Cyril Lionel Robert James, radical historian, political commentator, and cricket writer, was born in the small town of Chaguanas near Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad. His father, Robert, was a teacher, and on both sides of his middle-class family there was a dedicated commitment to education, particularly the kind of education that was common in the English schools of the day. Trinidad was an English colony, and many of its teachers were English nationals who had been educated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; the history studied, the books read, and the poetry memorized were heavily influenced by the assumptions and the standards of the mother country. Middle-class blacks in the West Indies rarely questioned this educational curriculum, and its values strongly influenced the young James.
Yet another English export played an equally important role in James’s education, namely the game of cricket. In the West Indies the English summer game was played eight months out of the year. James’s father had been a cricketer, and James began to play the game at a very young age. While he was maturing James felt the tension between the game of cricket and the intellectual attractions of books, but the values of the English game and those of the English education united in forming him. There were still other factors; James was a black man in an empire ruled by whites, and he was a member of a middle class in a West Indian society overwhelmingly composed of lower classes.
During the 1920’s he taught school and began writing. His literary career only blossomed, however, after he went to England in 1932. In his writings he focused on politics and cricket, writing about the latter subject for prestigious papers such as The Manchester Guardian. He began his political writing with a plea for the independence of the British West Indies. A Marxist but not a Stalinist, James combined his philosophy of class-based politics with national aspirations. Long attracted to the historical career of the Caribbean revolutionary Toussaint-L’Ouverture, James in 1938 published The Black Jacobins, which has been highly regarded ever since its original publication. The work was praised for its wide historical knowledge, its class and economic analysis, and its exciting narrative style. James’s interest in Marxism and in anticolonialism continued throughout his career, from his 1937 World Revolution, 1917-1936 to 1977’s Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution and beyond.
James came to the United States on a lecture tour in 1938 and remained until the early 1950’s, when, during the fever of McCarthyism, he was deported because of his political writings. After several years in England, he returned to Trinidad in the late 1950’s and took part there in the events leading to independence. He also became involved in forcing the selection of Frank Worrell as the first black to serve as captain of the West Indies international cricket team.
The choice of a particular individual as the captain of a sports team in the dangerous years of the Cold War might seem irrelevant, but it became a major focus of James’s most well-known book, Beyond a Boundary. (It did not appear in the United States until 1984 because publishers thought that a book on the very English and very complicated game of cricket would hold little interest for Americans.) Many critics have since convincingly argued that Beyond a Boundary is the most significant study of sports ever published. Beautifully written, it is partially a memoir, but it is less about the author than about his concerns with race, class, colonialism, education, and the importance of games. “Not cricket” has become a cliché, and James shows how deeply those values were inculcated in him during his boyhood, as was the awareness of race and class; in connection with Worrell’s selection James also discusses the fact that whites were included on cricket teams rather than more highly qualified blacks and that it was considered necessary to have a white captain for international matches.
James was passionate about the game of cricket and eloquent in his description of the careers of black and white cricketers alike. He compares the reverence for cricket in England, the West Indies, and elsewhere to the importance the ancient Greeks placed upon athletics. In his preface to Beyond a Boundary he shows that cricket at once influences and reflects such issues as the rise of political democracy, the evolution of moral codes of behavior, the development of popular culture, and revolutionary politics, racial concerns, social mobility, intellectual achievement, and artistic appreciation.
Beyond a Boundary is an extraordinary book not for expressing the author’s deep commitment to a sport—other writers have been equally devoted to the sport of their choice—but for integrating an appreciation and awareness of a particular game with a profound knowledge of history and politics. To the end of his life, James remained both a black man of the West Indies, where he was born, and an Englishman who reflected the education, institutions, and attitudes that shaped him.
Bouges, Anthony. Caliban’s Freedom: The Early Political Thought of C. L. R. James. Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997. A study of James’s political theories.
Buhle, Paul. C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary. New York: Verso, 1997. Combines biography with sympathetic critical analysis.
Cudjoe, Selwyn R., and William E. Cain, eds. C. L. R. James: His Intellectual Legacies. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995. A collection of essays illuminating the many facets of James’s life and thought.
Dhondy, Farrukh. C. L. R. James: A Life. New York: Pantheon, 2002. A biography that marks James as an early herald of multiculturalism.
Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. Using the Master’s Tools: Resistance and the Literature of the African and South-Asian Diasporas. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. James is one of several writers profiled in this study of postcolonial writing and politics.
Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. C. L. R. James: A Critical Introduction. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1997. A guide to James’s writings.
Worcester, Kent. C. L. R. James: A Political Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A well-researched and insightful biography.