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 elliptically 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 Høgsbjerg’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 Høgsbjerg’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). When he left Trinidad to pursue his ambitions to be a writer, he was firmly enmeshed in the Arnoldian cultural tradition and a man of letters, the term he chose for his tombstone.
It was only in Britain that James began reading Marx and Trotsky in earnest. As he said to Stuart Hall in later years, “I had not read one line of Marx” while in Trinidad.3 Over the next few years, James would become increasingly radicalized in his vision of politics, particularly about the revolutionary potential then so evident in the various Pan-African and Asian struggles for independence.
There is an uncomplicated and, frankly, racist way to read this shift: of the black man making contact with the finest flowers of Western radical thought and learning to see the light by moving away from the humanistic discourse in which he has been steeped. It is to Høgsbjerg’s credit that he carefully parses this gradual shift in James’s thinking by dismantling the myths about the fixity of James’s colonial education. He quotes Stuart Hall, who described it as “a source of intellectual strength.” Hall was also the one who pointed out that James’s native country “always had a vigorous independent intellectual life” and an “anti-colonial culture.”4 James was in fact part of a vibrant literary and intellectual circle with its constant critique of the rhetoric of Empire and the overwhelming trope of whiteness as a universal value. And rather than dismiss the work of Matthew Arnold as something James grew out of, Høgsbjerg points out that James took Arnold’s tenets and “transformed them in a creative manner that few in Britain—least of all a figure like Matthew Arnold—could have ever envisaged possible.”5
Arnold saw culture as cutting across classes and enabling change; James took this seriously enough to engage, for instance, calypso as a “critical means of expression for social grievances.”6 This went and still goes against the grain of hard-line leftists who prefer to think of culture as a frivolous distraction from the march towards revolution. The larger point here is that James’s intellectual origins and shifts were more complicated and nuanced than simply that of a native learning of revolution from white people.
In England, he was supported by Learie Constantine, the first black player to be recruited into English league cricket and who was settled in the town of Nelson, in Lancashire. Nelson had prospered in the nineteenth century when cotton made small towns wealthy, and its politics ran from liberal to socialist, even after the boom years faded and left the town with a high percentage of people unemployed and on the dole. Shortly before his arrival there, a local cinema company had tried to cut the wages of its workers. In response, the entire town effectively went on strike by refusing to see movies, and the subsequent complete lack of patronage resulted in the company going bankrupt and leaving; the cinema houses were taken over by locals and filled once again. In 1932, the town’s cotton workers went on a mass strike that went on for more than a month.
All this meant that James was not simply living in a sleepy small town, but witnessing the kind of working-class resistance that would eventually mark the contours of his own political work and theory.
Despite the economic hardships its people experienced as the threads of Empire began to unravel, Imperial Britain was a heady place and time for James. It was the place where some of the best minds and revolutionaries would gather, where the early hankerings for the overthrow of the Empire would, ironically, be fomented within the belly of the beast.
In London, James met with the Bloomsbury group, and that connection would lead to publication opportunities and a network. But he was also meeting and witnessing the incipient revolutions and overthrows within countries like India, and rapidly becoming part of the vanguard of a larger group pursuing the goal of a Pan-African revolutionary movement. At political meetings, James became well-known for his cutting denunciations of the hypocrisy of British leftists and liberals.
In 1935, the British historian Reginald Coupland insisted that Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery had come about “Not because it was good policy or good business to abolish it—it was neither, it was the opposite—but simply because of its iniquity.”7 Coupland’s words reflected the revisionism of prominent abolitionists, who piously held that slavery had ended on account of, in essence, the good will of the British.
As Høgsbjerg writes, to James, “it seemed clear that the British had partly abolished the slave trade because they were slowly realizing that slavery itself was not as profitable as free labor, nor the old mercantilist system as potentially profitable as free trade.”8 James did not stop there with such a critique, and proceeded to eviscerate Coupland’s revisiting of history: “Those who see in abolition the gradually awakening conscience of mankind should spend a few minutes asking themselves why it is man’s conscience, which had slept peacefully for so many centuries, should awake just at the time that men began to see the unprofitableness of slavery as a method of production in the West Indian colonies.”9
In later years, Eric Williams would dismiss James’s Marxist belief in what Williams called “the absurdities of world revolution.”10 Høgsbjerg rightly points out that there is “nothing ‘absurd’ about James’s orientation toward revolutionary Marxism during the 1930s.”11 When he left Britain for the United States, the former’s citizens were suffering economic hardship, but the country was still unprepared for the war to come and the rise of Hitler, and for the eventual shift away from its position as the most powerful Empire. In its place would rise a perhaps more nefarious colonizer, with a more insidious plan of eventual neoliberal domination.
Høgsbjerg’s biography is an essential piece of the history of C.L.R. James. It is first and foremost an intellectual history which demonstrates how both theory and politics form and are formulated over years. And it provides proof that the revolution will not come without sustained intellectual engagement.