The Pan Africanists
CYRIL Lionel Robert James. CLR.
Any other country privileged enough to have birthed him would have erected monuments, created institutions of learning in his name and developed standard, mandatory lessons about him for every level of our education system. This has not happened, but for some reason, the energies determined that he should be born at the turn of the 20th century in 1901, Tunapuna, Trinidad.
It is interesting to note that he was born in the same year as his friend George Padmore, another giant in the Pan African struggle. Padmore was from Arouca, not far from Tunapuna where CLR grew up.
Although from a middle-class background, it is said that James maintained a “vision of a radical politics grounded in the ideas and activities of the popular masses.” This perspective would no doubt have been influenced by his Marxist perspective, and later Trotskyism, based on the Marxist interpretations of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
He lived in a time of upheaval and questioning of the way that the world was run. By the time CLR reached his forties, he had lived through two world wars and the emergence of fascist ideology in Germany. In his late 50s, Ghana became the first African nation to achieve independence from Britain, Fidel Castro led a revolution in Cuba against then leader Fulgencio Baptista and Francois Duvalier became president of Haiti, later to be known as Papa Doc, a brutal dictator.
In the Caribbean, independence from Britain was fuelled not just by political activists, but by artists and novelists who used their talent to document their pain and influence change.
CLR was educated at Queen’s Royal College (QRC) and eventually served as a teacher there. In 1932, he left Trinidad and went to England. There, he worked as a cricket journalist and began to be increasingly involved in Marxist politics.
For James, Pan Africanism was part of a wider struggle against colonialism. He wrote, networked and organised relentlessly for countries of the Caribbean and Africa to achieve independence and for the unity of African nations across diaspora.
James wrote extensively during his time in England, showing the breadth of his creative genius. For instance, his semi-autobiographical book Beyond a Boundary used the platform of cricket to explore the themes of class segregation and the impact of colonial rule on Caribbean society.
Selma, CLR’s wife, wrote that “Beyond a Boundary was part of a movement. Soon after, the anti-apartheid boycott swept across every sport and a Black Power salute from the Olympic podium shook the world.”
By 1938, James moved to the US. In this same year, he published the seminal book The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, chronicling the first successful revolution by enslaved people from what is now known as Haiti. James would have been 37 years old at the time.
His creative side is another, surprising aspect of his brilliance. The book Black Jacobins was actually first a play. And two years prior, in 1936, he wrote Minty Alley, the story of a young, black, middle-class man who becomes embroiled in the lives of people in a barrack yard in Port of Spain. This book was later turned into an award winning play by Eintou Springer, with the performance being approved by CLR James himself.
James came back home to Trinidad in the late 50s and 60s, continuing to be involved politically. This was the period of our own quest for independence from British colonial rule. Dr Eric Williams, whom James had taught at QRC, emerged as a key figure in this struggle.
Initially, the two were closely aligned, with James even advising Williams on his masterful Capitalism and Slavery. However, ideological differences led to the inevitable break, with Williams even putting James under house arrest. As Kim Johnson writes, “James idealistically believed in the power of the masses, whereas Williams pragmatically saw power in leadership.”
The year 1989 when CLR transitioned was also tumultuous, characterised in many ways by people-driven revolution. The wall separating East and West Berlin was brought down, apartheid in South Africa was finally beginning to fall apart, while tanks and tear gas were used against pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, China. In the Caribbean, Hurricane Hugo wreaked havoc.
His books are too many to be mentioned, his life so deep, so rich – the space in this column can barely do justice to his legacy. It is time for this country to properly recognise him, this man known simply by his initials – CLR.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN