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Invoking Nello: a conversation on CLR James

American geographer, author and travel writer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro takes Adom Philogene Heron on a journey through the Caribbean while discussing his new book, Island People, and the late CLR James whose personal papers are housed in Senate House Library.  

How did you first encounter the work of Nello, as his friends fondly nicknamed him?
It was the late 1990s. I was 19, at university, taking a class on ‘Socialism and Marxism – basically it was just a survey of Marxist thought, beginning with Capital and The Conditions of the Working Class (in England) and running through a familiar lineage of thought, and debate over Marx’s theories of history, mostly in Europe – from Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg through to Gramsci to Louis Althusser: the classics. CLR James, at that time, would not have featured on many syllabi like that, but my professor, a wonderful scholar called Michael Denning, thought James belonged.

I recall the book vividly: The C.L.R. James Reader. It had just come out – this volume of James’s writings on any number of themes: Trotsky and world revolution; cricket and calypso; the West Indies Federation; radio serials, race in America. Part of why I was so struck with book was its cover. It was just this photo of the man’s face, ringed by a shock of white hair, his eyes open wide and penetrating – this old sage, presented as a kind of oracle. And when I opened that book, that’s how he felt to me, too – I was a young person trying to think for myself, in the half-formed ways that one does at age 19, about how to relate my own interest in social justice to my love for jazz and soccer. And here was this guy who had done it, and who’d done it from the marginal vantage of the Caribbean. This hugely brilliant and well-read guy, a black man from Trinidad who wrote as confidently on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as he did on Russian politics, who insisted that Europe’s old colonies had as large a role to play in overturning capitalism as Europe’s working classes did, who suggested the Mighty Sparrow, the great calypsonian from Trinidad, had a role in that struggle (and a far more subtle one than singing propaganda). I found him thrilling!

Nineteen is a good age for developing crushes, of all kinds – and I certainly had one on old CLR. And I still do. Certain of his ideas have aged better than others, of course, but he remains vastly important to me. Especially, and most of all, in his ideas about the Caribbean, his insistence that the Caribbean, long thought of as this marginal place, actual belongs at the centre of any story we tell ourselves about the making of the modern world.

In what ways would you say James’ work of centring the Caribbean most influenced your thoughts as you were researching and writing Island People?There’s a saying that ‘all books are at some level autobiography’. And I think that’s true, even for novels. Books are inventories of the self, and that’s true in quite concrete ways with Island People. It’s very much a memoir of affinity. It’s a book about what I’ve been drawn to since I was a teenager – the cultures and history of the Caribbean – melded to my years of travel to and through the region. Part of the book’s genesis, certainly, was simply to narrate experience, to create a portrait of these islands, as a region, in a way that hadn’t been done in some time. It’s also an account of my journey, in a more figurative sense, through the idea of the Caribbean – through what different people have had to say about what the Caribbean represents, why it matters, why this part of the world is so alluring, or screwed up, or powerful. And in that respect there’s one thinker above all – one conception of the Caribbean – that serves as the book’s jumping-off point, and muse. And that’s James. The arguments he made way back in the early 1960s about the Caribbean’s import, were laid out most lucidly, perhaps, in his essay From Toussaint l’Ouverture to Fidel Castro.

James wrote that essay, which I quote from in the introduction to Island People, as a new ‘appendix’ to his book The Black Jacobins (pp. 391–418) – his great history of the Haitian Revolution that was first published in the 1930s. In this essay he argues that the Caribbean, the islands of the West Indies, were a unified region with a unique role to play in world history: ‘Wherever the sugar plantation and slavery existed, they imposed a pattern. It is an original pattern, not European, not African, not a part of the American main, not native in any conceivable sense of that word, but West Indian, sui generis, with no parallel anywhere else.’

But the importance of the Caribbean, for James, wasn’t merely in the past. He wrote that because of this history – because of how its people had been so involved, how its children of slaves and indenture had learned European languages, had worked at industry and lived for generations in places where long-distance trade and cultural mixing were dominant facts of life – the Caribbean had a unique role to play. ‘Of all formerly colonial coloured peoples,’ James wrote in his new afterword to The Black Jacobins, ‘the West Indian masses are the most highly experienced in the ways of Western civilisation and most receptive to its requirements in the twentieth century.’

