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The Young C.L.R. James

By: 
R. Burke

One of the most illuminating scenes from Milton Knight’s The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette depicts him as a seven year old. Young James is watching a cricket game excitedly from a window in his house. “Cricket was the only game.” “Our house was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket.” His enjoyment is interrupted by a shout: “Cyril!” The voice is that of his mother, Elizabeth James. “Come away from the window. No cricket on Sunday.” Moving from the window, he picks up a copy of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. “ I read ‘Vanity Fair’ on the average once every three months.” “I followed Literature because of her.” Having explored the roots of two of C.L.R. James’ greatest passions, the novelette goes on to explore the development of a third passion: revolution.

The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette is yet another installment in the radical left historian Paul Buhle’s project of editing graphic novels as a way of introducing socialist thinkers to a new and wider audience. Having written the P.M. Press graphic novel Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero, he has gone on to write and/or edit a number of others, such as Kate Evans’ Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, and more recently Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography as well as Nick Thorkelson’s Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia. Making use of the form of the graphic novel is clever tactic to broaden the appeal of such radical thinkers beyond a small circle of academics and activists, and place their ideas in the hands of a rising generation of budding socialists.

C.L.R. James is a figure that will have a strong appeal to this new generation. Beyond his wide interests in cricket, literature, and revolution James is one of a number of 20th century socialist thinkers who rejected Stalinism, and kept alive the flame of socialism as a form of radical democracy. Beyond his advocacy of socialism as growing from worker’s self-activity and self-management James was someone who was forced, from the beginning, to deal with the intersection of race and class issues. As a black man from the British colony of Trinidad he never had the luxury, as so many white socialists did, of pretending that issues such as racism were something that could be dealt with ‘after the revolution.’ This makes him even more important for our time.

Knight begins his graphic novel with an overview of the colonial situation of Trinidad at the time of James’ birth. Trinidad’s status as a colony of Britain was buttressed by a system of racial hierarchy. “Ruling over all were the British. By virtue of their military might and the color of their skins, they invaded, conquered and stayed to plunder the natural resources. Generally the darker one’s skin, rawer the deal one gets. At the bottom is the majority; the poor; the black. The British Empire had abolished slavery in 1838 by law, but many of its conditions remain.”

James’ father, Robert Alexander James was a schoolteacher. “An esteemed profession-and a poorly paid one.” His mother, Elizabeth, was “well-educated, with a passion for reading.” Knight quotes from C.L.R. James’ autobiography regarding his status. “Respectability was not an ideal- it was an armor.” Respectability was a way in which subaltern populations could maintain a sense of dignity and self-esteem, and James’ parents hoped that young Cyril would maintain the family tradition.

C.L.R. James spent his youth pursuing his two passions of cricket and literature. Excelling at both academics and athletics, he quickly found the limits that were imposed on ambitious young Black people in the colony of Trinidad. Cricket teams were segregated “their prestige dependent on the player’s complexions,” as Knight points out. Still considering himself a ‘good’ British subject James’ ambitions would soon come into conflict with the structural racism of the colony. When World War One began he attempted to enlist in the British army, only to be rejected because of his race.

This experience helped to radicalize James, and he soon joined the “Beacon Group,” “a collective of ‘Black Bohemians’ who publish their own political journals and fiction.” Two forms of Black music then becoming popular further stimulated this rising consciousness: Jazz from the U.S. and Calypso from Trinidad itself. Increasingly James was forced to confront the contradictions between his love of British cultural imports such as literature and cricket, and the status imposed on Black Trinidadians. This led him to a greater engagement in the lives and culture of Trinidad’s people, which culminated in the writing of his first novel Minty Alley. It also led to recognition that the opportunities for a Black writer in Trinidad were limited. As a result he moved to Britain itself.

In Britain James wrote a play about Toussaint L’Ovuverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution. “London’s ‘stage society’ agrees to produce it-under the condition that Paul Robeson will accept the leading role.” Robeson accepted, and gave “a stellar performance.”

At this point the graphic novelette breaks off from relating events in James’ life and intellectual development. Scenes from the play are explored, along with a section on the cultural influence of Jazz and Swing dancing. An introductory note to this section by Buhle and his co-editor Lawrence Ware informs us that in the 1940’s James lived in Manhattan. 

Milton Knight has admirably depicted the early life and career of C.L.R. James. His drawing style has a strong element of caricature to it, one that helps to illustrate the emotional impact of the situations he depicts. If there is one criticism to be leveled at The Young C.L.R. James: a Graphic Novelette it is that it is too short! In fact it is actually a pamphlet rather than an entire book. Having engaged the reader’s interest in the life and ideas of James, Milton Knight has left one begging for more. One can only hope that he will continue this project and eventually present an entire graphic biography of the life of C.L.R. James. Hopefully Paul Buhle will also continue with his project of writing, and editing graphic novels about important socialist thinkers and activists. Given the popularity of graphic novels over the last few decades, this is the perfect way to bring the recognition of these figures out of the hands of small, cloistered groups and present them to a wider audience. Some things are too important to be left in the hands of academics.

The Young C.L.R James: A Graphic Novelette.

P.M. Pamphlet Series No. 0017

Illustrated by Milton Knight. Edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware

P.M. Press, Oakland, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-62963-514-9

44 pages

$ 6.95

Richard Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and retired teacher living in St. Louis.