To invoke C.L.R. James is to excite thought and vision, enliven ambition, and inspire change. Historian, author, revolutionary, luminary — James’s influence extends to spheres of social, historical, and political theory and practice. And he will be in the spotlight at the 2022 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Four Days to Change the World.
“James’s work and thought are as relevant and as radical now as they ever were, perhaps even more so,” says Nicholas Laughlin, festival and programme director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. The late thinker — who was born in Trinidad in 1901 and died in London in 1989 — will feature in two events this month, as the Bocas Lit Fest partners with the UK literary organisation the Royal Society of Literature (RSL).
On Wednesday 20 April, the RSL will host a discussion panel in its “Vital Discussions” series titled “The RSL Remembers C.L.R. James”, to celebrate his work and legacy. Hosted online by the British Library, starting at 2.30 pm TT time, the panel will bring together T&T novelist Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, James’s former publisher Margaret Busby, James’s former wife and colleague Selma James, and Nicole-Rachelle Moore, the British Library’s Curator of Caribbean Collections. The four panelists will lead the audience in an exploration of James’s writings through three of his most esteemed works: the novel Minty Alley, the literary study Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, and The Black Jacobins, James’s classic study of the Haitian Revolution.
The event is free for RSL members and Digital Events Passholders. Non-members can visit the RSL website for further information on booking tickets.
James’s life, and a new full-length biography, will be in focus at a second event on Thursday 28 April, part of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, which runs from 28 April to 1 May this year. Author John L. Williams — a biographer and novelist from Cardiff, Wales — will shed light on his book C.L.R. James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries in conversation with Barbadian scholar Aaron Kamugisha. The session, from 8 to 9 pm, is free to all and requires no registration, streaming at bocaslitfest.com and the festival’s YouTube and Facebook platforms.
Known for his book Bloody Valentine — a “brutally frank” account of the miscarriage of justice case of three black men from Cardiff accused of murdering a white prostitute — and for his Shirley Bassey biography, Williams offers C.L.R. James as his second biography on a Caribbean subject. His first was on Michael De Freitas, known as “Michael X” and “the Notorious Malik,” who was hanged for murder in 1975.
“I write biographies because people fascinate me,” says Williams. “In particular, I’m interested in people whose lives defy the expectations of their society — mavericks, seers, tricksters.” He describes James as a “thoroughly admirable, brilliant, and inspiring thinker,” a “man who straddled different worlds … who knew Trotsky and Virginia Woolf, Eric Williams and Walter Rodney.”
Williams, who was influenced by Caribbean culture growing up in Cardiff and London in the 70s and 80s — when “reggae was the soundtrack of our lives” — says that James’s analysis of how cricket and the Caribbean impacted the UK and vice versa made him “rethink” how he saw the world. He set out to tell the full story of James’s “remarkable” life, as he felt the celebrated author deserved such a book.
Deemed “the Black Plato” by the London Times, James first gained prominence as the author of Minty Alley, one of the first Caribbean novels to be published in Britain. Hailed for its sympathetic depiction of the working class, particularly women, in a 1930s Port of Spain barrack-yard, Minty Alley is thought to reflect elements of James’s political outlook, which he had begun to manifest as an advocate for West Indian independence even before he left Trinidad for England in 1932.
James was a socialist who espoused the Trotskyist ideology that the working class should permanently rule. The Queen’s Royal College alumnus embraced the power of African descendants to tell their own story, publishing the The Black Jacobins — an account of the heroic struggle for freedom and dignity during the Haitian Revolution — in 1938. It came to be regarded as the definitive text on the history of the revolution.
James’s penetrating analysis of colonialism and imperialism, decolonisation and identity formation, elevated his 1963 memoir Beyond a Boundary to much more than a cricket story. It was almost immediately classed as one of the most significant books on sport and culture.
From Minty Alley and The Black Jacobins to Beyond a Boundary, across his prolific essays and political activities, James encouraged individual and collective reflection, and promoted freedom and independence from boundaries imposed by self and by the legacy of colonialism. His activism against racism, colonialism, and for socialism and Pan-Africanism transcended Caribbean, British, and North American society, securing him a place among the foremost intellectuals of the twentieth century and beyond.
As Laughlin adds: “To think seriously about social change and the future of Caribbean societies, we need to draw on all the resources of our past thinkers and doers. James is one of those we’ll still be engaging with for generations to come.”