He desperately wanted to stay and petitioned some members of Congress. You could say his book on Herman Melville was part of the call to stay – clearly a failure. There is an anecdote where he asked Sir Anthony Eden if he could be persuaded to help James stay in the United States, with Eden responding that being deported to the United Kingdom should not be considered a form of punishment. It’s hard to say if this anecdote can be documented or not – at least I couldn’t document it.
His deportation in 1953 sent him back on his own, but it also gave him another world. He traveled and lectured in various parts of the English-speaking Caribbean and was recognized as an exceptional intellectual in a world where there were few. From the 1930s he had played a sort of mentoring role for Kwame Nkrumah, which then took on great historical significance with the struggle for independence in Ghana. Even further, when he was a teacher in Trinidad, one of his students was Eric Williams, who later wrote Capitalism and slavery, and later became the ruler of Trinidad.
James had contacts from the Caribbean to Africa, mainly at the highest level, among the most famous intellectual and political leaders. But damn it, talk about having the contacts! He could speak in parts of Britain and the West Indies, and he could even do occasional touring in parts of Africa. He could imprint his ideas on people and lead an intellectual life that already moved him from this idea of proletarian revolution with the class as a central point towards a rather different perspective, based on the opening of the colonial world towards revolutionary struggles.
He would not join these struggles which depended on Soviet support. But he would find places that weren’t in the hands of the Soviets and were looking for a different path. He would place himself as an advisor, or he would have contacts, or he would start giving cultural and philosophical conferences. People came to a Trinidad public library in 1959 to hear a series of six lectures from him, which helped them open up to their own meaning, to the fact that they had entered the world as individuals. modern and were ready to assert their independence and role in the world.
He had a group of no more than sixty or seventy people in the United States that suffered two or three major divisions and was reduced more and more to a handful. (At that time, I was more or less a member of the handful.) It then disbanded: its own political entities didn’t really play a big role after the mid-1950s. But it emerged. like a black intellectual above it all.
In 1963, his book Beyond a border has provided a fascinating history of the rise of modern sport, and in particular of cricket – perhaps the best that has been written up to that time – linking it to the sports of antiquity and bringing it to the question of color. It was written, of course, with stunning literary brilliance. He hasn’t sold many copies – in fact none of his books have sold to date, other than The Black Jacobins. But Beyond a border gave him an important reputation in different circles. People on the streets in the UK would say, ‘He’s that cricket man’, because when they started televising test matches he would sometimes come in as a commentator.
In London he had an apartment which was like a living room. People were coming in and talking with him – revolutionaries of all kinds, young emerging Caribbean leaders – and he was already ruminating on opportunities to step in, while keeping in touch with an incredible number of people in countries around the world. . You could say he was preparing his role for the late 1960s. He was allowed to return to the United States in 1969. A group of Northwestern University students invited him and he stayed intermittently in the United States. United States for another decade.
He now presents himself to the public as the voice of the Pan-African past. He was able to recover people like WEB Du Bois, whom he had never placed so high in the past because of his links with the official communist movement. He was able to place Frantz Fanon as someone who made a vital contribution to our understanding of psychology. He wowed audiences in the United States and other parts of the world, and ended up in Trinidad, Guyana, and Barbados, talking about the rising tide of independence.
He always seemed to be a senior official. He looked to me at the age of sixty-nine very old and almost pale, but when he got up to speak, blood rushed to his face. He would say, “I’m going to talk for 58 minutes,” and always stay precisely on time.
His second wife once remarked about his lecture in Los Angeles in 1939 that with her first sentence there was an explosion of audiences. I think she must have exaggerated, but I remember attending a few of his lectures and there was an astonishing response, no doubt because he was talking about this Pan-African past, but also because of his extraordinary eloquence. It was kind of like listening to EP Thompson, if I can draw a comparison.