The Making of C.L.R. James

Jason Schulman

The Young C.L.R. James:
A Graphic Novelette
Illustrated by Milton Knight
Edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware
PM Press, 43 pages, $6.95 paper.

THERE’S LITERALLY NO reason for any socialist to not pick up this illustrated novellete, even if you’ve already read all of C.L.R. James’ writings and have read the biographies and studies of his works written by Paul Buhle (the novellete’s co-editor), James D. Young, Kent Worcester, Frank Rosengarten and others.

This pamphlet is a delight, a charming caricature drawn in a whimsical style by Milton Knight, an artist who’s worked on everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics to World War 3 Illustrated.

As one would expect from its title, The Young C.L.R. James mainly concentrates on the relatively little-known details of James’ early life. It also has much to say about culture in early-20th century Trinidad, then a British colony, such as the annual carnival in Tunapuna, described as “[a] celebration of West Indian Cultures” and “[a] festival of sport, music — and debauchery” which the British authorities consistently failed to repress.

This allowed for “a period of physical and emotional release” under “the incredible color-obsessed ‘order’” imposed by Britain. James himself finds escape from both racist colonialism and the “armor” of his household’s “respectability” though calypso music, magazines and literature, and — as anyone who’s read his book Beyond A Boundary knows well — cricket. (Young James’ growing obsession with cricket quickly makes his parents less than happy.)

Even as he studies British history, enters Queens Royal College and acts as a “good British subject,” James soon finds himself becoming a literary “bohemian” within the black Beacon Group, all of whom are devotees not only of calypso but the American jazz of Louis Armstrong. A section of the pamphlet depicts the rise and fall of big band jazz and specifically swing dancing, which ends as a mass phenomenon with the closing of the Savoy Ballroom in 1958.

A text piece points out that James was a swing dance devotee, attracted to its “promise of freed and rhythmic motion” and presaging the insights into American popular culture found in his book American Civilization, written in 1950 though not published until 1992.

The increasingly radicalized James declares that “Blacks would be fools and worse to go through life as imtiation whites,” and while in London he writes Toussaint L’ouverture, an explicitly political three-act play about the best-known leader of the Haitian Revolution of 1791. James is surprised to find that the “Stage Society” will only produce it provided that renowned singer Paul Robeson accepts the leading role, which he does.

Perhaps ironically, Robeson, whom James greatly admired, would become a devout supporter of the Soviet Union, while James, in the heterodox wing of American Trotskyism, would denounce the USSR as totalitarian state capitalism.

James’ opposition to Stalinism is mentioned in the novellete’s opening text piece but is not depicted via graphics. Aside from Knight’s excursion into swing music history, The Young C.L.R. James ends with the first performance of Toussaint L’ouverture in 1936, even though James had become a Trotskyist in 1934.

Of course, there are many other sources where one can study James’ Trotskyist “career” as well as his later development into a forerunner of what was later labeled Autonomist Marxism. Biographies of James abound, and there’s little reason for another to appear.

Instead, The Young C.L.R. James does an excellent job at performing its particular task — as its co-editors describe, explaining “how such a universal mind could have grown from humble origins in a backwater of the British Empire.” It’s also a fun read.

July-August 2018, ATC 195