CICR | Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research

Invoking Nello: a conversation on CLR James


Adom Philogene Heron and Joshua Jelly Schapiro

For this entry – the second in the Caribbean Collection Series – it is our pleasure to present a special guest interview with geographer, author and travel writer Joshua Jelly Schapiro (right). Joshua’s recent book Island People 

(Cannongate, 2016), offers a profound meditation on the Caribbean as a crossroads of modernity; a complicated sea of syncretism, violence and creative survival where disparate worlds meet. The book, informed by some 20 years of visiting, working and living in the region, chronicles his journeys throughout the archipelago, his encounters with many people and his deep historical reading on the region.

The Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research have invited Joshua along to Senate House Library to visit the archives which are home to the CLR James Papersa number of original letters and personal documents written to and by James, a great pillar of Caribbean thought and one of Joshua’s major influences.

In advance of his visit, Joshua and CICR’s Adom Philogene Heron shared a conversation on the life, work and inspiration of the late great CLR.

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Adom: Joshua, I would like firstly to take the pleasure of thanking you for participating in this conversation on the work of the late CLR James (4 January 1901 – 31 May 1989).

I would like to kick off, if I may, by asking you how you first encountered the work of ‘Nello’ (as his friends fondly nicknamed him).

Joshua: I recall distinctly the first time I encountered him—and it did feel, really, like encountering the man as much as his work (even though this was some years after his death, and I never met him). It was the late 1990s; I was 19. I was at university, taking a class on “Socialism and Marxism”—basically it was just a survey of Marxist thought, beginning with Capital and The Conditions of the Working Class (in England) and running through a familiar lineage of thought, and debate over Marx’s theories of history, mostly in Europe—from Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg through to Gramsci to, you know, Louis Althusser: the classics. C.L.R. James, at that time, would not have featured on many syllabi like that. But my professor in that class was a wonderful scholar called Michael Denning; he thought James belonged. Michael had done his graduate work here in England, at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies—he had studied with people like Stuart Hall; he was interesting in synthesizing Marx, a Marxian understanding of capitalism and class struggle, with more contemporary concerns – with the roles of popular culture in daily life, and in political change; with the political technology of “race”, and racism; with the legacies of Europe’s modern empires, around the world, for those who had endured them. And so he gave us C.L.R. James.

I recall the book vividly: The C.L.R. James Reader (right). It had just come out—this volume of James’s writings on any number of themes: Trotsky and world revolution; cricket and calypso; the West Indies Federation; radio serials, race in America. Part of why I was so struck with book was its cover: it was just this photo of the man’s face, ringed by a shock of white hair, his eyes open wide and penetrating—this old sage, presented as a kind of a oracle. And when I opened that book, that’s how he felt to me, too—I was a young person trying to think for myself, in the half-formed ways that one does at age 19, about how to relate my own interest in social justice to my love for jazz and for soccer. And here was this guy who had done it. And who’d done it from the marginal vantage of the Caribbean—this hugely brilliant and well-read guy, a black man from Trinidad who wrote as confidently on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as he did on Russian politics; who insisted that Europe’s old colonies had as large a role to play in overturning capitalism as Europe’s working classes did—who suggested the Mighty Sparrow, the great calypsonian from Trinidad, had a role in that struggle (and a far more subtle one than singing propaganda). I found him thrilling!

19 is a good age for developing crushes, of all kinds—and I certainly had one on old C.L.R. And I still do. Certain of his ideas have aged better than others, of course; there’s lots to critique, in lots of what he wrote. But he remains vastly important to me. Especially, and most of all, in his ideas about the Caribbean—his insistence that the Caribbean, long thought of as this marginal place, actual belongs at the centre; that the Caribbean belongs, really, at the centre of any story we tell ourselves about the making of the modern world.

Adom: So, not only as the late Sidney Mintz once stated, are Caribbeans ‘the first modernised peoples in world history’, but this claim that the Caribbean is integral to modern global history runs throughout Island People.  But I want to ask you, in what ways would you say James’ work of centring the Caribbean most influenced your thoughts as you were researching and writing the book?

Joshua: There’s a saying—‘all books are at some level autobiography’. And I think that’s true—even for novels, it’s true; books are inventories of the self. And that’s true in quite concrete ways with Island People. It’s very much a memoir of affinity: it’s a book about what I’ve been drawn to since I was a teenager—the cultures and history of the Caribbean—melded to my years of travel to and through the region. Part of the book’s genesis, certainly, was simply to narrate experience, to create a portrait of these islands, as a region, in a way that hadn’t been done in some time. It’s also an account of my journey, in a more figurative sense, through the idea of the Caribbean—through what different people have had to say about what the Caribbean represents; why it matters; why this part of the world is so alluring, or screwed up, or powerful. And in that respect, really, there’s one thinker above all—one conception of the Caribbean—that serves as the book’s jumping-off point, and muse. And that’s James. The arguments he made, way back in the early 1960s, about the Caribbean’s import, were laid out most lucidly, perhaps, in his essay ‘From Toussaint l’Ouverture to Fidel Castro.’

