist, Psychoanalyst and Trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation, Becky Hall:

It is with great pleasure that I welcome you all here this evening for the 5th in our online series of #reconstruction events – this one in partnership with CoDE – the Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity. These are public conversations with an intergenerational and interdisciplinary flavour which have to date included writers, historians, journalists, students, politicians and activists. The Foundation is a small but confident charity with big hopes – and a zesty website. Inspired by the life and work of Stuart Hall it remains committed to matters close to his heart: public education, power and inequality, race and identity, representation and visual culture. Stuart was also committed to complexity – not only the asking of difficult questions (for which he is often quoted), but the need to wrestle with the difficult answers that present themselves. Our #reconstruction series is offered in that spirit, hoping to generate further enquiry and help us in the task of imagining a more just and equal society for all.

This last year has seen a rapid rise in the recognition that the life of the mind matters: mental health is suddenly everywhere! Few would now dispute our primary need for human contact and the devastating impact of loneliness, deprivation and loss. There has been much to make all of us feel mad with rage, fear and helplessness, not least being locked in with the daily diet of news confirming that greed is wrecking the planet, injustice is rife and the effects of being locked out by poverty, being a woman or having brown skin: potentially catastrophic. NHS services have seen a troubling rise in depression, self-harm, and the relentlessly controlling habits of eating disorders amongst children: a response perhaps in part to a grown-up world that feels increasingly careless and dangerously out of control.

You would search in vain for a Hall paper on something called Mental Health, and yet Stuart’s preoccupation with the ‘conjuncture’ – what we might call the conditions in which we become a person – and his concern with questions of belonging, experience, identity and identification are lines of enquiry that are central to the matter of psychological integrity, which depends so much on the fundamental need in us all to have a proper home in somebody’s mind. His preoccupation with his sister’s breakdown during adolescence and his reflections on Fanon distil something of the psychic cost of imperial history and invite complex questions about how the world outside gets under our skin and how our inside life – the life of our mind – meets and is met by our most immediate and wider environments. We know that domestic violence between parents gets into the blood and bones of young children (by which I mean their very core, not their DNA) through their ears and eyes and the pores of their skin. We know that parental states of mind – prolonged depression, undigested trauma – work into the layered fabric of a child’s mind. There is now increasing clamour for indexes of inequality to be a serious part of the enquiry into psychological vulnerability and how to treat it.

For some time now there has been compelling evidence that Black British men are among those most likely to suffer the most severe mental illnesses. This troubling fact suggests a complex conspiracy between external structural inequalities such as poverty and other key factors of vulnerability: early childhood experience, disrupted patterns of relationships, parental mental health and intergenerational trauma. There comes a point when a mind has too much to bear. The lack of proper care and timely support for this vulnerable group is another disturbing fact and speaks to the wider dismantling of early intervention, the over-medicalisation of mental health models and a historical disregard for the kind of mental pain, grievance and distress that the repeated injuries of racism can foster. Such arguments expose a national deficit of attention to the accumulative psychological harm that feeling pushed out (of an equal chance at life) can do. They insist that to disregard the invasive experience of being projected into, distorted and bloated by all the most hated and feared bits of the human condition, is a national dereliction of care.

In the course of my life as an NHS employed Child Psychotherapist, a number of experiences could be brought together in the composite sketch of a primary school age Black British boy, referred for or already burdened with the ubiquitous diagnoses of ADHD and ODD (saying no). A boy already excluded from one or more primary school, diagnosed by a range of caring, thoughtful professionals as aggressive, lacking empathy, mindless; a cause of despair for his already struggling family. Usually a closed off, lonely, homeless feeling sort of boy, who has stuffed his vulnerability deep into the pockets of his already too low-slung trousers and mastered a swagger to show in every possible way what a ‘bad boy’ he already believes himself to be.

Such a child is already on the edge of life, making a home from the homeless state in his mind: a state with roots in his family, their history, the eyes of his teachers and the wider world. This is a state of emergency for an 8 year old boy. Such deep and disturbed states of mind, will not simply be solved by a diagnosis or medication, a mentor or diversity training, more money, a revised curriculum, cold water swimming or six sessions of online counselling – useful as all of these things might be. If we are really to talk about what has gone wrong, we have to want to know about the whole, complex picture, which includes, but is not determined by being a little brown-skinned boy growing up in postcolonial Britain. We also have to be prepared to wrestle with the difficult answers that might present themselves.

I am very pleased to introduce our two discussants this evening James Nazroo and Lanre Malaolu to begin a conversation about inequalities and injustice in mental health.

James Nazroo initially trained in medical sociology at St George’s Hospital Medical School and is now, amongst other things, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester and founding and Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE). He has an extensive history of research on issues of inequality and social justice in relation to ethnicity, age and gender and how these relate to health. He is currently investigating ethnic inequalities in severe mental illness.

Lanre Maloulu is an exciting director, choreographer and writer for film and theatre who uses collaborations of text, movement psychology and dance to mesmerising and unforgettable effect. His award-winning film The Circle, is one of a number of projects addressing the complexities of being a black man in 21st century Britain. Some of you may have been lucky enough to see his stunning live performance of Elephant in the Room and otherwise I hope you have been able to access the link.

As usual, our format for the evening is that Lanre and James will be in conversation for 35 minutes or so, followed by a Q and A which we hope you will join via the Q and A button.

Final words:

It just remains for me to give deep thanks to James and Lanre for their time and contributions this evening. They leave us with much to think about and I hope will encourage further conversations amongst you all.

Among our many institutional partnerships at the Foundation, we have developed a model with the Tavistock Clinic to address the under-representation of Child Psychotherapists in the NHS from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. Owing to the success of this model we have recently joined the Tavistock and Health Education England to support four further students this year. We can only continue to do this work of this kind with your generous support. Times are hard we know, but any small amounts you can spare will be well used.

– Becky Hall, Child Psychotherapist, Psychoanalyst and Trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation

An open letter to Achille Mbembe

Dear Achille,

I was recently invited to write about the “future” and was reminded of the workshop you organised twelve years ago in Johannesburg around the same theme. The most striking memory of the “future” I retain from my visit is not an argument or a paper, but rather the strong sensation of being in the future of a collapsed apartheid system, playing in my mind a fast-forward movement toward the future following the still-expected fall of the Israeli regime of occupation. I didn’t anticipate then that shortly after that visit, instead of fast forwarding, I’d experiment with an expansive form of rewinding that would actually bring me back to Africa. This time, I would go to its northern tip, and not as a guest, but as a native, a prodigal child.

You could not help thinking, you wrote to me after you read my open letter to Sylvia Wynter about the disappearance of Jews from Africa, that it was addressed to you too. You were not wrong. I have taken a break from writing the kinds of texts that are addressed to everyone and to no one in particular at the same time, and now I’m writing only letters, addressed to people whose language rebels against the spatial and temporal condition of empire. Reading your essays on Africa, I felt addressed by their speculative descriptions of a borderless world, and your notion of “redistributions of the earth.” Instead of fast forwarding toward a utopian project for the future, I’m interested in rewinding imperial history and thinking within the incompleteness of the past. Lately, I have been writing letters to my ancestors buried in North Africa, in the hope of awakening them from the slumbered colonial consciousness in which they were trapped, while they saw their descendants being hijacked by and into dissociated and manufactured histories and memories of other nation states. Disrupting imperial onto-epistemologies cannot be achieved without recalling our ancestors and stirring up their refusal of empire’s new realities and geographies.

I was born to an Algerian Jewish father but was not allowed to recognise myself as an Algerian Jew. With me, and others in my generation, thousands of years of Jewish life in North Africa were disrupted. I was born to a Palestinian Jewish mother. I was not allowed to recognise myself as a Palestinian Jew. I reclaim these two identities that were made unimaginable. To be what my parents were, became with the creation of the state of Israel and France’s obstinate refusal to decolonize Algeria following WWII, an onto-epistemological aberration that I nonetheless insist on embodying. I was born in 1962, in the year when the idiom “no longer” could be used to describe Arab Jewish life in the Maghreb, as if it were a bygone past. This “no longer” is imperialism’s signature, which aims to make Africa forget its prodigal children, but Africa listens to the sighs of their ancestors, who are ready to be awakened and recalled, and to attest to their own chagrin, after being left alone with no one allowed to come to hear what they still have to say.

In 1962, when I was born, Algeria, my ancestors’ home for thousands of years, was liberated from 132 years of colonialism. For many years, as I taught The Battle of Algiers, it was like teaching others’ anti-colonial struggles. Enraged, I was slowly awakening out of my own imperial slumber, and I came to understand that this film is about our people, Algerians, a people France told us we were “no longer” part of, as Israel then reaffirmed. During the battle of Algiers, the idea that Arab Jews would soon live there no longer was inconceivable. That it took decades of unlearning imperialism, and almost a decade of writing Potential History, for me to say I am an Algerian Jew shows how deep imperial human engineering goes and how entangled it is with what you call “risk management techniques.”

In the year when I was born, four basic facts disappeared from the global imaginary of the anti-imperial and anti-colonial annals: that the Jews in Algeria were colonised in 1830 like everyone else in Algeria; that they were endemic to Algeria no less than Muslims or Kabyle people among whom they lived; that in 1870 they were not granted citizenship but forced to become French citizens in their own country; and that decolonisation should have been their fate too, even if they had become French in some sense when they were made citizens of France. These facts, stirred from oblivion, become impediments to imperial progress.

I was born fourteen years after the Zionists destroyed Palestine and established Israel in its place. I was assigned the role of a weapon instead of an identity. Being “Israeli” means keeping Palestinians outside of Israel, making their return impossible and normalising the theft of their lands and property. At the same time, this command to live as a human weapon forces different Jews to gravitate toward a new violent common—Israel. This new common blurs their memories of having been diverse hyphenated Jews, whose history had little, if anything, to do with what was offered to them as their history—the history of the Jewish people, a historical subject crafted by Europe, whose destiny was to be fulfilled in Israel. I was made to forget my ancestors’ life and history in the Maghreb, and to prove, simply because I had been born on this land, that a state for the Jews in Palestine has a right to exist, regardless of the harm and the lies it produces to justify its existence. Its existence comes at the expense of people whose rights to live with others, in justice, while caring for their shared world, continue to be superseded.

The creation of the state of Israel was part of the “new world order” imposed by Euro-American imperial powers, who appointed themselves as liberators, while they continued to pursue genocidal practices in their colonies and in the settler-colonial spaces they crafted. A state for the Jews that European powers granted to the Jews, on lands they had no right to distribute, was a violent solution to the “Jewish problem.” This was what the Zionists, self-appointed representatives of the Jewish people, aimed to achieve, not the survivors of the Nazi extermination plans. The survivors’ urgent need to heal, wherever they found themselves at the end of the war as they recovered from campaigns of extermination and world destruction, were forfeited. Instead of redress, repair, and cessation of the imperial violence that these Euro-American powers had directed against different racialised peoples for centuries, Jews were offered a bargain: a state of their own that would make them just like others, a Judeo-Christian state apparatus programmed against Muslims and Arabs. The creation of the state of Israel was not for the Jewish people, but rather against many different Jews, primarily Arab Jews, whose life in North Africa and the Middle East was jeopardised by its creation and unsurprisingly was “no longer” within a few decades. Unlearning assigned identities is necessary for the past to become incomplete and for borders to collapse, so that a borderless world will not seem like an unattainable utopia but rather, like a return to the non-imperial geography that was stolen from our ancestors.

Yours, Ariella Aïsha, January 17th, 2021


Ariella Azoulay is an author, art curator, filmmaker, and theorist of photography and visual culture. She is Professor of Modern Culture and Media in the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her latest book is Potential History—Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019).

This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.

This Theory from the Margins event discusses Stuart Hall: Selected Writings on Race and Difference, edited by Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Purchase your copy today from CAP (Combined Academic Publishers) or if you are based in North, South, and Central America then you can order direct from Duke University Press.

In Selected Writings on Race and Difference, editors Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore gather more than twenty essays by Stuart Hall that highlight his extensive and groundbreaking engagement with race, representation, identity, difference, and diaspora. Spanning the whole of his career, this collection includes classic theoretical essays such as “The Whites of their Eyes” (1979) and “Race, the Floating Signifier” (1997). It also features public lectures, political articles, and popular pieces that circulated in periodicals and newspapers, which demonstrate the breadth and depth of Hall’s contribution to public discourses of race. Foregrounding how and why the analysis of race and difference should be concrete and not merely descriptive, this collection gives organizers and students of social theory ways to approach the interconnections of race with culture and consciousness, state and society, policing and freedom.


Paul Gilroy is one of the foremost theorists of race and racism working and teaching in the world today. Author of foundational and highly influential books such as There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987), The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), Against Race (2000), Postcolonial Melancholia (2005) and Darker Than Blue (2010) alongside numerous key articles, essays and critical interventions, Gilroy’s is a unique voice that speaks to the centrality and tenacity of racialized thought and representational practices in the modern world. He has transformed thinking across disciplines, from Ethnic Studies, British and American Literature, African American Studies, Black British Studies, Trans-Atlantic History and Critical Race Theory to Post-Colonial theory. He has contributed to and shaped thinking on Afro-Modernity, aesthetic practices, diasporic poetics and practices, sound and image worlds. He is Professor of the Humanities and Founding Director, Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism & Racialisation at University College London.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences, and American Studies, and the director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean. Co-founder of many grassroots organizations including the California Prison Moratorium Project, Critical Resistance, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network, Gilmore is author of the prize-winning Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (UC Press). Recent publications include “Beyond Bratton” (Policing the Planet, Camp and Heatherton, eds., Verso); “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence” (Futures of Black Radicalism, Lubin and Johnson, eds., Verso); a foreword to Bobby M. Wilson’s Birmingham classic America’s Johannesburg (U Georgia Press); and a foreword to Cedric J. Robinson on Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance (HLT Quan, ed., Pluto). Forthcoming projects include Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition (Haymarket); Abolition Geography (Verso); plus a collection of Stuart Hall’s writing on race and difference (co-edited with Paul Gilroy, Duke UP).

