Throughout their son’s childhood, Stephen Hall’s parents, both children of sharecroppers, crafted a “deeply humanistic perch” from which he could “view the world.” Though possessing none of the benefits of class or race privilege, they harnessed the power of the book, searching for what historian Isabel Wilkerson has called “the light of other suns” in the “recesses of their minds.” Their personal library—including the Bible, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Great Books—stoked young Hall’s imagination. The harmonies of musicians, such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, played alongside images of athletes like Muhammad Ali. The ritual of accompanying his parents to vote in local, state, and national elections deepened a conviction: being humanistic entails civic engagement.


It seems from my early consciousness, the humanities were an ever-present part of my being. The son of sharecropper’s children, neither which possessed a high school education, they crafted a deeply humanistic perch from which I could view the world. From Durham and Salzburg, North Carolina, respectfully, the search for what Isabel Wilkerson has called the “light of the suns” resided in the conscious and unconscious recesses of their mind.

Possessing none of the benefits of class, race, and gender privilege, my mother harnessed the power of a book. A small library composed of encyclopedias, great books, contemporary literature and magazines, nestled in the study between the living room and master bedroom.

In the den, this middle space, where I did my homework daily, was where dreams were made and humanistic visions forged. It seems that all that would come was previewed there. A close reading of the Bible, deep droughts from the wells of encyclopedia Britannica, the great books and great performances, from Bach to Berlin.

My father cultivated in me his love of politics and sport. In the basement, he regaled us with Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Whisperers on 8-track tapes. As we basked in the melodic cadences of the songs, Mohammed Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, James Foreman, or Tommy Hickman Herms, or Leonard Spinx could be seen on the console television, weaving their pugilistic magic in the ring.

If the basement and study, upper and lower rooms, represented two distinct poles of reality, then the kitchen served as the temple to politics. There my father read the newspaper and watched the nightly news. It was his insistence that politics mattered, which fueled my subsequent interest in political conventions. I watched my first political convention in 1976, and I continue to do so up to the present day.

Convinced that being humanistic entailed civic engagement, my parents always took my brother and I with them to vote in local, state and national elections. It was a ritual of sorts. We obligingly piled into our old 1968 Pontiac Bonneville, arriving at Campville Elementary School, our neighborhood polling place in Baltimore County, Maryland. Once there, they would park the car on the road, and we would watch them make their way through a gauntlet of poll workers, who showered them with campaign literature of one sort or another. Undaunted, they proceeded into the polling place, and stayed for what seemed an eternity. Emerging together as if they had crossed the finish line of a marathon, we could see the exhilaration and the importance of this act.

It was a logical extension of the humanistic constructs in our home. Contact in eventful and uneventful ways, my upbringing among organic intellectuals, a Gramscian designation would surely apply to my parents, shaped my interests in direct and indirect ways.

By the mid-80s, armed with a deeper and more informed sense of my racial sense and my humanistic responsibility, I too became involved in political campaign. As election day approached, we received our poll assignments. My assignment was none other than Campville Elementary School. I arrived early to my post on election day. A lean, lanky boy of 17, I was wise in the arts of politics, canvassing and poll work. The voters came slowly, and then steadily, through the gauntlet of poll workers who handed them literature, and generally cajoled and prodded them to vote for one candidate or the other. All the faces seemed to blur, until I looked across the yard and saw my parents, parking in their familiar place and proceeding to the gauntlet. As my parents proceeded, I felt the weight of the years passing before me, remembering my passive position watching my parents, and present one as an active participant. Now, in our reverse roles, all was clear. As they approached, I beamed with pride. I hugged them, and gleefully announced and introduced them to the assembled throng as my parents.

I knew in that moment all the years of watching, listening, engaging, thinking in our den and basement and kitchen had prepared me for this moment. A moment electric with the preparation of the past, the participatory urgency of the present, and the humanistic possibilities of the future.

Stephen G. Hall (NHC Fellow, 2017–18)