Of Bails, Boundaries, and Revolution: A Tribute to CLR James

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” So begins Beyond a Boundary, the classic account of cricket and the colonial West Indies by the great 20th century socialist CLR James. The boundary is the outer line which encircles a cricket field; it demarcates the space in which the game is played like the fence and foul lines of a baseball diamond. James insisted that what happened inside the boundary influenced the world beyond it; sport could not be reduced to mere play divorced from the social world.

My column for Canadian Dimension has been, above all else, a cry for the left to take sports seriously; to move beyond a bread and circuses dismissal and see sport as a terrain of social, economic, and political struggle on which class conflict plays out in both odd and familiar ways, gender identities are shaped, formed and subverted, and issues of race and racism are ever-present.

In doing so, I owe debts to modern sports journalists like Dave Zirin, a frequent contributor to some of CD’s American equivalents such as The Progressive and whom I’ve previously featured in this space. But after recently taking the time to revisit Beyond a Boundary, I came to the conclusion that it is on the shoulders of James that many a critical sportswriter stands.

Cricket, the sport of the British colonizer, James argued, cannot simply be understood as a tool of oppression, a sporting companion to the dominant colonial ideology which permeated the institutions and public discourse of the pre-independence Caribbean. The game was a social and historical phenomenon which shaped and was shaped by the social relations of colonialism, class, and race in which it was embedded, and most importantly for James, a site in which these relations could be challenged and transformed in emancipatory ways.

This may seem a heavy burden for a sport which most North Americans view with a combination of curiosity and confusion. But the beauty of Beyond a Boundary is that a reader with little or no knowledge of cricket can appreciate the social weight to which James ascribes the sport. This is both a tribute to the author’s fine analytical skills and brilliant political mind, but also to the simple elegance and rhythm of his prose.

Reading Beyond A Boundary, one sees how the campaign for a black man Frank Worrell (which incidentally James led) to become the first black to captain the West Indies cricket team turned the hierarchy of the colonizer’s game on its head and inspired the struggle for Trinidadian independence. Through James’s critical lens, riots which could greet a bad call by the umpire became expressions of social tension between oppressors and oppressed. And for James, the choice to play for one cricket club or the other reflected desires for social mobility and the state of race relations in Trinidad’s pigmentocracy. James was writing a sociology of sport before sociologists had invented the field.

Brilliantly, James shows a capacity for deep analysis of what can appear to an outsider as the trivial intricacies of cricket. Accounting for the batting prowess of a boyhood hero, James moves through references to Edmund Burke, Michelangelo and Hegel. This is no mere intellectual pose; James weaves the literary with the carnal, the physical with the philosophical throughout Beyond a Boundary. The analysis extends to his own morality, an ethics derived not from Marx but the code of ‘fair play’ to which all good cricketers adhere: “This code,” writes James, “became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.”(Reading James on cricket one is reminded of Albert Camus’ reflection, “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”)

Beyond a Boundary was first published in 1963, some twenty years after James’ classic history of the Haitian revolution The Black Jacobins appeared. Born in 1901 into a lower-middle class Afro-Trinidadian household, by the early sixties, James had rubbed shoulders with Leon Trotsky, written and acted in a play with Paul Robeson, served as cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, made significant contributions to Marxist theory and Pan-African thought, organized and agitated for revolution in the United States and national independence in the Caribbean and west Africa. A teacher, novelist, philosopher, historian, and activist, upon his death the Trinidadian polymath was described by the Times of London as the “black Plato of our generation.” (A paragraph-length biography is surely to do violence to one of the great lives of the 20th century; I recommend Paul Buhle’s CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary as an apology.)

Before James, with few exceptions, sports writing was blind to the ‘social’ in sport, and much of it remains so today. But when sports journalists ask critical questions of the Vancouver Olympics or graduate students develop theses on the cultural meaning of Tiger Woods, knowingly or not they are paying homage to Beyond A Boundary and its author CLR James.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 #5 September/October 2010

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