Cyril Lionel Richard James
(1901-1989), writer, historian, Marxist social critic, and activist, who deeply influenced the intellectual underpinnings of West Indian and African movements for independence.
James was born into an educated family in Tunapuna, in colonial Trinidad. At the age of nine, James earned a scholarship to Queen's Royal College in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and graduated in 1918. He taught English and history at that college and later taught at the Government Training College for Teachers. During this time he met Alfred Mendes, who with James led an informal group of young intellectuals. James began writing and developing his political and literary ideas with this group. In 1927 his short story "La Divina Pastora" was published by the British Saturday Review of Literature, a significant achievement for both James and Caribbean literature. "La Divina Pastora," in which a cocoa worker pleads with her patron saint for help with her romantic life, was notable for its clear portrayal of the rural poor (See Trinidad and Tobago).
James and Mendes founded and coedited a literary magazine from 1929 to 1930 called Trinidad, which, with its successor magazine Beacon, became the foundation of Caribbean short fiction. "Triumph," James's next major story, appeared in Trinidad and was more controversial than "La Divina Pastora." In this story an exuberant, independent woman living in a barrack-yard, or urban slum, successfully plays her suitors off one another. Although James did not invent the barrack-yard stories, "Triumph" helped popularize them. Today they are a fixture of Trinidadian literature and typically portray the violence and misery of barrack-yard life.
In 1932 James left Trinidad for England. A skilled cricket player, he became a writer about the sport for the Manchester Guardian, critiquing not just the sport but the social influences surrounding it. Much later he would publish Beyond a Boundary (1963), which was part autobiography, part history of cricket, and part dissection of the West Indies. During his stay in England, James became involved in socialist politics, gravitating toward a faction of anti-Stalinist Marxists. He applied Leon Trotsky's views about a worldwide workers' revolution to his colonial home. The result, in part, was The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932), in which he called for Caribbean independence.
Although hopeful for independence, James was troubled by and preoccupied with the rift between the comparative handful of educated blacks of the West Indies and the mass of ill-educated, lower-class citizens. In his first novel, Minty Alley (written 1927, published 1936), he developed these ideas by placing the middle-class narrator in dire financial straits. The narrator moves into a barrack-yard and gains a fuller understanding of lower-class life than he previously had. Critics praised James for giving less attention to the parts of lower-class life that strike middle-class readers as exotic or idiosyncratic, instead focusing on the parts of lower-class life that express a commonality with middle-and upper-class life.
Following Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in the mid-1930s, James edited a journal of African opinion and headed an international group that advocated for Ethiopia. With political thinker George Padmore, James helped develop the theory of Pan-Africanism, his chief contributions being the play Toussaint Louverture (1936), later called The Black Jacobins, and the history The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938). Both the play and history deal harshly with the aftermath of the 1801 Haitian Revolution. White masters, James contends, have been replaced by black masters; freedom and equality are little regarded. As literature, the play has been criticized for using the leading historical figures as little more than megaphones for monologues rather than people with actions. African American actor Paul Robeson played Louverture in the play's 1936 production in London.
By 1938 James was well known. He traveled to the United States on a speaking tour sponsored by a Trotskyist group. Although he later broke from the group, he stayed in America and in 1940 joined the newly created Worker's Party. James traveled among black sharecroppers and other black workers, lecturing and organizing throughout the 1940s. During this time he developed many of the views he would expand throughout his life, including the idea that because the world's nonwhite peoples vastly outnumbered the whites, they would eventually overcome their colonial subjugation. Furthermore, James believed that because many Africans and descendants of Africans were organized along communitarian lines, they would be ideally equipped for creating a new social order. James also hoped that blacks in the United States would help unite the Pan-African movement.
In 1952, with the anti-Communist McCarthy Era in full stride, the U.S. government placed James in detention at Ellis Island, New York. While the government mulled his radical views and decided his fate, he wrote Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953). Although the main thrust of the work was a critique of Melville's Moby Dick, James used Melville's novel as a vehicle for sharp commentary on dictatorship and American democracy.
Expelled from the United States in 1953, James returned to Trinidad, where he joined the People's National Movement, a pro-independence group, and edited the Nation, the party's newspaper. This association, however, did not last long. When in 1962 he fell into disfavor with the transitional West Indies Federation, he left Trinidad for England. James continued to write and lecture throughout Europe and, after he was allowed to return to the United States in 1968, he worked in North America as well. For a time in the 1970s he taught at Federal City College in Washington, D.C. He lived the last years of his life in London. Three volumes of his collected works appeared as The Future in the Present (1977), Spheres of Existence (1980), and At the Rendezvous of Victory (1984).
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