Learn More:



On Tuesday 11th May, the Stuart Hall Foundation and the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) hosted a conversation between James Nazroo, Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, and award-winning director and choreographer, Lanre Malaolu, to explore the racial inequalities and injustices that surround mental health in the UK. The event included an introduction from Child Psychotherapist, Psychoanalyst and Trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation, Becky Hall.

Read more about our #ReconstructionWork project.


Becky Hall moved from post graduate work in the field of Literature and post-coloniality to train as a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic. She subsequently trained as a Psychoanalyst at the British Psychoanalytic Association (BPA). She has worked for many years in NHS services for children and families and has developed a special interest in work with Looked After children, Adoption and parental mental health. She currently works in the NHS and in private practice with children, adolescents and adults. She teaches Infant Observation, writes and is an active member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists. Becky is Stuart Hall’s daughter and a Trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation.

James Nazroo is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, founding and Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), co-PI of the Synergi Collaborative Centre, which is investigating ethnic inequalities in severe mental illness, and founding and co-Director of the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA). Issues of inequality and social justice have been the primary focus of his research. Central to his work on ethnicity/race has been developing an understanding of the links between racism, socioeconomic inequality and health. This work has covered a variety of elements of social disadvantage, how these relate to processes of racism, and how these patterns have changed over time.

Lanre Malaolu is an award-winning director, choreographer, and writer working across theatre and film. Lanre creates groundbreaking work merging movement and dialogue to tell socially engaged stories about our world. A unique element of his work stems from Rudolf Laban’s movement psychology, to build dynamic and bold choreography charged with truth. Lanre was commissioned by Camden Peoples Theatre to create ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM which transferred to the Roundhouse in 2019. He was choreographer for DEAR MR. SHAKESPEARE (Sundance Film Festival, 2017). THE CIRCLE premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest, won Best dance film award at Leeds International Film Festival, and was picked up by The Guardian in 2020. THE CONVERSATION won Best Dance Film at Aesthetica Festival & San Francisco Dance Film Festival 2020.


The Black Lives Matter movement has called for a global reckoning with the long history of anti-black racism and has specifically focused on the role of police in enforcing and enacting racial disadvantage. Included in their call to “defund the police” is a specific rejection of efforts to “reform the police” through interventions like training and community policing and instead focus on reimagining public safety independently of policing. This represents a sharp break with past efforts to eliminate racist policing.

In 1999 the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry found a problem of institutional racism within British policing. Officers had failed to take Lawrence’s murder seriously, had mishandled their relationship with the family, and showed a general indifference to the wellbeing of communities of colour. Later revelations exposed the fact that police were even surveilling the Lawrence family in order to undermine their efforts to hold police accountable. The ensuing Macpherson Report contained 70 recommendations designed to address racism within policing and the larger society. It included calls for police diversification, enhanced training around racial tolerance, and improved procedures for investigating racially motivated crimes all of which were designed to “increase trust and confidence in policing amongst minority ethnic communities.”

Twenty years later, significant gains have been made in hiring more diverse officers and implementing a variety of diversity and sensitivity trainings. And while more could be done, in theory, along these lines, there is little evidence that this has significantly reduced the disproportionate negative impacts of policing on communities of colour. Arrest rates, police use of force, and deaths in custody have not been reduced. Non-white communities continue to be over-policed. This should not be surprising, in part because the Macpherson report specifically said that there should be no change to underlying policing practices. They should just be done by a more diverse force with more racial sensitivity.

At the root of this problematic dynamic is the unwillingness of the Macpherson report or subsequent efforts to reduce racism through police reform to look at what is really driving deep racial inequalities. For the last 40 years the political leadership of the UK has largely capitulated to a politics of neoliberalism and austerity. In the face of global competition, they have cut services to those in need while subsidising the already successful through tax breaks and deregulation in hopes that they will become so successful that some of their new wealth will trickle down to everyone else. But this system has not produced widespread prosperity. It has produced a small group of extremely rich beneficiaries and growing precarity for everyone else. And the burden of this has fallen disproportionately on communities of colour. At the same time, it has fed racial resentment among white populations who have come to blame foreigners and racial minorities for their declining economic status.

The result of this has also been an increase in certain types of conventional street crime as well as problems of low-level disorder and the growth of so-called “vulnerable populations.” The management of these “problems” has fallen to the police. This has looked like increased police involvement in managing those who are homeless, young people acting out in schools, responding to mental health crisis calls, and intensively policing youth of colour across the board on the pretext of stopping drugs or violence.

In response to these failures there is a deep reimagining underway of what public safety could look like independent of the criminal legal system. A growing number of people are calling for replacing police-centred strategies with community investments and commitments to long term strategies for producing greater racial and economic justice. Groups like the 4Front Project in London are demanding that government address the very real problem of youth violence by investing in youth instead of police. They take a youth centred perspective that understands the challenges young people face in a hostile environment in which their families are in crisis, schools lack resources, and the prospects of long-term stable employment seem non-existent. Any effort to produce real safety for young people must start with stable housing, family supports, access to high quality schools, and the prospect of upward mobility.

Similarly, Kids of Colour in Manchester is demanding that schools become sights of safe and successful learning, rather than extensions of the criminal legal system or as we say in the US, “the school to prison pipeline.” As young people face increasing pressures at home and in the community just as educational and social supports are diminished, this is producing disruptive behaviour in and around schools. Rather than framing this as a discipline problem to be counteracted by increased suspensions and policing, they are demanding more resources for schools and the families of these young people.

This kind of reimagining of public safety asks us to reject the false equating of justice with punishment and to instead invest in new systems of justice rooted in restoring communities and individuals so that fewer harms are experienced including those inflicted by the criminal legal system. These “restorative justice” approaches work with young people to develop real interpersonal and communal accountability and to take steps to repair past harms and prevent new harms from occurring.

Racial justice is not going to come from a black police officer, it’s going to be achieved by addressing racism in a broad array of institutional settings such as housing and employment discrimination, unequal funding of social services and infrastructure and the failure to come to terms with the legacies of slavery and colonialism at the root of these ongoing disparities.


Alex S. Vitale is Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and a Visiting Professor at London Southbank University. He has spent the last 30 years writing about policing and consults both police departments and human rights organisations internationally. Prof. Vitale is the author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics and The End of Policing. His academic writings on policing have appeared in Policing and Society, Police Practice and Research, Mobilisation, and Contemporary Sociology. He is also a frequent essayist, whose writings have been published in The NY Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The Nation, Vice News, Fortune, and USA Today. He has also appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, NPR, PBS, Democracy Now, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.

Where colonialism universalises the future, we must not. Where it disciplines all possibility to serving the needs of capital, our imaginings must refuse to. Where it presupposes European Whiteness as the final destination, we must swerve elsewhere, or be killed, and our imaginings of what next must leave no such room for exception. To outmanoeuvre the grasps of coloniality we must project forward in un-intelligible ways!

I say this because when imagining the future, it is tempting to seek blueprints. What, specifically, will those accountability processes look like when policing is abolished? How, exactly, will we organise society after nation-states and borders are dismantled? To seek concrete answers tends to universalise Eurocentric ‘solutions’ once again, and our inclination for ‘alternatives’ forgoes the possibility of leaving some things entirely behind. Instead of standardised ‘replacements’ perhaps the future should look a million different ways, filled with multitudes and uncertainty.

It is not an-other world that requires imagining. It is many, authored by many. And it is in the process of crafting the tools to build parts of what we can imagine, that what we could never imagine might manifest. ‘Let’s make new tools to dismantle the house’, could become an unexpected journey to kindling a fire that eats it up instead. Or, crafting what turns out to be a digging implement that collapses the house onto itself. Or, tearing open a dam elsewhere that drowns the house in ways never considered before.

It is tempting to look for Big Moments in the past to draw inspiration for this. Revolutions, insurrections and rebellions. But I am more interested in the overlooked imaginative practices of those whose world is an-Other world already. The practices of racialised, disabled and immigrant women, whose unglamorous practices make different futures possible all the time.

I am thinking about the immigrant women who told me they pretended not to understand instructions of factory bosses. Their playing on racist assumptions claimed an alternative timeline altogether. One which refused commodification into surplus value for the company, resisting racial capitalism’s claims to the entirety of their future. I am thinking of the kameti and pardner systems that migrant communities have used to pool, borrow and lend money without having their futures imprisoned to debt bondage through interest charges of banks who bend all futures to their subservience. Mutual care networks of disabled people disorder space/time by disobeying the demand to direct all futures towards the most valuable output for capital. By directing their worlds towards the wellbeing of lives deemed ‘unproductive’ excess, they invest in the inconceivable. The everyday de-escalation of conflict often shouldered by women – ‘that toy belongs to both of you! you have to share!’ – is a vision of collective ownership that disrupts the idea that property ownership must necessitate exploitation and dispossession.

So many different nows already exist that are unthinkable to the colonial imaginary. They create worlds we are told are impossible or would require years of reform but cannot be instated overnight. But our worlds are changed overnight by detentions, raids, arrests and assaults all the time. Impossibility is simply the vocabulary of those invested in the status quo. Their vocabulary aims to naturalise a deeply constructed world where genocidal policies are called ‘immigration controls’; imprisonment is ‘protecting us’; exploitation is ‘the 9 til 5’. When we give other names to this world, we make visible the fact many things we are told are natural, are man-made. This is not mere rhetorical squabbling. Anything man-made holds the possibility of being unmade, so the names we give not only reveal other nows, they make claim to other futures altogether.

Therefore, small, everyday practices can prick holes in the universalising future coloniality has draped before our eyes. Those practices are often rooted in the most derided of revolutionary forces: love and care. Because that is exactly where the most unimaginable futures stem from. From racialised and disabled people daring to imagine we might make it into the future. Undocumented people daring to imagine safety and reunion. To imagine ourselves not only alive, but laughing in our own futures, necessitates the end of the world as we know it and asserts space for a multiplicity of futures that might get us there. Afterall, our futures must not only be utilitarian.

When we imagine redistributed global resources; harm resolved by addressing material conditions instead of criminalisation; an end to imperialism in its military, ecological and development forms; or anything else – those imaginings are not ends in themselves. They are the bare minimum we can imagine, as a means to a future in which we may exist in ways beyond what we can imagine. Not just where we might have beyond our imagination, but where we might live, think, learn, heal and worship in ways beyond our wildest dreams.


Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan is an educator, award-winning poet and published writer from Leeds. She is the author of poetry collection, Postcolonial Banter, co-author of the anthology, A Fly Girl’s Guide to University: Being a woman of colour at Cambridge and other institutions of power and elitism; co-essayist in I Refuse to Condemn: resisting racism in times of national security, and host of the Breaking Binaries podcast. Her work disrupts common understandings of history, race, knowledge and power – particularly interrogating the purpose of narratives about Muslims, gender and violence. She is published in The Guardian, Independent, Al-Jazeera, gal-dem and her poetry performances have millions of views online. Suhaiymah is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London and her poetry, articles and books can be found on University and school syllabi.

This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.

This panel, part of the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), will explore the nature of racial inequalities and the politics of ‘race’ in the cultural industries. It will explore the impact of barriers and obstacles (and at times ‘opportunities’) facing racialised peoples in the creative sector, and how movements around access and representation fare in a time of crisis.

• Nike Jonah, Creative Producer, Counterpoint Arts

• Anamik Saha, University of Goldsmiths, CoDE

• Alex Wheatle, Writer

• K Biswas, Writer and Director of Resonance FM and Racebeat (Chair)


Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deeply entrenched racial and ethnic inequalities in the UK across a range of social arenas. The crisis has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief, and in order to address this we must start to map and understand these key impacts of the current crisis moment.

‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ is a week-long conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority people in the UK. The event takes place online each day at 5pm from Tuesday 9th to Friday 12th March, and is hosted in partnership between Stuart Hall Foundation, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

We invited researchers and practitioners working across the fields of sociology, history, art, media, activism, politics, and healthcare to take part in a series of live online presentations and discussions that focus on a number of areas impacted by Covid-19: ‘Policing the Crisis’, Health and Well-being, Employment and Young People, and Culture and Cultural Activism.

Covid-19 has induced the biggest shock to the UK economy seen in modern times and, without significant government action, the effect on the labour market will be severe. In this session, which is part of the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), we will explore how existing ethnic inequalities both in employment and in the transition from compulsory schooling through higher and further education into work may be exacerbated by the crisis with negative consequences for poverty and inequality.

• Andrea Barry, Senior Analyst, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

• Sandra Kerr, Race Director, Business in the Community

• Omar Khan, Director, TASO

• Ken Clark, University of Manchester, CoDE (Chair)

Panel was the third panel discussion in the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), hosted by Stuart Hall Foundation, Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.


Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deeply entrenched racial and ethnic inequalities in the UK across a range of social arenas. The crisis has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief, and in order to address this we must start to map and understand these key impacts of the current crisis moment.

‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ is a week-long conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority people in the UK. The event takes place online each day at 5pm from Tuesday 9th to Friday 12th March, and is hosted in partnership between Stuart Hall Foundation, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

We invited researchers and practitioners working across the fields of sociology, history, art, media, activism, politics, and healthcare to take part in a series of live online presentations and discussions that focus on a number of areas impacted by Covid-19: ‘Policing the Crisis’, Health and Well-being, Employment and Young People, and Culture and Cultural Activism.

Ethnic minority people have experienced a much higher risk of COVID-19 related death, a stark disproportion that has impacted on all ethnic and religious minority groups. In this session, which is part of the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), we will explore how these inequalities mirror longstanding inequalities in health and well-being, which themselves reflect deep social and economic disparities underpinned by racism, and the approaches to address them.

• Natalie Creary, Programme Delivery Director, Black Thrive

• James Nazroo, University of Manchester, CoDE

• Parth Patel, Research Fellow, IPPR

• Dharmi Kapadia, University of Manchester, CoDE (Chair)

Panel was the second panel discussion in the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), hosted by Stuart Hall Foundation, Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.


Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deeply entrenched racial and ethnic inequalities in the UK across a range of social arenas. The crisis has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief, and in order to address this we must start to map and understand these key impacts of the current crisis moment.

‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ is a week-long conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority people in the UK. The event takes place online each day at 5pm from Tuesday 9th to Friday 12th March, and is hosted in partnership between Stuart Hall Foundation, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

We invited researchers and practitioners working across the fields of sociology, history, art, media, activism, politics, and healthcare to take part in a series of live online presentations and discussions that focus on a number of areas impacted by Covid-19: ‘Policing the Crisis’, Health and Well-being, Employment and Young People, and Culture and Cultural Activism.

The emergence of the Black Lives Matters movement is marked by the deaths (incomplete lives) of minoritised people who encountered the police. This panel will explore experiences of policing during the pandemic, campaigning and activism in response to this, and the factors that perpetuate policing by force in the face of campaigning.

• Deborah Coles, Executive Director, INQUEST

• Leslie Thomas QC, Garden Court Chambers

• Patrick Williams, Manchester Metropolitan University, CoDE

• Scarlet Harris, University of Manchester, CoDE (Chair)

Part of the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), hosted by Stuart Hall Foundation, Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.


Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deeply entrenched racial and ethnic inequalities in the UK across a range of social arenas. The crisis has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief, and in order to address this we must start to map and understand these key impacts of the current crisis moment.

‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ is a week-long conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority people in the UK. The event takes place online each day at 5pm from Tuesday 9th to Friday 12th March, and is hosted in partnership between Stuart Hall Foundation, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

We invited researchers and practitioners working across the fields of sociology, history, art, media, activism, politics, and healthcare to take part in a series of live online presentations and discussions that focus on a number of areas impacted by Covid-19: ‘Policing the Crisis’, Health and Well-being, Employment and Young People, and Culture and Cultural Activism.

“Poetry for me was a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggle” – Linton Kwesi Johnson Linton Kwesi Johnson discusses the role of the poet with Roger Robinson, Jay Bernard and Stuart Hall Foundation Chair, Gilane Tawadros in this excerpt from the 4th Annual Stuart Hall Public Conversation entitled: ‘Movement and Stillness: Art in a Time of Crisis and Upheaval’. On the 3rd of February 2021, we welcomed three of Britain’s leading artists and poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger Robinson and Jay Bernard as they came together to read and reflect on the role of art and poetry in our turbulent times for our 4th Annual Public Conversation. Since 2018, our Public Conversation event has been our yearly moment to pause and reflect, inviting an audience to engage with the work of artists and thinkers on a chosen theme that responds to recent political, cultural and social changes taking place. Previous years have pursued themes through multiple lenses, providing a chance for questions and discussion, and punctuated with interventions by poets, artists and musicians that open up a different space for thinking.  

Originally Published by the Media Education Foundation

The Media Education Foundation presents a newly discovered recording of a seminal lecture now available for viewing. The late cultural theorist Stuart Hall was one of the great intellectual and political figures of recent history. His voice is more necessary than ever in these unprecedented times. In this 2004 lecture – the basis of one of his most important essays – he demonstrates what made his theoretical contributions so relevant to contemporary events. As Professor Susan Douglas of the University of Michigan says, “Here we see a stunning (and exemplary) display of Stuart’s brilliant ability to move between the theoretical and the often quotidian examples he would use to illustrate theory, and make it more clear. With virtually no notes and barely a pause, Stuart offers, by turns, an astute, dexterous, probing and, as always, humble disquisition about the relationship between biography and intellectual work. His reflections on the processes – the work, the struggles, the misrecognitions – that go into thinking are inspiring and comforting. For those of us who have always thought that hearing Stuart speak brought his written work to life, and who deeply miss, still, his brilliance and his humanity, Through the Prism of an Intellectual Life is a blessing. This tour de force is a must watch.”

“Stuart Hall was a great intellectual freedom fighter and theoretical genius as manifest in this famous lecture! Don’t miss it.”

– Cornel West

“What a phenomenal gift! This recording of Stuart Hall’s talk at the Caribbean Reasonings conference offers us exceptional insight into the person, the politics, the method, the vision, and their profound interconnectedness. Those who already know his work will be awe-struck and those for whom this serves as an introduction will surely want more.”

– Angela Davis

“Stuart Hall was always a uniquely gifted lecturer, but he never spoke more eloquently than he does in this magnificent talk, given at a crucial biographical moment for him, on a late return to the Caribbean. We see and hear him in inspirational mood, weaving together an astonishingly fluent synthesis of the key ideas from all the different stages of his work. Here is that astonishing combination of personal warmth, rhetorical splendour and intellectual seriousness which characterised his manner – which is so engaging as to make one want to stand up and join in the ovation he receives at the lecture’s end.”

– David Morley

“In these extraordinarily challenging times, Stuart Hall remains, even after his death, a unique voice for “the vocation of the intellectual life.” In this emblematic lecture, he both elaborates and demonstrates how to be a political intellectual, how to understand the complexity and contingency of the present conjuncture in ways that will enable people to more effectively resist the forces at work, the systems of power, injustice and inequality. Hall challenges us to think what it means to think, and how to make thinking matter.”

– Larry Grossberg

Shiv Malik, and Susanna Rustin explore how intergenerational inequality, and the economic reality on which it has been based, has changed our politics and what this might mean for the future. In the last decade, intergenerational inequality has been at the fore of political argument, alongside other inequalities such as class, race, sex, with which the left has traditionally been engaged.

Read more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.


Shiv Malik is a technologist, author, broadcaster and former investigative journalist. He began his career reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan and subsequently worked for the Guardian for five years breaking exclusive front page stories on everything from UK government social policy to secret ISIS documents. He is a co-founder of the think-tank, the Intergenerational Foundation and the author of two books, the 2010 cult economics book Jilted Generation and The Messenger an intrepid personal tale about a relationship with a terrorist-cum-fatasist, published by Faber last year. He has been a full time contributor to the open source project Streamr, since 2017, where he evanglises about a new decentralised data economy and data ownership.

Susanna Rustin is a social affairs leader writer for the Guardian. She covers a range of topics including education, health, housing and environment for the leader (“Guardian view”) column. She has worked at the Guardian for 18 years and previous roles have included deputy opinion editor, feature writer, and deputy editor of the Saturday Review. Susanna lives in Queen’s Park, London, where she is a councillor on London’s only parish/community council. She has been a trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation since it was set up. Stuart (her uncle by marriage) was an important figure in her life. Susanna went to a comprehensive school in London and studied at York university and Birkbeck College.

The Article has been published in the Revista Brasileira de Psicanálise volume 54 numero 2 , 2020


This article examines the meanings of the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic. It suggests that the concept of “combined and uneven development” is relevant to understanding the events which are now taking place. This is because the pandemic has brought together the genesis of a new disease in conditions where the interface between society and the natural world is unregulated, but also where modern forms of communication have enabled an unprecedentedly rapid spread of the disease to take place, across the entire globe. Multiple lines of social division are being exposed by the crisis, as social classes, ethnic populations, nations and regions are differentially harmed. Contrasting priorities, ideological in origin, are being revealed in governments’ response to the virus, in the commitment they give to the preservation of lives compared with other material interests.

In a second part of the article, psycho-social dimensions of the crisis are explored. A psychoanalytical perspective focuses on anxieties as these are generated by the extreme disruption and risks posed by the crisis. It is suggested that these are not only conscious but also unconscious, giving rise to destructive kinds of psychological splitting and denial, and disrupting capacities for reflective decision-making. It is argued that a loss of “containing” mental and social structures is now having damaging effects, and that their repair may be the precondition for constructive resolutions of a general social crisis.


The Revista is a journal devoted to psychoanalysis, but the explanation of the causes and consequences of the pandemic (from which at the time of writing Brazil seems to be suffering most in all the world) has many aspects which are not best captured by psychoanalytic explanations. Before reflecting on how a psychoanalytic paradigm can engage with this ongoing tragedy, I would like to sketch out an understanding of the pandemic’s wider social and political dimensions. Surprisingly, a theoretical model which does illuminate the current situation is one set out by Leon Trotsky in his explanation of the distinctive attributes of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in his history of the Russian revolution (1932). This was his “Theory of Combined and Uneven Development.” His argument was that what had made the revolution possible was the presence in what was essentially a backward Russian society of some exceptionally “modern” and developed sectors. Among these were a flourishing industrial capitalism, an organised working class, and an advanced intelligentsia, of whom the Bolsheviks and other communists, socialists and anarchists comprised one element. But what condemned the revolution to extreme difficulties, and ultimately, given the choices that were made, to its deformation and failure, was the fact that this “modern” segment existed within a system which mainly consisted of semi-feudal means of agricultural production (serfdom had only been abolished in 1861) an illiterate peasantry, religiosity and superstition, and an autocratic and brutal form of government by the Tsarist state. This was, even in when it was published in 1932, a prescient analysis of the situation which the revolutionaries had faced, and which led to the eventual defeat of their modernising project. Justin Rosenberg, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, has recently revisited this theoretical model (under the reversed name of Uneven and Combined Development) to explain contemporary geo-political developments.(Rosenberg 2013).


How can this theoretical model of change be useful in explaining a crisis as different from a social revolution as the current global pandemic? The explanation lies in the conjunctions of the effects of some highly advanced and some “early” and backward aspects of social and economic development, which are each relevant to these very different phenomena, a revolution and a pandemic. It seems likely that the virus had its biological origins in food markets in China in which trade in live animals captured from the wild and slaughtered without preventive hygiene at the point of sale, was combined with many other forms of commerce in domestic animals and other foodstuffs. It was possible in those conditions (as with earlier epidemics such as SARS) for a virus to cross species, perhaps with intermediate wild animal vectors such as bats. This is the “pre-modern” element of the situation, one which has probably had many precedents in the mutation of diseases.


Superimposed on this close contact in food markets between the organs and diseases of wild animal species, and their human traders, (which we describe as a pre-modern form of commerce) has been the exceptional speed of transmission of this disease, which has been due to the rapid flow of human beings across the globe that takes place in the highly-modern modern communications environment. This has been described by one sociologist of globalisation as a “space of flows”, a concept developed within the elaboration of the theory of globalisation by many scholars (e.g. Beck 2000, Castells 1998, Giddens 1991, Harvey 1989, Massey 2002 and Urry 2007) in recent decades. Many component features of globalisation were predicted within this model, including the rise of global trade, vast and almost instantaneous flows of finance capital, and the central role of information technology among its generative features., And, as its negative by-products or “feedbacks”, the emergence of “fundamentalist” resistances to modernisation, large flows of refugees, and even global terrorism. It has turned out that another consequence of this situation of combined over- and under-development has been the exposure of the entire world’s population, in the space of just six months, to a virus, Covid 19, which health and social systems have so far mostly been unable to suppress. Prior to Covid 19 there were other viruses, such as HIV, Sars, and Ebola, which have been barely contained, and from which insufficient lessons were learned. Of course plagues have always afflicted humankind, such for example as the “Spanish flu” which killed millions after the First World War. What is singular about this one is the exceptional scope and speed of its transmission. One can say that it is fortunate that it is not even more lethal in its effects than it is.


There are other aspects of “uneven development” relevant to the pandemic, in addition to the one I have mentioned. Its impact is disclosing large differences in the vulnerability of populations to the virus, and in the capacities of social systems to contain it. These differences are in part a function of relative material wealth, as has always been the case with the incidence of epidemics. It is much more feasible for privileged social groups to isolate themselves, or flee to relative seclusion, than it is for the poor, in particular for those living in absolute poverty. (It was common in cities in Renaissance Europe for elites to take refuge in rural retreats in this way.) These differences are also a consequence of the quality and amount of resources invested in public health systems – the availability of doctors, hospital beds, testing and tracing facilities, reliable data etc. But levels of material wealth – average per capita income – are by no means the only significant cause of variance in the harms caused by the virus. It appears that differences in the ideologies and power-structures underlying social systems are also critical in shaping its effects.


It is striking, for example, that European nations have for the most part achieved far better outcomes than are being achieved in the United States in the management of Covid 19. Within Western Europe, the United Kingdom however (excepting Scotland, which has an autonomous public health system) has done conspicuously worse than its European equivalents, after a period when Spain and parts of Italy were overwhelmed by the first impact of the virus. China and other nations in South-East Asia have been substantially more capable in taking action to contain its effects than most other areas of the world. States in India which already had effective public health systems (some of them with histories of Communist regional and city government) have achieved better outcomes than some which did not. Readers of this journal will need no reminding of the disaster now befalling Brazil, where denial of the public health responsibilities of a government, indeed of the reality of the disease itself, is combining with long-standing inequalities of condition to facilitate the epidemic spread of the disease.


It seems that differences in the moral foundations and beliefs within social systems, in particular within the groups that are dominant within them, are decisive in determining societies’ response to the impact of the virus. It is evident that in some societies the value assigned to the protection of lives, all lives, outweighs all other purposes, such that they have been willing to sacrifice or defer other goals in order that this life-preserving goal is first achieved. But in some other societies, or among their ruling elites, this has not been the case. Some societies and their governments appear to be willing to tolerate an incidence of infection and mortality from the virus, conceived presumably as “a fact of nature”, to a degree which others are not. Many societies believe that they can eliminate the virus entirely, or at least for all practical purposes, while others seem prepared to tolerate infection rates in their tens of thousands, in order that economic life can be allowed to continue or be resumed without hindrance. A further explanation of this difference lies in the fact that some societies have the willingness and capacity to offset the economic harms done to individuals when markets are suppressed, by collective measures of compensation, or employment-creation, while for others this is ideologically repugnant. The defining difference between these normative systems seems to lie in the value they assign to individuals’ freedom, at whatever cost its exercise may be to other individuals, compared with the value they assign to the health and well-being of all persons, to which they hold that some individuals’ freedom need on occasion to be subordinated. Such differences in fundamental concepts of “social solidarity” are also revealed in other areas of social life. How else can one explain why the United States tolerates so high an annual loss of life through the use of firearms, compared with similarly rich nations in Europe. The comparison is even worse in regard to death inflicted by police.


These differences in conceptions of social and moral solidarity do not map in any simple way on to a political spectrum of left and right, although to be sure they do sometimes coincide. Some Asian nations which are far from socialist, such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, have adopted socially-protective positions in their response to the Coronavirus, and of course China, which is ruled by a Communist party, has a substantially capitalist economy.


