A long-overdue critical appreciation of the West Indian historian and political activist who played a towering role in the cause of Pan-Africanism in the twentieth century.
Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was a precocious polymath all his life. By the time he was a teenager and already a certified teacher, he had embarked on a lifelong advocacy for the Trinidadian oppressed. He embraced Marxism while living in England during the 1930s, during which time he published, among other works, The Case for West Indian Self Government and his masterpiece, The Black Jacobins.
James lived in the United States from 1939 until he was expelled during the McCarthy terror for his political activities. Thereafter he divided his time between London and Trinidad (where he served as Secretary of the West Indies Federal Labor Party) and, until his death in 1989, wrote works of both fiction and nonfiction that would profoundly influence the Black Power movement in the United States and independence movements in Africa and the West Indies.
Farrukh Dhondy knew James personally and was given access to his papers. The result is a biography that is a revelation of the life and work of this legendary intellect and revolutionary.
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Farrukh Dhondy is Commissioning Editor for Multicultural Programs for the BBC. Born in India, he received a B.A. in English from Cambridge University. The author of many acclaimed children’s books, plays, and screenplays, he lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My chief memory is of my mother sitting reading and I lying on the floor near her reading until it was time to go to bed–9 o'clock. She was a very tall woman, my colour, with a superb carriage and so handsome that everybody always asked who she was. She dressed in the latest fashion–she had a passion for dress and was herself a finished seamstress. But she was a reader. She read everything that came her way. I can see her now, sitting very straight with the book held high, her pince-nez on her Caucasian nose, reading till long after midnight.
This is probably C.L.R. James's earliest recorded memory. In fact, all we have of his childhood is what he tells us, for there are no witnesses to his birth and early childhood; C.L.R. outlived them all.
Cyril Lionel Robert James was born on 4 January 1901 in Tunapuna, Trinidad. His father, Robert, was a schoolteacher, the son of a sugar estate worker and his mother, Bessie, was one of three sisters, daughters of Joshua Rudder, a railroad fireman, originally from Barbados. Josh, as he was known, worked the single line from Port of Spain in the north to San Fernando in the south. The railroad carried wagon after wagon of sugarcane produce, the raw cane one way, the partially refined sugar the other.
Josh worked the line in more ways than one, having relationships with various women who lived on the railroad route. Bessie's mother was one of them, bearing not only Bessie, but two other girls, Florence and Lottie, before dying giving birth to Josh's next child. In late nineteenth-century Trinidad, fifty years after slavery was abolished, Josh knew that the girls would have been miserably treated by a stepmother. Instead, he sent the three girls to a Wesleyan convent, a school in the south of Trinidad where orphans or girls without mothers went. He entrusted them to the care of the nuns who would give them an education as well as turn them into eligible young ladies. Having left his daughters in safe hands, Joshua proceeded to make more than twenty-five other children up and down the railroad.
Bessie met Robert, C.L.R.'s father, at a function held by the church in the Trinidadian deep south, at a place called New Grant. James Sen. was the head of the school there, and responsible for a hundred or more rural children. He was there as part of a system by which novice schoolmasters in the employ of the Government had to do their stint in a country school before they could apply for a transfer to a city school.
Robert James met Bessie in the institution of the church and married her in it. The church dominated the lives of the emergent black professional class at the turn of the nineteenth century. Robert proposed formally to Bessie and their union was solemnized by the church. This was the procedure that Robert's employers, white British colonial administrators, would have approved. It wasn't the way his father-in-law Josh had chosen.
Robert and Bessie soon had two boys and then a girl: Eric, Cyril Lionel Robert and Olive.
New Grant was a place of sugar–acres and acres of cane with straight roads and smaller paths winding in and out of the plantations. The population was mainly Indian, people on 'sub-indentures', which were contracts made in India with the labourers who had volunteered or been pressed into coming to the West Indies for a fixed term. Most of these indentured labourers had served their terms and decided to remain in Trinidad. They had, however, brought something of India with them. There was a temple and a mosque in the New Grant area. Christian converts went to church.
The James family was clearly differentiated from the cane cutters with whose children C.L.R. went to school. The cane cutters lived clustered around the farmlands, in clumps of houses near the road, along which bullock-drawn carts pulled loads of cut cane. The teacher's house, like that of the vicar and those of the railway employees, was different, and significant in the community. C.L.R. left no description of his childhood home, but John La Rose, Trinidadian poet and publisher who lived in the neighbourhood as a boy, speaks today of the James's house as one of the distinguished houses of the district, large and overlooking the Savannah.
