CLR James feted as his literary gem turns 50 Fighting injustice
Published: December 20, 2013
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He didn't sing, dance, run fast, hit a ball great distances or hold political office, but he probably touched more lives and had a more profound impact on the world than any other West Indian, and this year he's being celebrated from Johannesburg to London to New York, as it is the 50th anniversary of his masterpiece "Beyond a Boundary," arguably the finest cricket book ever written. It's ranked 36th on Sports Illustrated's list of the greatest 100 sports books and it's often cited as the second most read book in the West Indies. The Bible, of course, is No. 1.
The man for whom praises are being sung is the late CLR James, the Trinidadian writer dubbed the black Plato by his contemporaries. And for the uninitiated, cricket is the quintessential British sport, one that imperial Great Britain transplanted to its many colonies, and one now with a worldwide following rivaled only by soccer and basketball. It's the West Indies' primary sport, and India, teeming with 1.2 billion people, is its epicenter.
Though praised as a cricket narrative, "Beyond a Boundary" is much more than that. It's a coming-of-age tale set in colonial Trinidad in the early 1900s, and yet much more. In it, James ventures far and wide, casting a critical eye on politics, race, culture and class - all through the prism of cricket. After all, James believed cricket had intrinsic value. It wasn't merely a sport, it mirrored life, the cricket pitch a microcosm of society.
In his classic work, James scolds the white colonial cricket administration that he said excluded black players from leadership despite their superior talents; argues that cricket is an artform reminiscent of Greek drama and therefore worthy of the adulation reserved for the so-called higher arts; and donning his university professor's, garb he offers a take on cricket's evolution from a club game to a national institution in Britain in the 1870s and the socio-political shifts that facilitated the sport's modernization.
James' observations, abetted by elegant prose, make "Beyond a Boundary" a delightful read, enlightening, though at times probably too high brow for some. Look at how he sums up cricket's first superstar H.W. Grace, the Englishman he credits with being the architect of first class cricket in Britain:
"Had Grace been born in ancient Greece the Iliad would have been a different book. Had he lived in the Middle Ages he would have a crusader and would have been lying with his legs crossed in some ancient abbey, having founded a great family."
James was one of cricket's greatest advocates. And his love of the game - one he observed daily from his childhood home that was just a few yards from a cricket pitch - is apparent throughout "Beyond a Boundary." He contends that "cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and dance."
He adds, "It is so organized that at all times it is compelled to reproduce the central action which characterizes all good drama from the days of the Greeks to our own: two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group."
When the topic turned to the colonial cricket authorities, James, normally Victorianesque in manner, gets fiesty. A talented cricketer in his youth, James wields a hefty bat and takes prodigious swings at the authorities, not out of hatred - after all, he was an Anglophile - but a sense of outrage against injustice.
He argues, that "the authorities always needed to have one white player as captain, and one or two others in reserve in case of accidents and as future candidates. They believed (or pretended to, it does not matter) that cricket would fall into chaos and anarchy if a black man were appointed captain."
As an editor with the Nation in Trinidad, James launched a public campaign to get a black player installed captain of the West Indies cricket team, and his crusade proved fruitful. The authorities eventually relented, naming Frank Worrell, captain in the late 1950s. Worrell was no slouch; several decades later he is universally beloved, regarded as one of the game's greatest leaders.
Former University of Manchester lecturer Anna Grimshaw, who has written extensively about James, called him "one of the century's most outstanding citizens."
James' breadth of knowledge was impressive, but not surprising. He was born in 1901 in Tunapuna, Trinidad, to a schoolmaster father and a mother who read voraciously, and he was schooled by Oxford and Cambridge men. English literature and cricket were his obsessions even at an early age; he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the game and read Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" so often that he knew it by heart.
Traditional in his literary preferences, James had a revolutionary bent politically, one honed during his years in England and the United States, where he lived from the 1930s to the 1950s. A Marxist and a Pan-Africanist, he waged a tireless battle against social injustice, on behalf of anyone he deemed oppressed, particularly the Black Diaspora. His literary ambitions and activism led to travels abroad - including Canada and Africa - where he lectured, taught university and wrote prolifically, gaining legions of admirers.
Manning Marable, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Columbia University professor, said James was "one of the 20th century most significant radical intellectuals."
James' circle of friends read like a who's who of those who challenged convention: civil rights titan Martin Luther King Jr., Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky, African-American entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, the first nation in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from European c olonization.
Later, James served as sort of an adviser to the revolutionary set. He counseled King on the Montgomery bus boycott, according to American writer Scott McLemee.
James left a large footprint as an activist and writer. In the West Indies, his literary bona fides were matched by just a few. One of the progenitors of West Indian literature, which emerged as a force in the mid-1900s in London, he paved the way for Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul, both Nobel laureates, as well as Samuel Selvon, George Lamming and Eric Williams, his former student who became Trinidad's first prime minister. James' contribution to that genre is invaluable. It includes Minty Alley, one of first books published in England by a West Indian, and The Black Jacobins, hailed as groundbreaking work on the Haitian Revolution. First published in 1938, the latter was banned in South Africa over concerns it could foment revolt. James had a habit of antagonizing governments. In 1953, he was kicked out of the U.S. during the McCarthyite scare.
When James died in 1989 in Brixton, England, the world wept - with probably the loudest sobs heard from cricket fans. Cricket had lost its most ardent fan, an intellectual unapologetic about his fondness for the game. When criticized about such unbridled devotion, he responded like only he could:
"A professor of political science publicly bewailed that a man of my known political interests should believe that cricket had ethical and social values. I had no wish to answer. I was just sorry for the guy."
CLR, well said. A solid hit well beyond the boundary.