He desperately wanted to stay, and he petitioned some members of Congress. You could say that his book on Herman Melville was part of the appeal to stay — obviously one that was unsuccessful. There’s an anecdote of him asking Sir Anthony Eden if he could be persuaded to help James stay in the United States, with Eden replying that being deported to the UK should not be considered a form of punishment. It’s hard to say whether this anecdote can be documented or not — at least I could not document it.
Being expelled in 1953 threw him back upon himself, but it also gave him a different world. He travelled and lectured in various parts of the Anglophone Caribbean and was recognized as an outstanding intellectual in a world where there were few of those. From the 1930s, he had played a sort of mentor role for Kwame Nkrumah, who then rose to great historical significance with the struggle for the independence of Ghana. Even further back, when he was a teacher in Trinidad, one of his students was Eric Williams, who went on to write Capitalism and Slavery, and later became the leader of Trinidad.
James had contacts from the Caribbean to Africa — mostly at the top level, among the most famous intellectual and political leaders. But boy, talk about having the contacts! He could speak in parts of Britain and the West Indies, and he was even able to make an occasional tour in parts of Africa. He could impress his ideas upon people and carry on an intellectual life that was already shifting him from this idea of proletarian revolution with class as a central focus toward a rather different perspective, based on the opening of the colonial world toward revolutionary struggles.
He wouldn’t associate himself with those struggles that depended upon support from the Soviets. But he would find places that didn’t rely on the Soviets and were looking for a different path. He’d place himself as an advisor, or he’d have contacts, or he’d begin to provide cultural and philosophical lectures. People came to a public library in Trinidad in 1959 to hear a series of six lectures by him, which helped open them up to their own significance, to the fact that they had entered the world as modern individuals and were ready to assert their independence and their role in the world.
He had a group of no more than sixty or seventy people in the United States that underwent two or three significant splits and was reduced further and further down to a handful. (By that time, I was a member of the handful, more or less.) It then dissolved: his own political entities didn’t really play a big role after the mid 1950s. But he emerged as a black intellectual above all this.
In 1963, his book Beyond a Boundary provided a fascinating history of the rise of modern sport, and especially cricket — perhaps the best that had been written up to that time — connecting it with sports in antiquity and bringing it through to the color question. It was written, of course, with a stunning literary brilliance. It didn’t sell many copies — in fact, none of his books have sold many copies to this day, other than The Black Jacobins. But Beyond a Boundary gave him a significant reputation in different quarters. People on the street in the UK would say, “He’s that cricket man,” because when they started to televise test matches, sometimes he would come in as a commentator.
In London, he had an apartment that was a kind of salon. People would come in and talk with him — revolutionaries of different kinds, the young, rising West Indian leaders — and he was already ruminating on the opportunities to intervene, as well as staying in touch with an amazing array of people in countries across the world. You could say that he was preparing his role for the late 1960s. He was allowed to return to the United States in 1969. A group of students at Northwestern University had him invited, and he went on to stay intermittently in the United States for another decade.
He presented himself now to audiences as the voice of the Pan-African past. He was able to recuperate people such as W. E. B. Du Bois, whom he’d never placed so highly in the past because of his connections with the official communist movement. He was able to place Frantz Fanon as someone who was making a vital contribution to our understanding of psychology. He wowed audiences across the United States and other parts of the world, and landed himself back in Trinidad, Guyana, and Barbados, speaking to the rising tide of independence.
He always seemed a senior figure. He seemed to me at the age of sixty-nine to be very ancient and almost ashen-faced, but when he would rise to speak, blood would rush into his face. He would say, “I’m going to speak for 58 minutes,” and always stay precisely within the time limit he set for himself.
His second wife once remarked about his lecturing in Los Angeles in 1939 that with his first phrase, there was an explosion of the audience. I think she must have been exaggerating, but I do remember attending a couple of his lectures and there was an astonishing response, no doubt because he was speaking from this Pan-African past, but also because of his extraordinary eloquence. It was a bit like listening to E. P. Thompson, if I could make a comparison.
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