CLR — Black Plato of our time
Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2001
By Michael Delblond
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This year is the centennial of the birth of our own C L R James and just as when he moved on "beyond the boundary", we can brace ourselves from a virtual deluge of encomiums from solicited as well as unsolicited sources of varying degrees of distinction and/or authority. It is also in the nature of things that some "glowing tributes" could well be thinly disguised, self-serving efforts to extract political mileage and attempt to glow in CLR's posthumous reflected glory.
Nevertheless, there are cogent reasons why we should wish to properly pay our national respects to one of our more gifted sons and perpetuate his memory in an appropriate way. That is not to say that James was either flawless or without his own "feet of clay".
CLR James is generally seen as a "self-made intellectual" who apparently turned his nose up at preparing himself for a free university education and refused to direct his efforts to winning the much-sought-after Island Scholarship which students of humble means saw as the "Open Sesame" to "fame and fortune" and the only alternative to some dead-end occupation which could have constituted the "graveyard of ambition".
I don't think people today are even dimly aware of the virtual absence of opportunities in days gone by for the bright young boy or girl, from the humbler walks of life, who aspired to a professional career in keeping with his/her intellectual potential.
In this respect, I call to mind Thomas Gray's lines:
"Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear; Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air."
I also ask myself, in respect of young CLR, "What could have been operating in the mind of this lad who at the tender age of nine or ten was reading — with much interest, one might add — the British Classics and was the youngest boy to win an "exhibition" (a scholarship to QRC) from an intensively competitive field?" It might be worth mentioning here that CLR's father was a primary school headmaster (a position, which in those days and for a black man, was an indication of great diligence, ambition and intelligence). CLR's mother was also a voracious reader of quality literature.
It therefore cannot be said that James lacked a nurturing environment or the stimuli for success and academic achievement.
By his own admission, Mr James had a consuming passion for cricket. He also saw Pan-Africanism as a self-appointed mission and had a vision of world revolutionary politics. He was a self-avowed Marxist. More specifically, he was a Trotskyite. Although he expressed misgivings about the presumed role of Blacks within the movement. James appeared to be his own man, with his own mind, and he wasn't susceptible to being pigeonholed. The idea that he was simply "a communist" and ipso facto "a dangerous subversive character" may well have been a political oversimplification.
In understanding CLR one has to examine his attitude to fame and fortune. He seemed, from all accounts I've heard, quite indifferent to the security that fortune brings. This may well have been at the back of a certain writer's mind who apparently sneered at one of CLR's return to the country of his birth as, "his being washed up on our shores," — a gratuitous insult, I thought at the time.
The only items that I can figure out being washed up on any shores are the flotsam and jetsam of some wreckage at sea. Perhaps, having been bitten by the "political bug" James never became the prolific novelist that he might have been, with a comfortable livelihood ensured by the exercise of his craft.
One can perhaps surmise that young CLR was, initially, instinctively persuaded that a university education might just have got in the way of his real education and stultify his intellectual development or he had grasped the point that "education" and "qualification" were not necessarily synonymous with "formal accreditation." In today's world university professors are virtually "a dime a dozen" and one can think of cases where a dozen aren't worth a dime.
CLR (as he is popularly known) went on to create an international reputation for himself, to the point that he was once described by the “TIMES” of London as "... the black Plato of our generation and one of the most versatile intellectuals." In an obituary, the prestigious London newspaper, "THE INDEPENDENT" hailed James as probably the most versatile and accomplished Afro-American intellectual of the 20th Century."
Although there has been and, I imagine, will continue to be an unofficial competition to dredge "superlatives" to capture the quintessential character of the multifaceted talent of this extraordinary man, the comment that I found most apt was that of an E P Thompson which went like this: "It is not a question of whether one agrees with everything he (James) has said or done; but everything has had the mark of originality, of his own flexible and deeply cultured intelligence ... the intelligence has always been matched by a warm and outgoing personality." There was every reason to believe that Mr James was well-respected and highly regarded abroad and I rather suspect that it must have been a sore point with him that he had not been accorded the recognition and courtesies, at home, commensurate with his international stature.
He was subsequently awarded the Trinity Cross and an honorary UWI Doctorate. The government of the day committed itself to underwriting all expenses for his return from England and his medical and other needs. He was then, however, too weak to travel and died soon after. His mortal remains lie buried in Tunapuna from which he hails. His self-imposed exile and bitter quarrel with PM Dr Eric Williams will be the subject of a future article.
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