Many specific kinds of social fracture have emerged in those societies where a commitment to universal protection and well-being, in response to the virus, has been revealed to be lacking. It is striking that the specifically harsh burdens which have been inflicted on some sections of the population were not been anticipated. In the United Kingdom, two specific sub-populations were revealed to have been especially vulnerable to the virus. One of these was the elderly and infirm population of care homes, where the incidence of infection and death has been very high – some estimates say 20,000 out of 45,000 deaths by early July). Another were black and ethnic minority populations, which have also been afflicted in disproportionate numbers. There has to be recourse to explanations in terms of unconscious processes of denial (of social realities and people’s needs) and projection (of vulnerabilities and of attributions of value) adequately to account for these phenomena, which been deeply discriminatory in their effects. How could it be that a National Health Service in Britain would discharge elderly patients from hospitals to residential homes (“to free up beds” for Corona patients) without first testing them for infection, and without ensuring that care homes were shielded from infection? But it did these things, as other public health services (e.g. in Sweden) have also done. These decisions surely arose from an implicit belief that these elderly people were simply of lesser value than who were still young or in mid-life. The difference in the valuation of human beings has long been institutionalised in the separation in England and Wales between the system of “social care” for the elderly and infirm) and the National Health Service, in its funding and organisation. Health is a universal, relatively well-funded public service, “social care” is not.


The fact that the virus impacted so differentially, and so much for the worse, on members of Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities was another source of surprise, in particular as it was realised that this was especially evident among staff within the NHS who were working with Coronavirus patients. There have been many portrayals of the heroic work of National Health Service staff during the crisis, giving rise to a weekly ritual of public applause for them in British streets. In these reports, it has become evident how disproportionate is the number of ethnic minority doctors, nurses and care workers who have been taken ill or died. How could this be? it has been asked, and public inquiries have been set in train to discover the reasons. This situation then intersected with issues of police violence against black people which became world news, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis. So the impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities has become linked to the broader Black Lives Matter campaign, giving rise to an enhanced and intense awareness of ethnic discrimination and inequality (“institutional racism” is one of its descriptions) in Britain, and of course also in the USA. Further racialised crimes have taken place in the UK as this crisis has developed. A probably-racially motivated murder of two young Asian-British women in London park (near to where I live) was followed by the circulation on social media of photographs (“selfies”) of the two dead women taken by two members of the Metropolitan Police, it appears for their own gratification. This event was deeply shocking even to the police authorities, causing almost as much offence as a physical assault.


It has become evident both in the USA, in Britain, and in other countries, that there are white racist groups who have now organised themselves organised in reaction to the movements for ethnic justice and redress. Demonstrations and campaigns against racial injustice are now frequently met with counter-demonstrations, giving rise to significant issues of public order. The conservative nationalist populism of Trump in the United States, and of Bolsanaro in Brazil, have these kinds of violent militancy embedded within their bases of support. The Boris Johnson government in Britain confines itself to the castigation of much protest by ethnic minority groups and their allies (for example the toppling of statues of former slave owners as in Bristol’s harbour) as threats to public order, while acknowledging the offensiveness to minority communities in particular of such commemorations of slavery. But different forms of public unrest are becoming joined up and superimposed on one another, as antipathy to racism, to the police as its perceived instrument, and to the virtual curfews of Covid 19 lockdowns, give rise to turbulent and sometimes violent encounters on the streets and even on some beaches.


A second major theoretical concept from the Marxist tradition which is useful for understanding this global situation is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “conjuncture”, and its modern development by Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1978) and other contemporary writers (Hall and Massey 2010). The idea of conjuncture denotes those historically specific circumstances in which different contradictions and conflicts within a social order become unexpectedly juxtaposed to, or superimposed upon, one another, sometimes giving rise to situations of great uncertainty and unpredictability. In such situations the “wars of position” which Gramsci characterised as the normal somewhat static state of relations between conflicting social blocs, can create the conditions for more sudden changes, through ”wars of movement”, from which rapid changes in the distribution of power can result. This may be through the mobilisation of large movements of protest, and through the “joining together” (through what Laclau and Mouffe (1985) described as the discursive construction of “symbolic equivalences” between fields of meaning) of different levels and agencies of social action. The moment of radical protest of 1968 has often been recognised as such a conjuncture, although it was one in which the left’s political hopes of it were defeated. Its cultural outcomes were however a different and more successful story.


The current pandemic amounts to a “conjuncture” in the way in which it is both revealing and juxtaposing varieties of conflict, such for example as the divisions and inequalities being revealed by the crisis, and the contrasting ways of managing or not managing it effectively. From this point of view, compare China’s or Germany’s response to the pandemic with Brazil’s or the USA’s. There are other crucial dimensions of the crisis which need to be added to those already referred to. The most important of these is the economic crisis in which the pandemic is plunging the entire world, which is going to be at least as deep as those of Great Depression of the 1930s and the financial crisis of 2007-8. This crisis will raise the question for governments of how its economic and social effects are to be responded to.


We need to remember in this context that precedents are far from encouraging. The crisis of the 1930s was not resolved, until after several nations had collapsed into Fascism, and after an exceptionally destructive World War which brought those Fascist regimes to an end. It was the war and preparations for it, rather than Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, exemplary as the latter was, which brought the Great Depression to an end. And although, after 2007-8 some measure of economic stability was restored, in good part thanks to the resilience of the Chinese economy, and some moderately positive steps were taken by the Obama government in the USA, little more than a partial stabilisation was achieved. Instead of the inclusive, redistributive economic adjustment of capitalist economies that was required to avert future crises (and which I at the time mistakenly believed governments would institute in their systems’ own interests) there was instead a reversion to “austerity economics”, with a period of contraction and stagnation which saw the rise of radical right wing populism in many nations, not least the USA, the UK, and Brazil. (I believe is was the regression of the global economy which ultimately made the situation of the left-of-centre government of Brazil which followed Lula’s unsustainable). Another crucial factor in all of this is the difficulty which formerly dominant “white” countries, and their elites, are having in adjusting to their relative decline in face of the rise of China and other emerging nations. This decline – which involves a challenge to “white supremacy”, demonstrations of impotence in failed wars and interventions (Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc.), and inability to improve the living standards even of its own majority populations – is being experienced as traumatic. This situation gives rise to what psychoanalysts might call manic denials of reality and the rejection of rationality and truth itself, in the politics of the United States and those nations shaped by similar “structures of feeling (1).”  These repeated flailings of the United States government (withdrawal from global arrangements which formerly served to assure its hegemony, the disruption of commerce and orderly economic relations through an almost indiscriminate use of sanctions, the President’s wild and incontinent utterances) are not the demonstrations of autonomy and strength they purport to be, but are wild responses to the traumas of decline and failure. We could add to this picture a problem which faces the world which is even deeper and more grave than the pandemic, that of climate change. In this situation it would be unwise to be unduly hopeful about the prospects for benign solutions to the problems brought about by the pandemic. However there are some more positive elements to be seen in the situation, where there remain some capacities for rational and constructive action. One might note, for example, that some years ago the problems of global warming and climate change were hardly recognised, while now at least some substantial action to avert their consequences is taking place.


Psychological Aspects of the Crisis


So far in this article, I have mainly discussed the aspects of the current crisis whose explanation lies in the domain of social structures and processes, rather than the spheres which might be of specific interest to psychoanalysts. The reason for this is my belief that the principal explanations of this crisis have to be sought in the dynamics of societies, rather than primarily in the psychological dispositions of individual actors. Individual fears, anxieties and enactments of individuals in situations like the present one, though entirely real are largely shaped by the social environments in which they are formed. It is differences between societies which cause and most fully explain what happens to the individuals within them, rather than it being the case that differences between individuals cause and most fully explain what happens to societies. The dispositions and personalities of figures such as Trump, Bolsanaro, and Johnson, of course have significant consequences for their societies (and for all of us). Nevertheless their attributes and characteristic kinds of action are best understood as the effects of their social milieus rather than as their cause. Freud (and those like Adorno (1951) who developed his analysis of Fascism) saw “leaders” as produced by the socio-psychological needs and collective transferences of their followers, rather than as the primary causes of their behaviours.


Nonetheless, one should ask, what does a psychoanalytic perspective add to our understanding of a crisis and conjuncture of the present kind? Is there a conception of unconscious mental processes, as these function at shared and collective levels of mind, which adds illumination, and needs to be incorporated within the framework of a socio-political analysis? Here is the broader problem of how one might bring about a theoretical integration of psychoanalytical and sociological understandings. which is a topic I have discussed elsewhere (Rustin 2016).


I believe the psychoanalytical concept most valuable in the understanding of the present crisis is Bion’s idea of “containment” (Bion 1975) and what arises from its presence or absence, its strength or its weakness. What the present crisis, with its overlapping and intersecting dimensions, is bringing about is the collapse of many “containing” structures, and the habits of mind and capabilities which depend on them. What is “contained”, in the psychoanalytic view, by containing structures are anxieties, both recognised and unrecognised, and both conscious and unconscious, which are not quite the same thing. What emerges when containment is lacking are many often extreme defences against anxiety, such as splitting and denial, the projection of feared threats and evils into others. and a reversion to paranoid-schizoid and narcissistic states of mind. Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion both believed that the capacity for reflection and thought, and for holding together in the mind the awareness of dispositions both to love and to hate, had their preconditions in a persons’ emotional and mental development. Klein thought of this as the attainment of “depressive” capabilities, or the “depressive position”. (Segal 1973, Rustin and Rustin 2017). Bion thought of it as the presence of a secure relation between “container and contained.” Such experiences of containment take place in the first instance in the earliest months and years of life, in the context of the intimate family. That is, in a relationship between infant and mother, but also between mother and father, father and infant, and between members of a larger family group, including siblings. This is the primary location or incubator of the capacity to form and maintain relationships, which once formed usually becomes extended beyond the sphere of the family into a wider environment of communities and workplaces. And also into establishing relationships, which have both an internal and an external dimension, with other kinds of “objects” which can have symbolic as well as emotional meanings, such as vocations, places, forms of art or science, cultural or social “goods”. Early experiences of containment are the micro-settings within which the capacities for life in society are developed and made possible.


Such micro-settings depend for their existence, however, on wider environmental contexts of security and well-being. In well-functioning societies these can often be taken for granted, to a greater or lesser degree, as the good-enough contexts for lives to be lived and for personal development to take place, and even adventures into the unknown to be embarked on. What happens when grave multiple crises such as those of the present occur is that such surrounding contexts, or conditions of existence, become deeply threatened and disrupted. In relation to the Covid 19 disease itself, we see trust in others, and also in governments, being eroded, as danger and risks to individuals and families grow. We now see many governments becoming concerned that the reserves of public trust and the compliance on which practical means of containing this disease (e.g. quarantines, the use of face-masks, social distancing, vaccination, caution public spaces) depend will be eroded, if people lose confidence in governments’ capabilities and actions. This breakdown of trust is already occurring in many places, and for understandable reasons.


Another level of disruption is occurs when particular social groups (e.g. people of colour), come to believe that the society in which they live, and especially holding power within it, neglects, mistreats and even brutalises them. Additional anxieties arise when when basic material security becomes endangered, for example through economic recession and unemployment. Further kinds of threat are experienced at the level of cultural identity, when it is felt that the symbolic worth of a group’s entire “imagined community” is put in jeopardy, for example through denigration by others, or by the perceived capture of power and privilege by competitors. Arlie Hochschild’’s book, Strangers in their Own Land (2016), showed the origins of the resentment of Republican voters in the American South in their feeling that they had been excluded from the opportunities offered by the “American dream” by the privileging of rival groups in society, located in their minds mainly in northern cities. Fintan O’Toole (2018) has described the emotional core of the Brexit campaign in England as made up of a combination of triumphalist omnipotence and masochistic victimhood and self-pity. Resentment towards “others” who are perceived to be in the ascendant, and the building of animosity towards such groups, are a principal resource of nationalists and populists like Trump for sustaining, often by demagogic means, their base of political support.


The crisis of “combined and uneven development” which I have characterised has both revealed and intensified many kinds of structural inequalities within and between nations. This crisis is giving rise to understandable and indeed justifiable demands for their redress. Some in this situation find themselves taking up highly radical and even utopian positions in asserting what now ought to be done. Some believe that the entire social system should be dismantled and started afresh, difficult as it is to give a feasible meaning to this idea. What we know, however, is that demands made of society from those lacking recognition and power are liable to provoke countervailing demands and reactions from those who currently possess it. Redistributions and adjustments of power and privilege to resolve substantially opposed and competing claims are usually difficult to achieve. Conflicts arising from such struggles can give rise to the risk of organised violence and social breakdown, as we have seen in the past. Strategies for reform and redress of inequalities and injustices need in my view to take account of the probability of such counter-reactions, and to find ways of limiting their severity and destructiveness.


I am inclined to believe that in the present crisis the restoration of a measure of “containing” government, which can begin tackle and resolve immediately critical problems (like those caused by the Corona virus and by global warming) is a pre-requisite for bringing about the many fundamental changes which the general condition of “combined and uneven development” makes desirable and necessary.


However, it should be noted that a concern with states of “containment” is not the only psychoanalytic preoccupation with a social condition which one might have. In an astute observation about Freud’s own writings, the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman (2009) noted that the main anxieties which preoccupy a society were subject to change, even between social epochs. Freud’s main preoccupation, Bauman wrote, was with the excessive repression of desires, and with the constraints imposed in his time on thought and action, especially in the sexual sphere. This was prior to the liberating effects of his own teaching on this cultural climate (2).  Excessive repression was also a concern of Melanie Klein, as we see in her focus on the destructive effects on personalities of a persecutory super-ego. But in modern times, in Bauman’s view, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, such that a dominant social anxiety now arises in regard what are perceived to be excessive freedoms of sexual expression and action. Thus we have almost phobic anxieties about the sexual safety of children, and about whether sexual initiatives in interpersonal life are to be experienced as aggressive or abusive, or are merely to be recognised as overtures and approaches without which no sexual relationship could ever come about. (Of course they can be either of these.) In the broader sphere, the additional scope for expression and communication which has been enabled by the expansion of social media seems to justify anxieties, about the diffusion of almost indiscriminate verbal aggression, through “trolling”, of which President Trump’s incessant and often abusive “tweeting” is a conspicuous example. In Britain at this time, intense conflicts are occurring about who has the right to define sexual identities, in particular those characterised as “trans” and involving decisions to change sexual identities as these are assigned at birth. One can believe that at the present time some moves towards the restraint of such unrestrined kinds of social media is desirable, even urgent. It is in this cultural climate that I believe a psychoanalytic focus on the “containing” end of the spectrum between freedom and control, has relevance. Times differ, and what is psychoanalytically indicated as being desirable and appropriate for such times may differ also.