James wrote that essay, which I quote from in the introduction to Island People, as a new ‘appendix’ to his book The Black Jacobins (pp. 391-418; below)—his great history of the Haitian Revolution that was first published in the 1930s, but that he revised in 1963, and added this new essay, to connect the amazing story of the Haitian Revolution to what was happening in the world today. It’s in this essay that he argues that the Caribbean, the islands of the West Indies, were a unified region, with a unique role to play in world history.

Adom: Unique in what sense?

Joshua: Well, as he put it:


Wherever the sugar plantation and slavery existed, they imposed a pattern. It is an original pattern, not European, not African, not a part of the American main, not native in any conceivable sense of that word, but West Indian, sui generis, with no parallel anywhere else.

And to James this wasn’t mere trivia. He was concerned to emphasize that the Caribbean was central to the making of the Atlantic world, to the creation of the world capitalist system. These islands were the central node in the Triangle Trade: six million enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean, as opposed to some 400,000 to North America, before the slave trade’s end. The wealth those slaves created, the ways that fed the birth of capitalism in Europe, were revolutionary. And so, of course, in different ways, was the Haitian Revolution—this astonishing drama that played out in French Saint Domingue, on the island of Hispaniola, over the last decade of the 18th century. The Haitian Revolution wasn’t merely the only successful slave revolution in history; it was also in many ways the birthplace of modern politics: the moment that people of color, to use modern parlance, took the rhetoric of the Enlightenment and turned it back on Europe, to ask how seriously Europe was going to take the notion of “natural rights,” of universal liberty; whether those concepts applied to non-white people, too. It was a shattering event.


But the importance of the Caribbean, for James, wasn’t merely in the past. He wrote that because of this history—because of how its people had been so involved; how its children of slaves and indenture had learned European languages; had worked at industry and lived for generations in places where long-distance trade and cultural mixing were dominant facts of life–the Caribbean had a unique role to play. ‘Of all formerly colonial coloured peoples,’ James wrote in his new afterword to The Black Jacobins, ‘the West Indian masses are the most highly experienced in the ways of Western civilisation and most receptive to its requirements in the twentieth century.’


Adom: Are you inclined to agree with James’ assessment concerning the distinctive nature of Caribbean experience?

Joshua: Yes. That was a big part of my impetus for writing Island People—to show how that’s so: how what James argued, and foresaw, has come to pass. Because the Caribbean is everywhere. Already in James’s era this was evident in the realm of politics—it’s remarkable how many of the leading anti-colonial figures, during those years, came from the Caribbean; how many leading “Pan-Africanists,” even. Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, George Padmore. Aimé Cesaire, Fidel Castro—the list goes on; and they’re all Caribbean figures. There was a remarkable literary flourishing in that period too, of truly first-rate writers working within European traditions but drawing from, and writing about, the ‘creole’ life of the colonies—Naipaul, Walcott and Cesaire; Jean Rhys, George Lamming, Paule Marshall – all remarkable writers.

But it’s in recent decades, in the realm of culture, and of popular music especially, that I think James’s claims has really won out. The easy example to cite is Bob Marley—he became, in the 1970s, the “third world superstar”; now, thirty years after his death, he remains arguably the most pervasive political and musical icon on earth. There’s nowhere on the planet you can go and not see a mural of the guy, a poster in a coffee shop, of this guy who somehow made great pop songs from heavy subjects like the Triangle Trade, like “redemption”. And there are other figures, of Marley’s stature, in other idioms and from other islands, you know —Celia Cruz (below) from Cuba, in the realm of “Latin music”; Rihanna, from Barbados, in the realm of pop. More subtly, though, we can just speak of rhythms and textures, more than people—because it’s the Caribbean, the rhythms of Cuba, that fed not just salsa but jazz and rock-n-roll; it’s Jamaica, and the Kingston genius for “cut-n-mix” and talking in rhythm, that fed hip-hop; in that city now (New York), where I live, there’s more bachata and reggaeton on the radio than anything else. And it’s the rhythms of Africa, made new and transformed in the Americas; the blend of old roots with that sense of cosmopolitan possibility, and newness, inherent to a New World. It’s all there, in the musics of the Caribbean. And those sounds are everywhere—I mean listen, right now, to pop radio, to Drake or Justin Bieber or Major Lazer: they know where to go to get what’s fresh—they play with soca from Trinidad, Jamaican bashment. The Caribbean is everywhere in our soundscape and in our culture, whether we know it or not. And I think, you know, that that wouldn’t have surprised old Nello.