Are you inclined to agree with James’ assessment concerning the distinctive nature of Caribbean experience?
Yes. That was a big part of my impetus for writing Island People – to show how what James argued, and foresaw, has come to pass. Because the Caribbean is everywhere. In James’s era this was already evident in the realm of politics. It is remarkable how many of the leading anti-colonial figures, during those years, came from the Caribbean, how many leading ‘Pan-Africanists’, even. Marcus GarveyFrantz FanonGeorge PadmoreAimé CesaireFidel Castro – the list goes on. There was a remarkable literary flourishing in that period too of truly first-rate writers (Naipaul, Walcott and Cesaire, Jean Rhys, George Lamming, Paule Marshall) working within European traditions, but drawing from, and writing about, the ‘creole’ life of the colonies.

But it’s in recent decades, in the realm of culture and of popular music especially, that I think James’s claims have really won out. The easy example to cite is Bob Marley who became, in the 1970s, the ‘third world superstar’ and 30 years after his death, remains arguably the most pervasive political and musical icon on earth. There’s nowhere on the planet you can go and not see a mural of the guy, a poster in a coffee shop, of this guy who somehow made great pop songs from heavy subjects. And there are other figures, of Marley’s stature, in other idioms and from other islands such as Celia Cruz (Cuba) and Rihanna (Barbados).

More subtly though, because it’s the Caribbean, we can just speak of rhythms and textures more than people. The rhythms of Cuba, that fed not just salsa but jazz and rock-n-roll, Jamaica and the Kingston genius for ‘cut-n-mix’ and talking in rhythm that fed hip-hop. In New York, where I live, there’s more bachata and reggaeton on the radio than anything else. And it’s the rhythms of Africa, made new and transformed in the Americas, the blend of old roots with that sense of cosmopolitan possibility, and newness, inherent to a New World. The Caribbean is everywhere in our soundscape and in our culture, whether we know it or not. I think that wouldn’t have surprised old Nello.

Much of the correspondence within James’ personal papers here at Senate House features rich debate with regional premieres on the politics and administration of the fledgling West Indies Federation (of which CLR was secretary during its short life), what do you think the idea of a unified independent Caribbean meant to James (himself a son of Trinidad)?
One of the notable features of James’s thinking about the Caribbean was his insistence that the islands comprised a coherent region – that despite the fractures of history, the different languages and so on, these islands should be seen to have a common culture and thus, perhaps, a common destiny. If James had his way he probably would have advocated for membership in the West Indies Federation to be extended to Cuba. He liked to insist that Cuba, was ‘the most West Indian of the West Indies.’ The idea of Caribbean unity was hugely important to him, as it was to many of his generation.

Having seen and written about the many political changes that he experienced in his life, in what ways would you say James was a man of the 20th century and how does his work still resonate today?
Wilson Harris, the deep novelist from Guyana, described James as someone who ‘tried to embrace the century in its dialectical whole’, which I think is spot on. The scope of his ambition, the breadth of his thought, what he felt compelled to think about, and how he was impelled to act, is quite remarkable. The span of his life – from 1901 to 1989 – really took in all the major eras and moments of the 20th century. He was born in a British crown colony on the margins of the empire, he travelled to Europe between the wars and plunged into radical politics by the Depression in England, he lived in the US through World War II and was expelled from there for his views at the start of the Cold War, he returned to the Caribbean to see his home-island win its independence, he lived out his years in England, as the people of its former colonies settled there and raised new questions about not merely the future of Britain, but this concept of ‘Western Civilization’ to which he was so attached. He was present for it all. And he was compelled to think about it all, and wrote brilliantly about much of it. So doing, he anticipated many of the current trends in academe – toward ‘interdisciplinarity’ and so on – but he also wrote lovely, jargon-free prose. He left so much work that remains as fresh today as when he wrote it. Even as we face a new scary era with new problems, he remains an inspiration and a model. He has certainly been that for me.

Dr Adom Philogene Heron is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research at the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS), part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

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