Some of those with power, such as those in Trump’s administration, are seeking to call a halt to the processes of globalisation and its instruments, and thereby to hold on to the advantages they believe they already possess. My view is that the solution to these problems lies not in arresting the processes of globalisation, but rather in making these universal and comprehensive in their extent. This would aim at a form of combined and even rather than uneven development. (I’ve elsewhere imagined this as a “progressive modernisation.” (Rustin 2019) .


This is to imagine a world order in which, for example:

  • The goals of good public health and the means to secure this become universal.
  • In which the arrest of global warming becomes a common human task.
  • In which the problems of unmanageable flows of refugees from impoverished and wartorn countries is dealt with not through constructing barriers and “beautiful walls”, but by enabling problems of poverty and disorder to be addressed in the regions from which refugees come.
  • In which goals of economic development are set for the entire world, and not merely for individual nations.

It is only of course competent and well-supported governments, working together with each other, which could bring such a benign process about, in cooperation with other social, economic and cultural actors. It might seem an impossible prospect, though not necessarily so when one sees what Europe accomplished in the years after the Second World War, or indeed what the Chinese have been accomplishing, in regard to poverty and living standards, within their own national boundary.


Of course such goals are not far from those which have been advanced by many international agencies, and by visionary theorists of human development and “flourishing” such as Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993) and which became embodied in the United Nations Human Development Index and Annual Reports.


And after all, are there other alternatives to global catastrophe?


  1. This term is Raymond Williams’s (1977) and refers to the collective mentalities which are generated in different configurations of relations between social classes.
  2. Ernest Gellner, who had previously (1985) been a severe critic of Freud, wrote later in his work (1995) of the great debt which society owed to Freud, in the effect of his writing in diminishing social repression, and in thereby making possible wider experiences of pleasure and enjoyment.


Adorno, T. (1951/1978) “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (1951) reprinted in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Oxford: Blackwell (1978) pp 118-137.


Bauman, Z. “Freudian Civilisation Revisited: or Whatever happened to the reality principle?” (2009) Journal of Anthropological Psychology No. 21, 2009, Department of Psychology Aarhus University pp 1-9. Psychology/Volume_21/target.pdf 


Beck,U. (2000) What is Globalisation? Cambridge: Polity Press.


Bion, W.R. (1975) Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications.


Castells, M. (1998) The Information Age: Economy Society and Culture, Vols 1, 2 and 3. Oxford: Blackwell.


Gellner E. (1985) The Psychoanalytic Movement. London: Paladin.


Gellner, E. (1995) “Freud’s Social Contract”. in Anthropology and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 62-93.


Giddens, A. (1991) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Hall, S. and Massey, D. (201) “Interpreting the Crisis”. Soundings 44, pp. 57-71.


Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Roberts, B. (1978/2013) Policing the Crisis: mugging, the state and law & order. Basingstone: Palgrave/Macmillan


Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Modernity Oxford: Blackwell


Hochschild, A.R. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.


Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.


Massey, D. (2002) ‘Globalisation: what does it mean for geography?’, Geography, 87, 4, 293-6

Nussbaum, M. and Sen. A. (eds.) (1993) The Quality of Life. Oxford:: Oxford University Press.|O’Toole, F. (2019) Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. London : Apollo.


Rosenberg, Justin (2013) “The ‘Philosophical Premises’ of Uneven and Combined Development.” Review of International Studies, 39 (3). pp. 569-597


Rustin, M.J. (2016) “Sociology and Psychoanalysis”, in A. Elliott and J. Prager (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities. London: Routledge. pp 259-277.


Rustin, M.J. (2019) “Is there an alternative to reactionary modernisation?” Soundings 71, pp 116-127.


Rustin, M.E. and M.J. (2017) Reading Klein. London: Routledge.


Segal, H. (1973/1988) Introduction to the Thought of Melanie Klein. London: Karnac Books.


Trotsky,L. (1932/) The Russian Revolution. New York: Simon Schuster..


Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities, Cambridge: Polity Press.


Williams, R. ((1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 128-136.


Biographical Note

Michael Rustin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, a Visiting Professor at the Tavistock

Clinic, and an Associate of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He has written widely on interconnections

between psychoanalysis, society and politics, in books including The Good Society and the Inner World (1991)

and Reason and Unreason (2001). His most recent books include Social Defences against Anxiety:

Explorations in a Paradigm (edited with David Armstrong, 2015); Reading Klein (with Margaret Rustin, 2017),

Researching the Unconscious: Principles of Psychoanalytic Method (2019) and New Discoveries in Child

Psychotherapy : Findings from Qualitative Research (edited with Margaret Rustin (2019.) He is an editor of

Soundings, a Journal of Politics and Culture.

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands Stuart Hall, with Bill Schwarz (Penguin Books, 2017).

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands is “not a memoir in any formal sense” (10), but rather “an experiment in drawing out” the “connections between the ‘life’ and ‘ideas’” of Stuart Hall (63), the enormously influential intellectual whose incisive commentary is sorely missed by many of us living in Britain’s uncertain present. I hope he would have forgiven me for describing him as such: for Hall, the term “intellectual” suggests “too much posturing,” and he explains that although it “doesn’t seem exalted enough for most people,” he prefers to think of himself “as a teacher” (13).

Across nine essays, this characteristically untraditional memoir gives an account of Hall’s existence between entangled colonial and post-colonial worlds, centring on his 1951 journey from colony to metropole: from Kingston, Jamaica to a post-war Britain rife with racism. It gives insight into his life prior to his Directorship of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (and later Professorship of Sociology at Open University). And narrating these first thirty-two years, before he became known as the godfather of multiculturalism, Familiar Stranger maps the early development of Hall’s ground-breaking ideas on cultural theory, through various challenges including stints of generally rather inadequate formal education, and through key partnerships, alliances, and periods of feverish political engagement.

Born in 1932 to a socially-ambitious family with a “fantasy relationship to colonial dependency” (51), Hall was educated alongside future political and literary giants at elite

boys’ school Jamaica College. In the midst of challenges to Colonial rule, Hall details his alienation, from an early age, from the stifling respectability of the Jamaican middle class, the product of “a social system … inflected by the full force of white bias” (63). He arrived in England three years after the Empire Windrush, as a nineteen-year-old Rhodes scholar – a recipient of funding from the Jamaican Government to read English Literature at Merton, “a seductively beautiful place” of “medieval seriousness, solidity and gloom” (156, 155). Of his first meal in College, he remembers thinking that his “survival chances did not look good!” (156)

Upon completing his undergraduate degree, Hall embarked on and then abandoned a graduate thesis on Henry James, and left in a College basement the trunk in which he had brought all his belongings. “I sometimes wonder what became of it,” he writes. “For all I know it’s still there” (155). He did some work for BBC’s Caribbean Voices, crossed paths with V. S. Naipul, and forged friendships with American students, also outsiders at Merton, and others from the Caribbean including George Lamming and working migrants with whom he played jazz piano.

Describing his “rebirth” as “a diasporic subject” caught between “colonial formation” and “anti-colonial sentiments” (171), Hall names the University of Oxford as a key location in which those arriving from places where “colonization had done its divide-and-rule work … came to understand that they were seen by the British as all having the same racial/ethnic identity” (164-165). Ultimately, the “diasporic perspective” provided an “opportunity to change not the answers but the questions” (172). Becoming “seriously committed to critical

ideas” and more actively involved in British politics was, for Hall, “the start of a lifelong intellectual disengagement from Oxford and all it stood for” (223).

In a transforming social landscape, between 1956 and 1964, “‘normal life’ was suspended” by “political activity” (228). Hall gives brief and exciting sketches of early meetings and collaborations with key figures such as Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, his involvement in the founding of the New Left political movement, the Universities and Left Review and the New Left Review, and his work with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was at a CND march in 1962 that he met Catherine Hall, then Catherine Barrett, before she embarked on her own ground-breaking academic career. He pays tribute to her influence on his own thinking, and explains that “even when we are not actually speaking, I am in perpetual conversation with her and have been for years” (267).

Familiar Stranger ends in 1964, with Stuart and Catherine Hall on the eve of their move to Birmingham, where each would take up university posts. Describing some of the racist abuse they would be targeted with there, as a newly-married couple, Hall draws a parallel with the experiences of his daughter some twenty years later. Reading his memoir, fifty-five years after he moved to Birmingham, Hall’s desire to “change British society, not adopt it” continues to be felt (271). And, happily, his enormous body of writing is still being collected and published, partly in the form of the eponymous series from Duke University Press that includes Familiar Stranger as well as Selected Political Writings, which covers a five-decade period beginning in the year the former ends.

It seems apt that Familiar Stranger, published three years after Hall’s passing, is the product of collaboration with long-term interlocutor and friend Bill Schwarz. Hall’s lifelong commitment to working and writing in partnership is just one aspect of the inspiring model he offers for doing important thinking generously. In that spirit, the text makes frequent direct and indirect reference to some of the scholars and writers who have informed Hall’s thinking, and a list of works cited (including some of Hall’s own) is helpfully included in the appendices. It seems characteristically generous, also, that Hall and Schwarz worked intermittently over a period of two decades to create the material Schwarz has carefully edited into this final volume, which is incredibly rich. Exemplifying Hall’s concern with the relationship between the individual and the collective, it discusses the formation of his ‘life’ and ‘ideas’ as part of broad patterns of historical change: “the social processes of history” (63). It is at once academic and personal; it is often funny and deeply moving.

At a time when his insistence that Britain had never come to terms with colonialism and its legacies is further evidenced daily, we might consider this self-described teacher’s memoir as a lesson of sorts. Our struggles to live in an increasingly-divided Britain should be guided by Familiar Stranger, a product of Hall’s longstanding dedication to carefully grappling with the nature of belonging – “the chaos of identifications which we assemble in order to navigate the social world” (63) – and with his own personal relation to the still-painful entanglement of race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic class.

Ruth Ramsden-Karelse Stuart Hall Doctoral Scholar (2017-2020)

Stuart Hall Foundation Film by Jess Hall and Richard Harrington.

Inspired by the life and work of Professor Stuart Hall, the Stuart Hall Foundation is committed to public education, addressing urgent questions of race and inequality in culture and society through talks and events, and building a network of SHF scholars and artists in residence. 

Find out more about what we do here.  

Catherine Hall and Ruth Ramsden-Karelse discuss the Legacies of British Slave Ownership. They explore the importance of new histories, reparations, working to decolonise education and shifting collective memories to imagine new futures.

The most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests rejuvenated popular debates over the removal of statues of British slave owners from public spaces. The fall of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol and calls to remove statues of Winston Churchill, Lord Nelson and Cecil Rhodes has forced the British public to reconsider questions of history and colonial legacies.

Read more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.


Catherine Hall is Emerita Professor of History and Chair of the Centre of the Study of British Slave-ownership at UCL. She has written extensively on the history of Britain and its empire including Civilising Subjects (2002) Macaulay and Son (2012) and, with others, Legacies of British Slave-ownership (2014). From 2009-2016 she was principal investigator on the LBS project She is currently writing a book on Edward Long, Jamaica and racial capitalism. She is a trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation.

Ruth Ramsden-Karelse is founder and co-convener of the Oxford Queer Studies Network and a DPhil candidate in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford. The inaugural Stuart Hall Doctoral Studentship, in association with Merton College, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the Stuart Hall Foundation, supports her research on the world-making capacity of collaborative works by self-described gays and girls from communities formerly classified “Coloured” in Cape Town, South Africa, from 1950 to the present, with a specific focus on the Kewpie Photographic Collection. Ruth’s writing has appeared in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

Originally published by Race & Class, 2018 Institute of Race Relations, Vol. 60(1): 3–21 10.1177/0306396818769791


This article asks whether history writing can be reparatory. Opening with a discussion of the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 and the national conversation that was created at that time, it goes on to reflect on contestations over memory and the significance of the emergence of reparations as a key term with which to think about the wrongs of the past and the possibilities of repair. It uses a discussion of the author’s individual and collaborative historical work to argue for the importance of a different understanding of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries, of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism.

Keywords: collective memory, disavowal, historical wrongs, Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, Macaulay, ‘race’, reparation, slavery

What is reparatory history?

What does it mean to do it in Britain?

This essay reflects on some of the ways in which the histories of ‘race’ and slavery have figured in the recent past in Britain. It argues that debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical narratives on ‘race’ and empire that have been and are being produced. It utilises a discussion of some of my own work as a historian over the past twenty years to think about what history that was reparative might look like.


Creating a national conversation

The bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 provoked what could be described as a ‘national conversation’ in the United Kingdom.[1] This had happened before: at the end of the eighteenth century, pro-slavers and abolitionists engaged in fierce debate and polemic culminating in the abolition of the trade in 1807. The hope that once the trade had been dismantled slavery would disappear was soon shown to be an illusion, and this led to the activism of the 1820s, once again challenged by the pro-slavers. The major revolt of 1831 in Jamaica combined with popular pressure across the country brought about the Act of 1833 abolishing slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. During 2007, once again, the question of British responsibility for the enslavement of Africans became a subject of mainstream political and cultural debate. The context for this re-awakening was the major changes which had taken place in British society since the late 1940s, the scale of the African-Caribbean presence, the turbulent politics of race particularly in the wake of the killing of Stephen Lawrence (1993) and the Macpherson Report (1999) recognising the significance of institutional racism in the police, and the pressing questions from second and third generation young people as to whether it was possible to be black and British. In 2007 the bi-centenary provided an opportunity to re-open questions about the slave trade and slavery. Anti-racists had a number of different political agendas but were perhaps united in their hopes for new political and educational initiatives that would tackle persistent racism and repair historic wrongs.

Blair’s New Labour government looked to the future and advocated the idea of a modern multicultural Britain. The limits of their commitment were all too apparent, however, in the response to the Parekh Report of 2000, The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, which discussed ‘the many varieties of racism and exclusion that disfigure modern Britain and that have been woven into the fabric of British history for many centuries’.[2] The report provoked a furore in the rightwing press. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary who had supported the establishment of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain by the Runnymede Trust, backtracked, effectively abandoning any efforts to follow up on the report’s more radical recommendations.[3] The following year, at the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, the British government did not support Caribbean nations’ claims for reparation for slavery and the Conference Declaration was limited to acknowledging the historical and contemporary practices of the slave trade and slavery as morally outrageous.[4] That same year, Randall Robinson, an African-American lawyer, author and activist, published The Debt: what America owes to Blacks. This significant intervention in the US debate on reparation argued that responsibility for the terrible effects of slavery across generations, the destruction of a hereditary identity, lay with the US government and people. Restitution could and should be made.[5] Questions about racisms, reparations and historical wrongs were increasingly present in public debate across the Atlantic world.

So when it came to 2007 the government felt the need to respond. ‘It is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to express our deep sorrow and regret’, as prime minister Tony Blair put it, ‘for our nation’s role in the slave trade and for the unbearable suffering, individually and collectively, it caused.’ He was very careful, however, as many pointed out, not to apologise; for an apology might have indicated historic responsibility and had material consequences.[6] 2007 gave all Britons an opportunity, he argued, to reflect on ‘the spirit of freedom, justice and equality that characterised the efforts of the early abolitionists, the same spirit that drives our determination to fight injustice and inequality today’. We could ‘rejoice at the different and better times we live in today’.[7] The government’s chosen focus was abolition, not slavery, echoing the narrative that had been established from the early nineteenth century.[8] This was part of an updated version of the Whig story of progress, of Britain’s capacity to lead the world on issues of liberty and freedom. ‘There is a golden thread which runs through British history,’ said Gordon Brown, ‘that runs from that long-ago day in Runnymede in 1215 when arbitrary power was fully challenged with the Magna Carta, on to the first bill of rights in 1689 where Britain became the first country where parliament asserted power over the king,’ to the abolition of the slave trade and on to democratic reform.[9] This was the narrative that informed the liberal humanitarian interventions of the Labour government, some of which had such disastrous effects.

While the official response to 2007 was to celebrate Britain’s record, others asked, how can we celebrate this? Establishment figures such as cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg and former Tory leader William Hague, albeit from different political perspectives, were united in their admiration for William Wilberforce, the saintly and iconic figurehead of the abolitionists whose evangelical Christianity was central to his struggle against both slavery in the Caribbean and vice at home. A rather different perspective informed the critique of what some called the Wilberfest.[10] ‘Our object’, as Wilberforce had put it, ‘was by ameliorating regulations, and by stopping the influx of uninstructed savages, to advance slowly towards the period when these unhappy things might exchange their degraded state of slavery for that of free and industrious peasantry.’[11] This language of ‘uninstructed savages’ and ‘unhappy things’ is redolent of the ways in which much abolitionist discourse assumed white superiority, a discourse that has had powerful echoes into the present. At the same time, Wilberforce’s vision of ‘free and industrial peasants’ marked the gap between conservative abolitionists such as himself, who believed in class, gender and racial hierarchies, and those radicals, Robert Wedderburn and Elizabeth Heyrick, for example, who rejected his pastoral vision of everyone in their proper place and sought not only the ending of slavery but also a transformation of society and the creation of an egalitarian world.

The ‘national conversation’ was greatly facilitated by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s decision to commit a substantial sum, between 15 and 20 million pounds, to bi-centenary projects. The money made possible both large-scale projects such as the establishment of the New Centre for the Understanding of slavery in association with the Liverpool Museums and many small-scale initiatives, some of which have now been archived in an effort to conserve what was an extraordinary set of activities. ‘Remembering 1807’ ( ing1807) reflects the ways in which hundreds of heritage groups and local organisations around the UK marked the anniversary. Museums, galleries, archives, community groups, churches, theatres and schools organised exhibitions, debates, music, dance, theatre, storytelling, poetry, film, carnivals and festivals. The BBC commissioned radio and TV programmes. Universities organised conferences, seminars and exhibitions.[12] Artists produced new materials, such as Lubaina Himid’s ‘Swallow Hard: the Lancaster dinner service’. Himid collected plates, jugs, tureens and dishes from local shops in Lancaster and Whitehaven, significant ports for slaving vessels. She decorated them with images of traders, ships, sailors, buildings, servants, the enslaved, maps and goods, exploring the connections between the North West and the development and abolition of the slave trade. The dinner service was initially exhibited on the splendid mahogany dining table in the Judge’s Lodging in Lancaster, reminders both of the flourish- ing mahogany trade from Jamaica and Honduras and its importance to the development of eighteenth-century consumer society, and of the centrality of the law to class power in that period. 

Contested memories

The ‘national conversation’ about the slave trade and slavery in 2007 marked a contestation over memory – what was to be remembered and how? It was Maurice Halbwachs in the period after the first world war who initiated much of the work on collective memory, drawing on his own experience and illuminating the ways in which memory is constructed, mediated and shaped in the social world. Individual and collective memory are always related; experiences and private recollections are tested by and shaped in encounters with collective memory. It is collective memory that constitutes social values, shapes convention, law and language. If we are haunted by past memories that are not shared by others, it can be deeply lonely and indeed alienating. ‘I have shown’, he argued, ‘that memory is a collective function … If recollections reappear, this is because at each moment society possesses the necessary means to reproduce them.’[13] In 2007 the question that was being asked was what should be remembered? Was Wilberforce really the carrier of the story of abolition? Can trauma pass through generations affecting the descendants of the enslaved? If so, how? How can the different legacies be given weight and significance in the minds and cultures of people today? There will always be different perspectives and voices but which narratives would/should achieve cultural and political hegemony? Would it continue to be white abolitionists or those black abolitionists, men such as Ottobah Cugoano, kidnapped at 13 in West Africa, sold into slavery and eventually freed in England, who believed that redress would never be adequate, and drew attention to ‘the incommensurability between pain and compensation’.[14] And what about the women? What about the practices of the trade and slavery itself, the hundreds and thousands of African men and women who had been transported across the Middle Passage, and sold to planters and merchants across the British Caribbean? What impact did all of this have on the lives of those in the UK? What kind of responsibility did Britons, generations later, have for those wrongs committed by their forbears? There was no common view, but many voices were raised, unsettling what had seemed to be settled narratives.[15] In that sense 2007 was a reparative moment, marking new discoveries and provoking new questions.[16]


There is a long history of claims for reparations for the wrongs associated with slavery. As early as the 1780s there were petitions from those who had previously been enslaved. Hundreds of Quakers both freed enslaved men and women and paid them compensation. Some abolitionists argued in the nineteenth century that freedom should include compensation, some challenged the payment of compensation to slave-owners at the time of emancipation in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape.[17] Arguments were made for compensation in the US after the civil war and Marcus Garvey sought payment to descendants as part of the back to Africa movement. Congressman John Conyers, who represents Detroit, has marked every session for the last twenty-five years by introducing a bill calling for the congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects and recommending remedies.

 ‘The subterranean stream of Western history’, Hannah Arendt wrote in the immediate postwar years, ‘has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our position. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of the future, are vain.’[18] Such a recognition of the weight of the past, ‘that subterranean stream’, marked a very different attitude from earlier periods. For Marx the past had weighed like a nightmare on the brain of the living: but it was to be transcended. It was not until the 1990s that the need to come to terms with the past and the insistence that the legacies of the past lived on in the present became more urgent. Notions of reparation and a demand for reparative justice became a global phenomenon. The Holocaust was the most powerful symbol of the impossibility of ignoring the misdeeds of the past, and of thinking about that past as catastrophic, for it was still a living memory. Holocaust survivors, slave labourers in Nazi camps, Australian aborigines, Native Americans in Canada, Maori in New Zealand, the Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa were making claims on governments. Such claims implied a break with the idea of history as progress, that the future would always be better than the past, an idea heavily influenced by both Enlightenment stadial theory and Marxism. Now the emphasis is on reconstituting the past, in ways that enable thinking about responsibility in the present. Some have argued that this preoccupation with the past is a result of the decline of a more future-oriented and utopian politics. The combination of the horrors of Stalinism and of fascism, together with the end of the Soviet Union, the resurgence of nationalism, the unfinished work of decolonisation, the ‘failures’ of postcolonial states and the apparent triumph of global capitalism, have destroyed beliefs in the possibility of a transformative politics, the loss of a sense of common destiny, and a retreat into a growing concern with particular groups and claims, with victims and their rights.[19] It may be that the crisis of neoliberalism and the growing critique of capitalism and the market that characterises one aspect of our contemporary world, albeit alongside the successes of authoritarian populism, will mark the onset of a very different political moment. Could re-thinking the past, taking responsibilities for its residues and legacies, be one way of challenging rightwing politics and imagining a different future?

In the aftermath of the first world war, the word reparations was associated with the punishing payments demanded by the victors from the defeated. Sometime after the second world war, the word was transformed from its original connotations with war reparations. Karl Jaspers’ The Question of German Guilt argued for the need for the German people as a whole to atone: the Nuremberg trials and the hanging of individual Nazis were in no sense an adequate response to what had happened. Reconstruction and restoration would require recognition of the full meaning of what had happened and its implications for the majority population.[20] A shift took place from the language of perpetrators to the notion of beneficiaries, facilitating efforts to claim reparations for wrongs done in the past, for gross violations of human rights and their effects into the present. As Mahmood Mamdani put it in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

Where the focus is on perpetrators, victims are necessarily defined as the minority of political activists; for the victimhood of the majority to be recognized, the focus has to shift from perpetrators to beneficiaries. The difference is this: whereas the focus on perpetrators fuels the demand for justice as criminal justice, that on beneficiaries shifts the focus to a notion of justice as social justice.[21]

Responsibilities are then understood as belonging to nations and peoples, to ‘by- standers’, those who acquiesced or benefitted, as well as those who pressed the button. In a similar vein, Michael Rothberg, exploring what the legacies of slavery mean today in terms of justice and historical responsibility, has proposed the term ‘implicated subjects’. He argues that there is a need to develop a new cate- gory describing the implication of people in events that are temporally or spatially distant and in which they have not played a direct role either as perpetrators or victims.[22] Those of us living in the rich societies of the West have all, albeit profoundly unequally, enjoyed the fruits of racial capitalism, we are all survivors of slavery, not just those who can directly trace their lineages.

John Torpey makes a helpful distinction between ‘reparations’ (plural) in the more literal meaning of rectifying past injustices (whether or not you are directly responsible for committing the wrongs), and ‘reparation’ (the singular noun), which covers the wider terrain of reparation politics. Transitional justice, with its many permutations of truth, justice, and reconstruction; the tropes of forgive- ness, apologies, and regret; efforts at reconciliation, memory, and communal memorialisation, all these can play a part in attempts to take responsibility for as well as hope to put wrongs right.[23] While the word reparations generally means compensation of some kind, reparation has come to mean repair. People make reparation, states and corporations pay reparations. Reparation politics can include transitional justice, the legal mechanisms such as criminal trials and truth commis- sions which would mostly be concerned with perpetrators. ‘Transitional justice’, writes David Scott, ‘is the name of a post-Cold War development in liberal justice that, through the political technologies of successor trials and above all, historical truth commissions, aims to draw a line between the illiberal past and the liberalizing present.’[24] Then there is compensation and restitution of a material kind such as the German payments to Israel and the return of art works stolen by the Nazis. Reparation can include acknowledgement as in the case of the Japanese-American claims over internment, which involved token payments, apologies, as Blair refused in relation to slavery, some churches have made for sexual abuse, most recently Hollywood for misogyny/sexual harassment, or statements of regret. Efforts to reshape historical memory can also be made through history writing, school textbooks, exhibitions in museums, memorials, statues and commemorative plaques. Many of the activities associated with 2007 were indeed of this kind.

Claims from the Caribbean for reparation from the erstwhile empires were given new life by the publication of Hilary Beckles’s book Britain’s Black Debt in 2013, documenting the evidence of the destruction wreaked by slavery, the benefits that accrued to Britain, and the arguments for reparation. This was followed by the launch of the CARICOM ten-point programme in 2014, a claim from the regional states for reparatory justice from the European states ‘whose countries grew rich at the expense of those regions whose human wealth was stolen from them’. A full apology was demanded alongside debt cancellation, development programmes, resources to tackle ill health and illiteracy and psychological forms of rehabilitation for those who were ‘denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and pal- aces of Europe’.[25] The search was for a ‘path to reconciliation for victims of crimes against humanity and their descendants’ in the region. The CARICOM claim has been met with a deafening silence from European governments, has provoked criticism from Pan-Africanists for its failure to challenge the system of racial capitalism with its global reach, and from those in the wider diaspora for the exclusive focus on harms done in the Caribbean. Many black people are suspicious of the whole enterprise, many white people think that there is no reason to saddle them with responsibility for things they did not do. But might the reparations argument have the potential, as David Scott puts it, to

“redescribe the past’s relation to the present … to foreground the sense in which Caribbean debt is the other side of European theft – that the ‘persistent poverty’ of the Caribbean has been a constituting condition for ill-gotten European prosperity … The point is that this is not the story of a mere episode in a marginal history; it is the integrated story of the making of the modern world itself.”[26]

It is to be hoped that the new Centre for Reparations that has been established at the University of the West Indies will be able to build a detailed case that European governments will not be able to ignore. The priority is to seek reparations for the descendants of the enslaved and of those indigenous peoples who suffered genocide. But as Robin Kelley has written in relation to the US, ‘The reparations campaign, despite its potential contribution to eliminating racism and remaking the world, can never be an end in itself … without at least a rudimentary critique of the capitalist culture that consumes us, even reparations can have disastrous consequences.’[27]

Reparation and the UK

Reparatory work in the UK needs to be connected with these wider struggles but also to be rooted in the locality. Anti-racists have been challenging the systemic racism that has blighted the lives of generations, tackling inequality and discrimination for decades. Historians, writers, visual artists and critical race theorists have been exploring colonialism and its legacies, challenging the silences on ‘race’ and slavery. In her brilliant essay on the apparent absence of ‘race’ in the American literary canon, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison analysed a range of texts, from Willa Cather to Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain. ‘Her project’, she argued, ‘is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.’ She examined

“the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, or altered those notions. The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behaviour of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters.”[28]

The recognition of white privilege, grasping the extent to which white identities have been built on the capacity to ‘other’ those who are defined as lesser is a crucial part of the work that is underway and needs to be sustained in Britain.

