Magazine article Monthly Review

Cricket and Revolutions: C.L.R. James's Early British Years

Magazine article Monthly Review

Cricket and Revolutions: C.L.R. James's Early British Years

Article excerpt

Cricket and Revolutions: C.L.R. James's Early British Years Christian Hogsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 294 pages, $24.95, softcover.

On the show Designing Women, Bernice Clifton, played by Alice Ghostley, famously sang a made up song, "Black Man, Black Man," to a bemused Anthony Bouvier, played by Meshach Taylor. The lyrics, made up by Bernice, went "Black Man, Black Man, where are you gone to?/ Black Man, Black Man, where did you go?" It was and is a satirical take on a (mostly white) inability to see black men in positive terms except when they can be rendered fetishized objects fit for study; the song was played, at Taylor's request, at his funeral in 2014.

This song pops up into my head every time I hear or read of the reception to powerful, intelligent, black men. (The treatment of black women intellectuals is an entirely different matter, and would require an entirely different piece.) If not ignored, which happens too often, black intellectuals are generally groveled to with a cringe-inducing amount of overdone veneration and simultaneously reduced to a racial type.

The London Times once referred to the famed Trinidad-born C.L.R. James as a "Black Plato." When asked about the phrase, James ellipti- cally deflected it with a graciousness that should be noted, but the problems with being able to conceive of black intellect only within parallels within Western thought could take up pages.1 Christian Hogsbjerg's new biography of James focuses on his first years in Britain, from 1932 to 1938, and skillfully avoids either fetishizing his subject or reducing him to a glorious "black brain." The result is a riveting history that is bound to awaken the interest of those unfamiliar with him and add a dimension to what others already know of his life and work.

Cyril Lionel Robert James is best known for his books on two seemingly disparate subjects, the Haitian revolution and cricket. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, was published in 1938, while Beyond a Boundary was published in 1963. The latter would be his last work. Nevertheless, he remained prolific. His reputation as an intellectual grew; and it has continued to grow after his death in 1989. Over his long career and life, James wrote on an array of subjects and also produced novels and plays. The time-span and range of his work echo the passage inscribed on his tombstone and, in a different way, Bernice's plaintive call: "I discovered that it is not the quality of goods and utility which matters, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going, and the rate at which you are getting there."2

If the rate at which one gets to such a place is to be considered, James went at a speed to which scholars and activists are still trying to catch up.

What Hogsbjerg's work does so brilliantly is to reveal not simply what James did or said or wrote in those crucial years, but the contours of an intellectual history: not just that of James alone but of his many fellow travelers in a particularly dynamic moment in history. In the course of his life, James would see a series of historic events, including the independence of Trinidad and Tobago, whose first Prime Minister, Eric Williams, was an early interlocutor, the beginning of a Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the independence of countries like India.

He was a typical product of a colonial education, the sort rarely seen now but once common in all the outposts of the British Empire, including his native Trinidad. The trajectory of such could be easily found and replicated numerous times: a fine colonial education, the sort that inculcated all the values of British personhood, followed by the sometimes jolting awareness that Britain had no real place for those it had, after all, merely raised as subjects: the stepchildren of Empire. He was amongst the brightest of his generation and well-schooled and versed in the classical traditions typical of the British public school system (in an oxymoronic way, British private schools are referred to as public). …

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