Adom: Much of the correspondence within James’ personal papers here at Senate House features rich debate with regional premieres on the politics and administration of the fledgling West Indies Federation (of which CLR was secretary during its short life), what do you think the idea of a unified independent Caribbean meant to James (himself a son of Trinidad)?

Joshua: Well, one of the notable features of James’s thinking about the Caribbean was his insistence, as we mentioned, that the islands comprised a coherent region—that despite the fractures of history, the different languages and so on, that these islands should be seen to have a common culture and thus, perhaps, a common destiny. You know, if James had his way, he probably would have advocated for membership in the West Indies Federation to be extended to Cuba, too! He liked to insist that even Cuba, was “the most West Indian of the West Indies.” But the idea of Caribbean unity was hugely important to him—as it was to many of his generation. George Lamming, the great novelist from Barbados, insisted in their era that ‘the immediate need is to regionalize [the] struggle, that cultural struggle.’ Certainly, James agreed. He saw, economically as much as anything else, how these little islands competing with each—as they still do today, for tourist dollars and so much else—was no path toward “development,” in the world economy, or even survival. Which is why the breakup of the Federation, as you know, was hugely sad for him.

But those rivalries between the islands are a part of Caribbean life, too. That whole “independence time” moment, though, is such a fascinating one in James’s life—he’d been living in America in the 1940s, and then in England; he returned home, after Trinidad won self-rule, and as it was headed for independence, to help in that process, to aid his onetime student Eric Williams, Trinidad’s first prime minister, to help in his project of “nation building”. That project, certainly for James, was as full of disappointment as joy—he had a dramatic falling out with Williams, and had to leave the island.  The West Indies Federation, too, came to grief. But his writings on that period, sad as it was, are remarkable, too—he had such a sense, as a literary critic and as a reader, for tragedy; he was uniquely equipped, as many of his current admirers have noted, for narrating the disappointments and contradictions of “post-colonial” life, too.

Adom: As you mention, CLR moved across the region and beyond, and his life spanned many decades of political flux – from the labour uprisings of the early 20th century Anglophone Antilles, to the Cuban revolution and pan-Africanism of the mid 20th century, to the emergence of Anglophone post-colonies towards the century’s end (not to mention a world war, American civil rights movements and the emergence of the Soviet Union). Having seen and written on many of these changes, in what ways would you say James was a man of the 20th century and how does his work still resonate today?

Joshua: Well, Wilson Harris, the deep novelist from Guyana, described James as someone who “tried to embrace the century in its dialectical whole.” And I think, you know, that’s pretty spot on. The scope of his ambition, the breadth of his thought—what he felt compelled to think about, and how he was impelled to act—is quite remarkable. Of course, there’s some grandiosity there—there was more than a bit about James, who had a healthy ego because he had to have a healthy ego, of projecting that he had to know everything about everything. People called him “the Black Plato” for a reason [Joshua chuckles]. But what’s also key to say about him, I think, is that the span of his life—from 1901 to 1989—really took in all the major eras and moments of the twentieth century. He was born in a British crown colony, on the margins of the empire; he travelled to Europe between the wars and plunged into radical politics by the Depression in England; he lived in the United States through World War II and was expelled from there, for his views, at the start of the Cold War; he returned to the Caribbean to see his home-island win its independence; he lived out his years in England, as the people of its former colonies settled there and raised new questions about not merely the future of Britain, but this concept of “Western Civilization” to which he was so attached. He was present for it all. And he was compelled to think about it all, and wrote brilliantly about much of it. So doing, he anticipated many of the current trends in academe—toward “interdisciplinarity” and so on—but he also wrote lovely, jargon-free prose. He left so much work that remains as fresh feeling today, as it must have when he wrote it. Even as we face a new scary era with new problems, he remains an inspiration and a model. He has certainly been that for me.

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Many thanks to Joshua for taking the time speak with CICR and for his wonderful chronicle of Caribbean life.

Island People is available at all good bookstores and Joshua will be giving a reading at one such store, Pages of Hackney, on 12th June @ 7:00 PM. To attend – click here

To see Colin Grant’s review of the book for The Guardianclick here.

To hear Joshua speaking about Caribbean contributions to the modern world on the Radio 3 Free Thinking program, alongside Colin Grant and Kei Miller – click here.

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