Depicting the Haitian Revolution in the Black Jacobins
*** Legends ***
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
“A historian, journalist, author and social theorist, who was influential in the United States and the United Kingdom [1901–1989]
There are some individuals whose work has impacted large segments of the human family but they are relatively unknown; such an individual is C.L.R. James.
Born Cyril Lionel Robert James and became known as CLR James, he was born in Trinidad and Tobago which at that time was a British colony. His country’s colonial status helped formulate James into the man he eventually became: a person with leading ideas about the end of colonialism (world-wide) specifically the British Empire. He also used the penname J.R. Johnson; was famed as a writer on cricket; and was very much involved in the socialist parties while in the U.S. and U.K.
After attending college, James embarked on a career as a cricket journalist and then as an author of fiction. He became widely known as a writer on cricket, eventually writing an autobiographical text, Beyond a Boundary, which became the seminal work on the game, and is regarded one of the best books on cricket–and some even say, the best book on any sport. The basis for the book, as James later explained, described cricket in an historical and social context, and how it played a strong influence on his life, and blended his role in politics and his understanding of issues of class and race.
(In the opening of the book, James wrote, “….Our house was superbly situated behind the wicket [a set of three stumps topped by two crosspieces used in cricket]. A huge tree on one side and another house on the other limited the view of the ground, but an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window…. Thus the pattern of my life was set.” Not surprisingly, the literary quality of the book attracted cricketers of all political views).
During those years, James was still searching to find his niche in life; from writing, he went to teaching. One of his students was the future prime minister of an independent Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, in addition to several other students who would also become prominent citizens in Trinidad and beyond. But, he continued to write; his first novels included “La Divina Pastora” (1927) and “Triumph” (1929). James became a member of the anti-colonialist Beacon Group, a circle of writers associated with “The Beacon” magazine.
In 1932, James left Trinidad bound for England. There he worked for the Manchester Guardian and helped his friend, Learie Constantine to write his autobiography. (Constantine was a well-known cricketer and future minister in the prime minister’s cabinet, after Trinidad gain its independence). The circumstances in most British colonies forced many of the citizens to seek higher education–particularly law and medicine–in England. However, James hoped to further his literary career and took a different path from most who came from the British colonies. He also felt that furthering his education was critical for him, as a Black man, to realize his literary ambitions.
Another aspect of James’ experience in the U.K. was his interaction with others from other colonies and the desire to campaign for the independence of the West Indies (British and other colonizers). Back in Trinidad, he had authored a pamphlet, The Case for West Indian Self Government.” The year after he arrived in England, James moved to London and became a leading figure in the International African Service Bureau, led by his childhood friend George Padmore, to whom he later introduced Kwame Nkrumah. “George Padmore in my view is one of the greatest politicians of the twentieth century. He earned for himself the title of ‘Father of African emancipation’.”
James became a leading champion of Pan-African agitation and the Chair of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, which was formed in 1935 in response to Fascist Italy’s invasion of what is now Ethiopia. His work, along with other pioneers of West Indian descent, including the Honorable Marcus M. Garvey, Norman Manley, Sir Alexander Bustamante, Sir Grantley Adams and Dr. Eric Williams, laid the foundation for organizations like the West Indian Federation. Most of these men were in England about the same time and many of them knew each other. They were victims of the same oppressive colonizer and they had a common purpose and a common enemy, and it was in their interest to formulate a common plan.
In addition, James and his West Indian compatriots saw the Pan African Movement (PAM) as travelling a parallel path aiming at the same enemy with the same ultimate goal–independence. Those in the PAM included future presidents of independent African countries–Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya); Abubakar Tafewa Balewa (Nigeria); Nkrumah (Ghana). James became a leading Marxist theorist after joining the Independent Labour Party (ILP).
Around that time, there was much political activity in London and James, though political, was still first and foremost a writer. He wrote a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture, which was staged in the West End, England in 1936, and starred Paul Robeson and Robert Adams. That same year saw the publication in London of James’s only novel, Minty Alley, which he had brought with him in manuscript from Trinidad. It was the first novel to be published by a Black Caribbean author in the UK.