My own first effort to do something I have come to call ‘reparatory history’ began in the 1980s when questions about the politics of ‘race’ erupted angrily amongst feminists, with demands from black feminists that white women should think about themselves and the positions of privilege they/we occupied. I began to research the question of ‘race’, the ways its presence and significance had been denied and disavowed in British history, and what this meant for white populations, whether ‘at home’ or in the empire. Britain’s domestic history had been systematically demarcated from its imperial history as if the two had nothing to do with each other. My study became an investigation of the impact of colonial- ism on English identities in the period after the abolition of slavery, an exploration of the long historical links between England, particularly Birmingham, and Jamaica. What did it mean to be a coloniser: how central was that identity, that sense of power over others who were thought lesser, to notions of Englishness and Britishness? How were white identities constituted in relation to black? What were the distinctive characteristics of white masculinities and femininities? How was class articulated with this? What happened to thinking about ‘race’ in the wake of abolition? Once slavery, with its supposedly clear binary between white and black and assumption of black subjection, was abolished, other legitimations had to be found for the systematic forms of exploitation, expropriation, cruelty, terror, coercion, violence, abuse, destruction and hatred of ‘others’ that continued across different sites of empire. Othering could take many forms as has been clear from the treatment of the Irish, of Jews and of people of colour in the metropole.[29] As Cathy Bergin and Anita Rupprecht have argued, the demand for reparation put a particular purchase on history and the history of ‘race’. ‘It challenges the progressive onward march of freedom from below by demanding the recognition and repair of exploitation, expropriation and violence not just by building monuments or demanding financial payback.’

There is much work to be done: exploring the continuities between the racisms of the past and the present, investigating the history of the descendants of the enslaved,  documenting  resistance  and  exploring  the  constructions  of  ‘race’, including whiteness, across different sites of empire, investigating the role of states and corporations. We need histories of the enslaved and their survival, they argue, of the perpetrators and the beneficiaries, of those who refused the Manichean binaries of ‘race’. Reparatory history must be about more than identifying wrongdoers and seeking redress: it begins with the descendants, with trauma and loss, but the hope is that the work of mourning can be linked to hopes for reconciliation, the repair of relations damaged by historical injustice.[30]

The attachment to the idea of abolition as a mark of Britain’s love of liberty and freedom was linked to a deep, yet disavowed, attachment in English culture to Britain’s imperial power. In the wake of decolonisation and the loss of Empire,Paul Gilroy diagnosed ‘postimperial melancholia’, marked by

“an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, the profound change in circumstances and moods that followed the end of the Empire … Once the his- tory of the Empire became a source of discomfort, shame, and perplexity, its complexities and ambiguities were readily set aside. Rather than work through those feelings, that unsettling history was diminished, denied, and then, if possible, actively forgotten.”

Such a denial has had profound moral and psychic costs, he suggested, not least shaping hostile responses to strangers and settlers, stirring up fears of ‘swamp- ing’ and invasion. ‘An anxious melancholic mood has become part of the cultural infrastructure’, he argued in 2004.[31] Gilroy’s analysis recalls Freud’s emphasis in Mourning and Melancholia that if a loved object cannot be relinquished and mourn- ing completed, melancholia will ensue, akin to a state of paralysis.[32] That melancholic mood has more recently been transposed into widescale resentment, an anger associated with the loss of an imagined time of purity, when England was white and her borders were secure.[33]

Disavowal and evasion

The concept of disavowal, first articulated by Freud and subsequently developed by a range of other psychoanalytic thinkers has become central to me in my efforts to understand the erasure of ‘race’ and empire in much British history writing. Freud asked, how do we remember, forget and reconfigure the past, and how is it that we can make a thing appear never to have happened? We can ‘know’, according to this account, something unconsciously even as we are consciously ‘innocent’ of the knowledge. Freud’s thinking was based upon the idea that mind is always conflicted, and that we actively rid ourselves (sometimes unbeknownst to ourselves) of certain mental contents. The body may speak another ‘unconscious’ story: thus Freud described a hysterical patient who seemed to know nothing of sexual desire, yet whose hands conveyed a different drama: the one unbuttoning her clothes, the other doing them up.[34] Others have investigated the ways we may misrecognise ourselves, avoid pain, bury our guilt, and disclaim our desires. Lacan’s famous reading of a story by Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’, zeroed in upon a hidden object, the epistle in question, hidden in plain view, on a mantelpiece where nobody (except the alert detective) could see it. Hence the casual leaving of a secret in an accessible location may turn out to be, by and large, a brilliant hiding place. As historians are well aware, archives may be technically ‘open’, but nobody bothers to look in them, or they/we look with ‘blind eyes’, asking some questions, forgetting others. Freud’s emphasis is on an unconscious process, the rejection of a reality that is potentially traumatic. Forgetting is understood as actively produced, not just a matter of failed remembering, rather it is willed, unconsciously. Disavowal is connected with a denial of external realities, a refusal to think what is unthinkable, a wish to put aside what cannot be integrated. And this is as relevant in our intimate and interpersonal relations as in relation to forgotten histories. Statements of denial are assertions that something did not happen, does not exist, is not true, or is not known about. It can be argued that individuals or collectives, indeed whole states and societies can be engaged in it.[35] Disavowal is the refusal to avow, the disclaiming of responsibility or knowledge of, repudiation or denial. It is often linked to the notion of a ‘blind eye’ or the refusal of something in plain sight, so carrying the implication of knowing and not knowing.

Hannah Arendt was no disciple of Freud, yet there are connections with her concept of thoughtlessness, characterised in part by the absence of internal dialogue. This was a crucial concept for her exploration of the imperial roots of totalitarianism and the Holocaust. She re-named Nazi rule ‘race imperialism’. The priority, she insisted was to examine the past ‘bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us – neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality – whatever it may be or might have been.’[36] She saw the repetition of empty and trivial truths as a key aspect of ‘modern times’.

‘In matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary dis- course’, Morrison wrote. ‘Evasion has fostered another, substitute language in which the issues are encoded, foreclosing open debate. The situation is aggravated by the tremor that breaks into discourse on race.’[37] A similar argument can be made about history writing, a topic that I have been investigating in recent times. One case study has focused on Macaulay’s History of England, the great popular history of the nineteenth century, read across the globe.[38] It was an epic story of progress from Elizabeth I to modern times, 1848. It covered the period of the conquest of Jamaica and the expansion of the slave trade and the development of colonial slavery. Macaulay’s father, Zachary, had a lifelong preoccupation with Africa and the Caribbean. An abolitionist, he had spent formative years as a bookkeeper in Jamaica and then time in Sierra Leone, and became Wilberforce’s right-hand man. Yet his son banished the slave trade and slavery to the uttermost margins of his volumes. The peoples and politics of the Atlantic were irrelevant to his vision of history as was the huge flow of wealth from Caribbean slavery and commerce. Despite the development of the Royal Africa Company under Charles II and James II there was no discussion of the slave trade or plantation slavery, the subjects that had occupied most of Zachary Macaulay’s waking hours. This was a startling silence. Sugar and slavery were becoming central to England’s wealth and power by the late seventeenth century. But slavery was a system that Macaulay preferred to forget. It was abolition that should be memorialised. This was a process that had begun in 1808, with the publication of Thomas Clarkson’s history, celebrating the actions of a group of humanitarian white men on both sides of the Atlantic: it was they who had effected abolition. The Wilberforce brothers’ hagiographic account of their father’s life confirmed this way of constructing England’s role: it was humanitarianism that was to be remembered, not the country’s investment in the slave trade and slavery.

In Macaulay’s mind there was nothing significant to be said about the Caribbean, those colonies had no History, with a capital H, History was a story of progress, the story England exemplified. The Caribbean was locked in what Dipesh Chakrabarty famously named ‘the waiting room of history’, possibly seeking entry at some future date.[39] The ‘great experiment’ of emancipation was increasingly problematic in the 1840s, the years Macaulay was writing, the freed men and women had found no real freedom and were frequently in conflict with their erstwhile owners, the Caribbean islands no longer dominated sugar production and were increasingly irrelevant to global economics and politics. There was no story of progress there. Macaulay’s history was of the making of the multi-ethnic nation named England, with its inclusion, as lesser siblings, of the Scots, and, much more problematically, the partial inclusion of the Irish, who could not be comfortably assimilated in his imagination. England provided a model in his analysis, a successful example of the route to modernity, laying out a path which others could follow. His underlying assumption, rooted in his ethnocentrism, was that it was the route. In that sense his History purported to be a universal history.

Macaulay never chose to write a biography of his father, far from it. He preferred to distance himself from all that his father had most valued, evangelicalism and the struggle against slavery. We cannot think, as he had once proclaimed, as our fathers do. His disavowal of the significance of the slave trade and slavery to his nation’s history could be read as the most potent rejection of his father’s legacy. Abolition had been effected: in its wake he had no time for ‘impracticable, uncompromising reformers’, who never did good and led ‘miserable lives’ and he hated ‘negrophiles’ as much as ‘nigger drivers’. He disliked the whole subject of slavery, did not want to talk, think, or write about it, refused to act as the Vice- President of the Edinburgh Antislavery Society. It was a relief when the subject was avoided, as at a dinner with Sumner, the Massachusetts anti-slavery leader: ‘We had no talk about slavery, to my great joy.’ Avoiding subjects, blocking off difficulties, making the world in his own image: these were some of his strategies for keeping trouble at bay.

He had been in the House of Commons in the difficult days when the terms of abolition were being negotiated. He had done his duty to his father. The supreme authority of the ‘parent state’ had been enacted with the abolition of slavery in 1833 by the imperial parliament, in the face of opposition from the colonial assemblies. England had done its duty and so had he. Now he could put it aside. But putting it aside meant deliberately avoiding and forgetting: disavowal. Macaulay was well aware of the extent to which the slave trade and slavery had sustained the economy and society. He was a member of the government that negotiated compensation to the slave-owners: he knew what the payment of 20 million pounds meant in terms of the government’s overall expenditure. But he preferred not to know, he could not face reality. The West Indies rarely crossed his mind, peopled as they were by ‘stupid ungrateful’ gangs of ‘negroes’. He paid lip service to the abolitionists, but Africa and the Caribbean, effectively excluded from his history, only featured in one paragraph.

Yet what a paragraph: the tremor in his text was marked by the forgotten but not to be dispelled spectre of the slave trade and slavery. Evoking the terrible earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1692, he described ‘The fairest and wealthiest city which the English had yet built in the New World, renowned for its quays, for its warehouses, and for its stately streets, which were said to rival Cheapside.’ On that fateful day all ‘was turned into a mass of ruins’. Here the focus was on the city, built by Englishmen and brought into homely purview by being compared to Cheapside. The markets where the enslaved were sold as commodities, the wharves where the slavers docked, the Africans who peopled the island – none of these were in his line of vision. It was the impact on home that preoccupied him, the effect of the disaster on ‘the great mercantile houses of London and Bristol’. Thus Jamaica was domesticated and slavery disavowed. That earthquake signalled the eruption of repressed memories, for repression cannot always contain its troublesome baggage. Macaulay’s History marginalised slavery and empire in the nation’s story. The work of such an influential historian, read across generations, can tell us much about the construction of Anglophone visions of white civilisation. Unpicking that narrative, demonstrating how that marginalisation was effected, what and who were excluded, how the story is fundamentally changed once questions of gender, ‘race’ and class are opened up, exploitation and expropriation registered, is one way of attempting repair.

To focus on undoing the legacies of ‘great white men’ is one possible strategy. New understandings can never undo the devastation and loss that was suffered in the past and that lives on for descendants in the present. But thinking differently can perhaps awaken a sense of the responsibilities of ‘implicated subjects’ who have benefitted culturally, economically and politically from the hurts inflicted on others, in the hope that change can happen, racisms could be eradicated. Recognition matters. The reparation done for the Holocaust has made a difference – the absence of reparation for slavery means that the wound is still open for many people of African-Caribbean descent. Acknowledgement can mean that those implicated in oppression can align themselves with the oppressed and try to repair.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project ( (LBS) which seeks to put slavery back into British history, on which I was a principal researcher from 2009 to 2015, has also focused on individuals, but this time on a significant group, the slave-owners.[40] The aim has been to shift the narrative of Britain’s relation to slavery from a focus on abolition to one on the benefits associated with the business of slavery and its importance to the making of modern Britain and in the process to contribute to undoing whitewashed histories. Little systematic attention had been paid to British slave-owners though there were invaluable case studies of particular families and Eric Williams had pointed the way in his attention to the absentee West Indian elite, living in Britain.[41] We decided to use them as a lens through which to explore the tentacles of the slav- ery business in the metropole. Pro-slavers resisted emancipation as long as they could. Once they knew the battle was lost they used their parliamentary power to get the best terms possible for themselves. They drove a hard bargain. The 20 mil- lion pounds (16 billion in today’s money) paid to them in compensation for the loss of ‘their’ human property was combined with a system of apprenticeship, binding the freed men and women to working unpaid for their former masters for fixed hours over four to six years. The compensation records were meticulously collected in the wake of emancipation, providing a census of slave-owners at that time, a unique source.[42] By documenting the 46,000 individual claims for compensation and detailing the legacies – commercial, financial, political, cultural and imperial of the absentees – those with addresses registered in Britain, the extent of Britons’ involvement in slave-ownership has been laid bare. Some of the wealthy slave-owners such as John Gladstone, William’s father, were well- known. But the 3,500+ who received compensation in the metropole were enormously varied, ranging from modest widows living on annuities that were funded by the labour of the enslaved to middle-range merchants, bankers and lawyers, and rich ‘West Indians’ based partially in Marylebone and enjoying a country residence. Twenty per cent of those who received compensation in Britain were women. The compensation records deal with individuals but they illuminate the structures of class and state power. It was the imperial parliament which legislated the ending of slavery, just as it had previously legislated the trade and the notion of an enslaved person as a commodity.

Tracking the legacies has meant looking at the West India lobby and its retention of significant political influence into the 1840s, protecting the interests of the planters. British railway and canal systems, merchant banks and insurance companies, urban developments in spa towns such as Leamington, all bear witness to wealth derived from slavery. British museums and galleries display the perquisites of slavery and empire, visitors to country houses can marvel at the riches associated with sugar. Enterprises in the new colonies of white settlement were partially built on the fruits of slave-ownership. Scrolling through the LBS documentation of slave-owners who contributed to philanthropic enterprises we dis- cover that they supported asylums and schools for the urban poor, hospitals and an Institute for the Blind, the Governesses Benevolent Society and the Lifeboat Institution, typical objects of middle- and upper-class charity. Modern Britain was better equipped to respond to ill-health, poverty and disability than were the lands and peoples it colonised.

Bringing slavery home means tracking all these material traces, following the money and the people, making visible the legacies of slave-ownership, excavating what has been suppressed and marginalised, re-inscribing the slavery business in modern British history in an effort to reshape what is understood as the truth of what has happened. The database provides the evidence of the webs of connections to slavery that continue into the present within the white British elite and key social and economic institutions. It confirms Eric Williams’ insistence on the contribution that slave wealth made to the development of capitalism. It is a resource opening up the entangled histories of Britain’s relation to the Caribbean and offering extensive refutations of that binary between black and white which the slave-owners tried to impose, the ‘race-making’ that was central to their power.[43] It challenges the systemic disavowal, the knowing and not knowing of the realities of slavery that has characterised British history writing and British society. Anecdotal evidence from educational institutions, the media and public debates suggests that LBS has made a difference. The national narrative has shifted: it is impossible now to think about abolition without compensation. Furthermore, the empirical work has given people who are making political claims the historical grounding from which to do so.

LBS’s current project is documenting the structure and scale of Britons’ owner- ship in the Caribbean between 1763–1833, this time establishing patterns of land holding and levels of production when possible, uncovering the political, economic and cultural legacies, and utilising the Slave Registers to record the numbers of men, women and children who worked on the estates.[44] Digitising these histories, in so far as we can, including locating estates on maps, means extensive additions to the database and new possibilities for family and local historians as well as academic researchers. Attempting to grasp the world of the planter historian of Jamaica, Edward Long, the subject of my current research, is greatly facilitated by this wider comparative context across the British Caribbean. I aim to situate him as a child growing up in a family whose plantations had been established in the 1650s, fill out the details of his twelve years on the island as a planter, grasp the significance of his authoritative work as a historian and his life amongst the West Indian elite as an influential pro-slaver in Marylebone and the home counties.

The hope is to understand more about how racial thinking works, what are its logics and its mechanics, how did slave-owners such as Long establish the practices that attempted to fix the binaries between black and white, master the world in which they lived? The ability to see and not see was fundamental to Long’s life, to disavow and deny realities. He relied on what Ann Stoler has called ‘imperial dispositions’ to legitimate his own behaviour, as a planter, a legislator in the House of Assembly, a writer and polemicist, and in the network of his family and kin. He learned to ignore, turn away, refuse to witness: these were the ‘well-tended conditions of disregard’ that enabled slave-owners to live with the contradictions of their practices.[45] Long could be a loving family man and a buyer and seller of human property, valuing others only as commodities and relying on violence and coercion to extract their labour. This culture and the divisions between black and white were not ‘natural’, they had to be created and learned. This was the work of ‘making race’.

So can we think of such work as reparative? Its primary intention is not to seek new resources for education and health in the Caribbean, nor is it focused on the long-term effects of the slave trade on Africa. It is not about the politics of sur- vival and existential struggle under the conditions of ‘bare life’ as Vincent Brown evokes in his discussion of studies of slavery.[46] It cannot offer the kinds of insights into the harshness of Jamaican plantation life that Diana Paton has been able to unearth in her study of slave courts or the complexities of the sex-gender system captured through a fragment in the life of a free woman of colour.[47] My chosen focus is on the UK and the need to develop a different understanding here of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism. This means thinking about understandings of ‘race’ and difference. How significant were the ideas about ‘race’ which developed in the Caribbean to English/British under- standings of difference? Debates over slavery and abolition brought this material ‘home’: pro-slavers and abolitionists tried to marshal their forces and their organisations, worked hard to influence policy and practice. Anti-slavery activism was vital, but it did not always undermine notions of white superiority.[48]

A decade after 2007 it is possible to make some assessment of what shifts have and have not taken place in the UK on the question of slavery and its legacies into the present. There have been some welcome changes in schools and universities, more scholarship produced, more materials made available, a sense that the story cannot any longer be told in quite the way it once was. Politically, ground has been lost. On his visit to Jamaica in 2015 the then prime minister David Cameron’s refusal to consider reparations together with his extraordinarily ill-judged promise of 25 million for a new prison on the island marked a low point. The harsh policies of the current Conservative government on immigration and deportation and of the police on stop and search leave little faith in platitudes about tolerance.[49] The appalling statistics on African-Caribbean levels of inequality, whether in edu- cation, employment, prisons or mental health speak volumes about the persistence of racism.

Colin Prescod has recently recognised the work that has been done by archivists and curators on Black cultural heritage, but makes a powerful argument for mov- ing beyond including the Black experience to allowing Black agency in the making of the record.[50] Black community groups have registered anger and frustration about the opportunities that have been lost, the disappointment of hopes raised in 2007 of changes that would be made, collaborations that would develop, more genuinely inclusive policies that would be implemented. It is just as urgent to insist that Black Lives Matter in the wake of Grenfell as it was in 2007, 1807 or 1833. Morrison’s call for a ‘serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters’ seems no less important in the current climate of Islamophobia and xenophobia, the abandonment of refugees as ‘disposable people’. We need to understand that we are dealing with deeply embedded assumptions in the UK, what Stuart Hall described as ‘a reservoir of unconscious feelings’ about ‘race’.[51] There remains much reparatory work to be done: history writing can be one way in.


  1. This essay was originally a talk at the ‘Reparatory Histories’ conference in Brighton in April 2017 and then at the Bluecoats conference in Liverpool in October Thanks to all the par- ticipants at those conferences for their thoughts and then to Sally Alexander, Nick Draper, Cora Kaplan, Keith McClelland, Rachel Lang and Diana Paton.
  2. Runnymede Trust, The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain (London: Profile Books, 2000), p.
  3. The Guardian, 12 October 2000.
  4. For a critical account of the Durban conference see Hilary Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: repara- tions for Caribbean slavery and native genocide (Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2013).
  5. Randall Robinson, The Debt: what America owes to Blacks (New York: P. Dutton, 2000). There were echoes here of Orlando Patterson’s emphasis on the  systematic  alienation  and  social death associated with Atlantic slavery, Slavery and Social Death: a comparative study (Cambridge, MA, 1982).
  6. For a helpful discussion of the value of political apologies see Janna Thompson, ‘Is political apology a sorry affair?’, Social and Legal Studies 21, 2 (2012), pp. 215–25.
  7. Government Press Notice,
  8. John Oldfield, ‘Chords of Freedom’: commemoration, ritual and British transatlantic slavery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007); ‘Repairing historical wrongs: public history and transatlantic slavery’, 21, no. 2 (2012), pp. 243–55.
  9. The Guardian, 27 February
  10. Toyin Agbetu intervened dramatically in the service at Westminster Abbey commemorating the bi-centenary which the Queen attended on 27 March 2007, saying that the service was an insult to those of African
  11. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (abridged version) (Seeley: Burnside & Seeley, 1843), p. 501.
  12. For one of the volumes that came out of new research in 2007 see Cora Kaplan and John Oldfield, eds, Imagining Transatlantic Slavery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  13. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 183, quoted in Erika Apfelbaum, ‘Halbwachs and the social properties of memory’, in Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz, eds, Memory. Histories, Theories, Debates (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), pp. 77–92.
  14. Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, ‘Fugitive justice’, Representations 91, no. 1 (2005), pp. 1–12; Quobna Ottabah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999).
  15. For some of the reflections on 2007 see the special issue of Slavery and Abolition (30, 2 [2009]), ‘Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions; reflections on 2007 in international perspective’ (edited by Diana Paton and Jane Webster); Laurajane Smith et al., eds, Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums (London: Routledge, 2014).
  16. On the importance of discovery to possibilities of reparation see Karl Figlio, Remembering as Reparation: psychoanalysis and historical memory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
  17. Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: slave-ownership, compensation and British society at the end of slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  18. Hannah Arendt, ‘Preface to the first edition’, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1973 [1951]), p.
  19. See, for example, the discussions in John Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: on reparation politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); David Scott, Omens of Adversity: tragedy, time, memory, justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Robert Meister, After Evil: a politics of human rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
  20. For an introduction to aspects of the complicated history of postwar responses in Germany see Geoff Eley, ‘Contemporary Germany and denial: is “Nazism” all there is to say?’, History Workshop Journal 84 (Autumn 2017), 44–66.
  21. Unpublished paper quoted in Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: transitional justice and the challenge of truth commissions (New York, 2001), p.
  22. Michal Rothberg, Unpublished paper, ‘On being a descendant: implicated subjects and the  legacy of slavery’, Utrecht, June 2013. See also his book, Multidirectional Memory: remembering the Holocaust in the age of decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009) which brings together holocaust studies and postcolonial studies, aiming to change thinking about collective memory and group identities. See also Elazar Bakan, Guilt of Nations: restitution and negotiating historical injustices (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2000).
  23. Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed. I have found Torpey’s discussion of reparations very helpful and have drawn on it in this
  24. Scott, Omens of Adversity, pp. 26–27.
  25. Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt; nations-unanimously-approve-10-point-plan.
  26. David Scott, ‘Debt, redress’, Small Axe 43 (2014), pp. 1–4.
  27. For an account of the scale of the politics of reparation movements see Robin Kelley, ‘A day of reckoning: dreams of reparations’, in Freedom Dreams (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 110–34.
  28. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: whiteness and the literary imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993 [1992]), pp. 90, 11–12.
  29. Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination 1830-1867 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).
  30. 17. Cathy Bergin and Anita Rupprecht, ‘History, agency and the representation of “race” – an introduction’, Race & Class 57, 3 (2016), pp. 3–17.
  31. Paul Gilroy, After Empire: melancholia or convivial culture? (London: Routledge, 2004), 98.
  32. Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 14 (London: Vintage Classics, 2001) pp. 239–60.
  33. Max Hastings, well-known military historian, editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and one- time editor of the Evening Standard has recently commented on the disaster of producing a film such as Dunkirk in this conjuncture, the calamitous fantasies it encourages of Britain standing alone.
  34. I am quoting in this paragraph from a longer version of this argument: Catherine Hall and Daniel Pick, ‘Thinking about denial’, History Workshop Journal 84 (Autumn 2017), 1–23.
  35. Stan Cohen, States of Denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).
  36. Arendt, ‘Preface to the first edition’, xviii.
  37. Morrison, Playing, p.9.
  38. For a longer account of Macaulay’s history writing see Catherine Hall, Macaulay and Son: archi- tects of imperial Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). The citation in the following paragraphs are drawn from
  39. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
  40. The project was funded by the ESRC, and supported by the Department of History at
  41. See, for example, S. G. Checkland, The Gladstones: A family biography 1764-1851 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).
  42. Draper, The Price of Emancipation.
  43. Catherine Hall, Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, Katie Donington and Rachel  Lang,  The Legacies of British Slave-ownership and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
  44. This project has been funded by the ESRC and AHRC and supported by the History Department at The establishment of a Centre for the Study of British Slave-ownership at UCL is now supported by the Hutchins Center, Harvard University.
  45. Anne Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 256.
  46. Vincent Brown, ‘Social death and political life in the study of slavery’, American Historical Review 114, no. 5 (December 2009), pp. 1231–49.
  47. Diana Paton, ‘Punishment, crime, and the bodies of slaves in eighteenth-century Jamaica’, Journal of Social History 34, 4 (Summer 2001), pp. 923–54; ‘Mary Williamson’s Letter, or seeing women in the archives of Atlantic slavery’, lecture to the Royal Historical Society, 9 February 2018. The work of doing reparatory history will always be collective and collabora- tive, drawing on the many and varied skills of historians across the world, located in specific national, transnational and global contexts.
  48. Hall, Civilising Subjects; Clare Midgley, Women against Slavery: the British campaigns 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992).
  49. Any illusion that official understandings have changed could be dispelled by the Treasury tweet of 9 February about compensation that was ill-judged and See David Olusoga, ‘The Treasury’s tweet shows slavery is still misunderstood’, The Guardian, 13 February 2018.
  50. Colin Prescod, ‘Archives, race, class and rage’, Race & Class 58, no. 4 (2017), pp. 76–84.
  51. Stuart Hall interviewed by Les Back, in-conversation-with-les-back.

In the second of the #ReconstructionWork series, ‘Parliamentary Politics and Grassroots Organising’, David Lammy and Amina Gichinga discussed how best to effect political change through grassroots activism and the parliamentary system, whilst taking into consideration the role of community, culture and theories of change.

Find out more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.


After being elected for the 7th time as the Member of Parliament for Tottenham in December 2019, David Lammy was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Justice. He became the first black MP to hold the Justice post, either in government or opposition. This appointment concluded a busy year for David, who has fought for justice on behalf of the Windrush Generation, spearheaded the struggle to resist Brexit, campaigned for a humane immigration system, sought to protect vulnerable teenagers from surging knife-crime, re-applied pressure on the Government to compensate the victims of the Grenfell Tower Fire and continued to expose racial bias within the British criminal justice system. These are just some of the issues that David explores in his recently published book, Tribes, an exploration of both the benign and malign effects of our very human need to belong.

Amina Gichinga is a musician, a speaker and a community organiser. Amina became disillusioned with the elitist environment of parliament in her teens and turned to grassroots activism in Newham, where she’s always lived. Wanting to demonstrate a radical approach to how party politics could be done differently, she stood as Take Back the City’s GLA candidate for the City and East Constituency in the 2016 Mayoral & London Assembly elections. Since early 2018 she has worked as an organiser with London Renters Union, organising with local tenants in Newham & Leytonstone to harness their collective power. Amina combined her love of music with her dedication to social justice and founded Nawi Collective, an all-black women and non-binary femmes choir, in 2017.