Comics Review: “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette.”

C.L.R. James (1901-1989) was a Trinidadian-British Marxist and pan-Africanist historian, writer, political theorist and activist. If you’re a halfway serious student of twentieth-century radical thought, you know that already. If you’re not, here’s a quick, and incomplete, summary of his achievements: His 1936 novel Minty Alley was the first novel published by a West Indian living in Great Britain. Two years after publishing Minty Alley, James wrote The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution that remains a critical touchstone in Africana studies; he also wrote the first history of the Communist International. His 1965 semi-autobiographical meditation on cricket, Beyond a Boundary (check out my review here) was an early exemplar of a new field of intellectual inquiry that emerged in the 1960s, cultural studies.

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Beyond his literary and scholarly achievements, James was at the forefront of some of the twentieth century’s key liberation movements. A tireless champion of the oppressed, he mobilized resistance to European colonialism in Africa and the West Indies starting in the 1930s, and spent fifteen years in the United States organizing working people. In the 1960s, he became an critical touchstone to a new generation of Black activists looking to understand, and ultimately topple, racial and class oppression, and he remained an active thinker, writer and speaker up until his last years. Reading James’s work and life story, what emerges is a vision of of freedom in which the popular masses liberate themselves; James was, in the truest sense of the word, a democrat who never lost faith in the ability of the common man and woman to understand the dynamics that kept them down and to work in concert for total liberation.

This vision of the capacity of regular people to work towards a future in which they are truly free is a central theme of Milton Knight’s new comics biography of James, “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette,” published by PM Press. Knight is a comics creator, animator, illustrator, writer and fine artist from Mineola, New York. “The Young C.L.R. James” reflects his maxim that “Art springs first from an observation of life, then a philosophy from the heart and mind of the artist.” Knight has obviously read James’s life and work closely, and the observations he has taken from his study are clearly informed by a set of political values that he shares with his subject. Knight’s book highlights the idea that the way to freedom lies not with following a vanguard leadership, but with the collective self-actualization of the popular masses.

The Young C.L.R. James” reads as a single chapter from what I hope will be a longer project that will cover the entirety of James’s life and legacy. The book follows James’s life from his early childhood to the 1936 production of his play (written in 1934) about Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. It also features a short vignette on swing music and dancing, an aspect of American culture that fascinated James. A brief introduction by James scholars Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware provides background information about James’s life, work, and his broader historical context.

The Young C.L.R. James” begins with a encapsulation of the first chapters of Beyond a Boundary, in which James recounts his youth in colonial Port-of-Spain. James was a leading figure in the anticolonial movement, and yet he was, in many ways, the proud product of British imperial culture. To him, such touchstones of English identity as Shakespeare and Thackeray were parts of an intellectual heritage that spoke to the revolutionary potential of the people. In a talk given in Montreal in 1966, he argues that dialogue delivered by servants in King Lear reveals “the role of the peasants in the crisis of society.” [1]

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Wright’s dynamic style captures the sense of movement that defined James’s vision of the West Indian people.

James’s understanding of the possibilities for liberation that were embedded in colonial culture emerged most strongly in his passion for cricket. As Knight argues, cricket was introduced in colonial societies like Trinidad to “indoctrinate” colonialised people “with the values assuring that they will be ‘good’ subjects under British rule.” However, James understood that cricket gave the West Indian people a stage on which to show the world their innovative spirit and ability to excel on their own terms. Cricket is central to James’s, and Knight’s, recounting of the development of James’s racial consciousness: as young man looking for a cricket team, James had to navigate a complicated caste system in which skin colour and social class, as much as athletic skill, determined where one could play. Ultimately, a comment from the West Indian cricket great Learie Constantine – “You have it all wrong you know … They are no better than we.” – shocked James into awareness, and marked the start of his commitment to the anti-racist/anti-colonialist cause.

Cricket allowed James to understand how everyday West Indian people expressed their revolutionary nature within a context determined by imperial power. His novel Minty Alley further explores the daily culture of the Caribbean people, depicting the quotidian lives of those on the margins of colonial Trinidadian society. As Wright emphasizes, Minty Alley reflects James’s growing fascination with the question of the possibilities for liberation that dwelt within the popular masses. After finishing the novel, James left Trinidad, joining Constantine in Lancashire; as James writes in Beyond a Boundary, “the British intellectual was going to Britain.” [2] (Christian Høgsbjerg’s C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain, which I review here, is an excellent overview of James’s political development in those years.)

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Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture

While he was in the UK, James wrote a biographical play about Toussaint Louverture that starred the African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson. The last few pages of the comic are a brief recounting of the Haitian Revolution drawn from James’s script, ending with Toussaint’s death in a French prison. Again, in this episode, Knight brings us back to the central idea that emerges from his reading of James’s work: as Toussaint reflects on a white man spouting the alleged biological reasons underpinning white supremacy, he realizes that “If the negro is to be set free, he must free himself.” The only people with the power and insight to bring down oppression are the oppressed.

My favourite James quote comes from Beyond a Boundary. The West Indian people, James wrote, were, on the verge of their political independence, “moving too fast for any label to stick.” Knight’s work effectively captures the dynamism that James points at in this analysis. Whether in his triptych rendering of a batsman in full swing or a two-page dialogue-free sequence depicting James talking to – and ultimately being seduced by – the people he would write about in Minty Alley, Knight’s drawings capture a sense of movement that was central to James’s conception of freedom and progress. I’ve read a few comics biographies of political, intellectual and literary figures likes James, and these often end up being text-heavy efforts in which the artwork may complement the words, but does little to open up an expressive space in which the artist can move the reader to a deeper understanding. Knight’s decision to forgo huge blocks of text in favour of using his amazingly expressive imagery to show the reader – and not just tell the reader – where James came from and what he wanted to say makes this book a must-read for both people who have never heard of C.L.R. James and serious James scholars.

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[1] C.L.R. James, “Shakespeare’s King Lear,” in You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, ed. David Austin. A.K. Press, 2009. p. 84.

[2] C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (50th Anniversary Edition). Duke University Press, 2013. p. 111

[3] James, Beyond a Boundary, p. 148.

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