This was following by two other works of non-fiction: World Revolution (1937), a history of the rise and fall of the Communist International; and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), a definitive history of the Haitian Revolution, which later on became the seminal text in the study of the African diaspora. In 1938, James travelled to the U.S. where he eventually spent the next 20 years searching, lecturing and looking for ways to further his life’s mission–the fall of colonialism.
When”The Black Jacobins” was first published, it gave impetus to those (especially colonial students in England) who were bent on unshackling the chains of colonialism from the West Indies and Africa respectively. Then more than 25 years after the first publication of the work, it was being used by authors to strengthen their arguments about Caribbean culture. For example, in a 1971 article titled “African Religious Survivals as Factors in American Slave Revolts,” James’s discussion of the voodoo in “The Black Jacobins” is used to describe how religion served to fuel the Haitian Revolution. Then in a second edition, published in 1963, there is an appendix titled “From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro” was included.
The text of James’s book chronicled the story behind the Haitian revolution and also the leadership of the former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. By examining the brutal conditions of the slaves and the composition of the slave-owners and “free” Blacks and Mulattoes leading up to the Revolution, James showed how those conditions precipitated the social necessity for revolution. James provided the reader with the social context, introducing the complex social classes and their various interests: new slaves from Africa vs. slaves born in the colony, slave-owners, poor or “small” whites, free Blacks and Mulattoes (some of whom were slave-owners but still oppressed). The work also explored the economic relations between the Caribbean economy and the European economy during the era before the Haitian revolution.
While in the U.S., James aligned himself with the communist party and after World War II, the party did not believe that its prospects were ripe of a revolutionary upsurge. There were disagreement within and among several of the communist party factions and their potential power dissipated as the U.S. forged ahead as a bastion of capitalism. At that time, James still described himself as a Leninist, even though he publicly rejected Lenin’s conception of the role of the revolutionary party. He argued for socialists to support the emerging Black nationalist movements that was budding in the U.S. And by 1949, James rejected the idea of the vanguard role within the revolutionary party.
According to research, James’s writings were influential in the development and promotion of Marxist thought. He himself saw his life’s work as developing the theory and practice of Leninism. In 1953, James was detained on Ellis Island for having overstayed his U.S. visa by over ten years. While detained, and in an attempt to remain in the USA, he wrote a study of Herman Melville of Moby Dick’s fame, “Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In;” he then arranged to have copies of the privately published work sent to every member of the Senate.
James briefly returned to England before returning to Trinidad in 1958. Independence was in the air though it would actually take four more years before it became a reality. He edited “The Nation” newspaper for the pro-independence People’s National Movement (PNM) party. He also became involved again in the Pan-African movement believing that the independence of Ghana, a year earlier, illustrated that decolonization was the most important inspiration for international revolutionaries. James also advocated the West Indies Federation which was very short-lived, and created differences between him and the PNM leadership which was led by Dr. Williams whom he had met in London in the 1930s. James returned to England and in 1968 he was invited to the USA, where he taught at the University of the District of Columbia.
Ultimately, James returned to England where he spent his last years in Brixton, London. In the 1980’s, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from South Bank Polytechnic (later to become University of the South Bank, in London) for his body of socio-political work including that relating to race and sport (particularly cricket).
During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a publishing resurgence of books by James including four volumes of selected writings: The Future In the Present, Spheres of Existence, At the Rendezvous of Victory, and Cricket.
In 1983, a short British documentary featuring James was made.
In 1983, the C.L.R. James Institute was founded in New York with his blessings; it was affiliated with the Centre for African Studies at Cambridge University.
And in 1985, a public library in the London Borough of Hackney was named in his honor; James himself was in attendance. He died four years later and his widow, Selma James, attended a reception there to mark its 20th anniversary in 2005.