The black schoolteacher, Robert James, serving his imperial civil servant's stint in the sticks with his convent educated, house-proud wife, his daughter and his two sons, would have been considered, on the social scale of the area, several notches above the peasantry who cut the cane and sent their children to his school. The family would have mixed with the English vicar of the local church and would have been considered almost on equal terms with the French Creoles in the area.
C.L.R., his friends and the children of the Indian labourers, all went to 'Mr James's school' as it was known locally. The school year lasted six months, being tied to the agriculture cycle of the sugar belt, and even then the sons of the labourers went to school only when they were not needed to plant and harvest. C.L.R. himself spent half the year with his grandmother and his two aunts in Tunapuna, thirty or so miles away.
Classes in the school were huge, a hundred pupils at a time. Robert James taught by rote and concentrated very hard on sifting out the brightest in the class, as it was to his advantage to gain as many scholarships to the urban schools as he could. He was paid in part by the results he obtained.
The Trinidad Government offered yearly free exhibitions from the elementary schools of the island to either of the two secondary schools, the Queen's Royal College and the Catholic College, St Mary's, both in Port of Spain. Today there are four hundred exhibitions but in those days there were only four. Through this narrow gate boys, poor but bright, could get a secondary education and in the end a Cambridge Senior Certificate, a useful passport to a good job.
There were even more glittering prizes to be won. Every year the two schools competed for three island scholarships worth £600 each. With one of these a boy could go abroad to study law or medicine and return to the island with a profession and independence. There were at that time few other roads to independence for a black man who started without means. The higher posts in the Government, in engineering and the scientific professions, were monopolized by white people, and, as practically all big business was also in their hands, coloured people were as a rule limited to the lower posts. Thus law and medicine were the only ways out.
Although ultimately C.L.R. didn't take either of these ways out, he did step on to the first rung of the ladder. He won an exhibition to Queen's Royal College at his second attempt in 1910, at the age of nine.
His father had first entered him for the exam when he was eight. Since students were able to sit this up to the age of eleven, James Sen. argued that this would give him four shots at it; in fact, he only needed two.
In his own words, C.L.R. was a country bumpkin, taken by his father to compete with the other ninety-nine boys sitting the exam. On the day itself, he says he watched the other 'fighting cocks' and their trainers who had gathered in the school hall to take the exam. He came seventh that first time. The next year, he stood first.
Looking back on his childhood from his eighties, James claimed to have been conscious of bringing himself up as a young English intellectual and confessed a certain precociousness which is borne out by his early success at the scholarship.
As always with C.L.R., it is his memories of his reading, and his introduction to the literature which was to become so important to him, which tell us most about his early education. He wrote, for instance, of the time he was inspired by a book called The Throne of the House of David, which contained abridged Bible stories. He went back to the original, much to the delight of his mother and his aunt Judith who watched the young man poring over the Bible not for the instruction but for stories to connect with the preaching he had heard in church. As he read, he noted the names of the books and the numbers of the chapters. And yet, at school he was still being given 'readers' with pedagogic prose, which he parodied as 'Johnny's father had a gun and went shooting in the forest'.
It was his mother who inspired his reading. She read voraciously herself and passed on her books to him. The only fact James conveys about her is that she was a tireless reader–of novels, any novels; Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, Hall Caine, Stevenson, Mrs Henry Wood, Charlotte Bront‘, Charlotte Braeme, Balzac, Hawthorne. It was also his mother who introduced him to Shakespeare and he remembered in particular her edition, in which each play was fronted with an illustration with the act and scene reference below it. This stayed with him throughout his life, as did all his reading, as he would insist whenever talking autobiographically:
Now I could not read a play of Shakespeare but I remember perfectly looking up the Act and Scenes stated at the foot of the illustration and reading that particular scene. I am quite sure that before I was seven I had read all those scenes. I read neither before nor after, but if the picture told me Act 3, Scene 4, I would look it up and fortified myself with the picture.
Any middle-class child who grew up in the early twentieth century in the English-speaking world will recognize that illustrated Shakespeare. There was also the definitive Dickens or, for colonials from the Indian subcontinent, FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, an Arabian Nights or a volume of Kipling's stories. They were there on the family bookshelf, or if one came from more literate stock, bookshelves. The memory has the ring of remembered truth.
Other reading informed James's early education. There were, for example, the magazines that were brought to the door of the James's house in New Grant by an itinerant booksell...
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